When it comes to describing the physical qualities of your characters, how much is too much? Elmore Leonard advised writers to “avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” He used Ernest Hemingway’s work as an example. While the minimalist style of Hemingway and Raymond Carver can be very effective, there are many writers whose works show that descriptive writing can be equally powerful.
Leonard, the author of “Get Shorty” and other best-selling crime novels, suggested in rule number eight of his 10 rules for writing that a character description is unnecessary. As a writer, I don’t adhere blindly to such rules. As a reader, I enjoy vivid character descriptions as much as spare descriptions. It depends on the writing itself and how the description helps my understanding of a character.
Top 10 Character Descriptions
I rounded up 10 of my favorite character descriptions (in alphabetical order by author’s last name). If you write fiction, it pays to take note how the authors of these novels—some literary and some “commercial”—pulled off descriptions that defied Leonard’s advice.
“The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin
Description of Charles Lindbergh: “…The colonel was tall and slim as a knife. He looked uncomfortable in black tails with white waistcoat; he stood stiffly, his elbows askew, his shoulders pinched…It was jarring to see him out of his costume, away from his airplane. But the face was the same—the heroic brow, stern chin, high cheekbones. His eyes were so blue as to be startling; I decided I’d never seen blue eyes before, until that moment. They were the color of morning, the color of the ocean; the color of the sky.”
“Midnight in Europe” by Alan Furst
Description of Cristian Ferrar: “…his skin at the pale edge of dark, a gentle hawkish slope to the nose, and the deep green eyes common to the Catalan, with thick, black hair combed straight back from a high forehead and cut in the European style; noticeably long, and low on the neck.”
“Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden
Description of Chiyo’s Mother: “She had her mother’s pouty mouth but her father’s angular jaw, which gave the impression of a delicate picture with much too heavy a frame. And her lovely gray eyes were surrounded by thick lashes that must have been striking on her father, but in her case only made her look startled.”
“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett
Description of Lieutenant Dundy: “The Lieutenant was a compactly built man with a round head under short-cut grizzled hair and a square face behind a short-cut grizzled mustache. A five-dollar gold-piece was pinned to his necktie and there was a small elaborate diamond-set secret-society emblem on his lapel.”
“The Professional” by W.C. Heinz
Description of Eddie Brown: “…Eddie had a good neck and shoulders and chest and a narrow waist and small hips. Without knowing him you would know that he was an athlete, and only the slight heaviness of his brows and one small scar across the bridge of his nose gave him away as a fighter. His light brown hair was cropped in a crew cut and he had light blue eyes, and when he smiled he seemed to mean it.”
“TransAtlantic” by Collum McCann
Description of Lottie’s grandson: “…he is more of a loper. His lofty head. His mass of blond curls. An advertisement for ease. His shirt hangs off him, his shorts hang off him, his hangdog features, too.”
“Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell
Description of Rhett Butler: “He was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate’s appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled at her, and Scarlett caught her breath.”
“Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes
Description of Will Traynor: “He had let his light-brown hair grow into a shapeless mess, his stubble crawl across his jaw. His gray eyes were lined with exhaustion, or the effect of constant discomfort…They bore the hollow look of someone who was always a few steps removed from the world around him.”
“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami
Description of Haida: “Haida was a short but handsome young man. His face was small and narrow, like an ancient Greek statue, but his facial features were, if anything, classical, with a kind of intelligent and reserved look.”
“Your Face in Mine” by Jess Row
Description of Martin Wilkinson: “His hair, a black man’s hair, of course, razored close to the scalp, with neat lines at the temples and the nape of the neck. The look of a man who’s close friends with his barber.”