Elmore Leonard Was Wrong About Character Description...And Right

The great and prolific author Elmore Leonard created a list he dubbed "10 Rules of Writing."

This list is now in book form (it originally ran as a New York Times article called “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”), with humorous art work, and makes a lovely gift for the writer or editor in your life.

If you don't know Leonard's name, think of the movies "Out of Sight" and "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown" and "3:10 to Yuma" -- all of which were novels he wrote. The man is a machine of suspense and 3-D characters.

Yet one of his 10 rules continues to bother me:

"8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s 'Hills Like White Elephants' what do the 'American and the girl with him' look like? 'She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.' That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight."

I humbly disagree. Writing in the modern age of TV and film storytelling, authors are behooved to compete by giving "visually oriented" descriptions if not other sensory ones.

Now, I agree character descriptions should be quick. Personally, I love sketch techniques. Readers can't remember more than 3 details anyway, so the verbose descriptions of yesteryear are at best ineffectual and at worst mind-numbing. Henry James and Tolstoy, I'm sorry.

But too vague a description and the character is nearly invisible. Give readers something to latch on to that isn't purely emotional or judgmental. Something physical and real. Pull descriptions from the senses, and readers will recreate your character at their supper table.

Sounds and smells and feels/textures are good. Tastes? Well, that all depends on the character and the genre! But sure, experiment.

And don't forget the eyes. The visual medium is an important part of the reader's experience. Lord knows I've mistaken a non-described character in a manuscript for a grandfather type, when it turned out to be a young brash hero. Woops! That's a mistake you don't want readers making.

Good luck, Writing Angels!
Your Editor Devil