Throughout the historical fiction novel workshop I’ve been teaching at Westport Writers’ Workshop we’ve been focusing on the seven elements that appear in all fiction but are hallmarks of historical fiction: character, conflict, dialogue, plot, setting, theme and world building.
About halfway through our fall workshop series, one of our writers realized that after weeks of reading her colleagues’ submissions she didn’t know what the characters in the various stories looked like. Nor was she sure that she had rendered her own main character thoroughly enough throughout the story so that her colleagues knew what her main character looked like. We knew what the character was feeling and thinking, but as to physical characteristics—oh, my!
The more we considered the notion of how to depict a character’s physical description, the more we realized how hard it can be to get a sense of how our characters look, not just at the start of the story when we may still be working those details out but also in the key moments of their lives and over the passing of time. So, character descriptions, what to do?
First, to be fair, it has been a busy season for all our novelists, with some lack of continuity in workshop participation and submissions. This isn’t unusual with busy writers who have, well, lives. But one very real downside to lack of continuity is that we sometimes forget how our colleagues’ characters look. Since readers rarely read a novel in one sitting, this is a problem for them, too.
Second, if you’re working in long-form fiction — novel, novella, novelette — at some point you’re in the process of generating pages. This usually means placing a priority on moving the story forward. While this makes sense, one causality of word count and trying to get the plot down is description. Scant descriptions are a reality not only for characters but settings, too.
One way to address description is to consider in the context of two craft elements: characterization and setting. Both of these — who people are (and how they look) and what the story world is (and how it looks) — need to be established from the start of the story. It’s also important to describe characters and settings as they evolve over the course of a story in general and how they appear in key moments in particular. This will draw readers further and further into the story as it unfolds, a key point of reader engagement.
Ongoing description also enables writers to better understand and depict their characters, settings and stories. So, what if we find ourselves with scant descriptions? If we’re working on a first or an early draft of a novel, we can keep in mind that detailed descriptions are often more easily developed in second and subsequent drafts. By then, we’ve made progress in page and word count, and we know the story, setting and people better.
Given the realities of life and rather than break momentum, it’s sometimes best to make notes to ourselves about the importance of characterization and setting as we’re writing. We can do this right in the text as we’re writing or keep a separate list. Then as we revise our work, we can find those places where we need to amplify descriptions of people and places, as appropriate for that point in the story.
Last, we can recall what Janet Burroway said in Writing Fiction: Details are the lifeblood of fiction. To use this craft element well, we must remember two things. Details must be concrete, and they must be germane to what the story is about, its theme. This is why details are often easier to fill in after the first draft.
When it comes to developing our description skills, we can thank our colleagues for their attention to detail and their powers of observation. We can also thank them for not ignoring what may seem obvious but often gets back-burnered for the sake of expediency. This may be the right thing for a first or an early draft. But physical descriptions, especially throughout a longer work of fiction, are critical because they show the passage of time and its effects and the effects of events of the story as well. This will keep readers — and writers – engaged and learning the whole way through.