Sunday, 8 March 2009


She entered the room, a pretty woman of medium height, average build, with lovely brown hair. The nice dress lit up her beautiful eyes…

Try to picture this person. Really picture her. You can’t because she’s been described in the most lazy, vapid and generic way. The description tells us virtually nothing about her. Horrifically weak words such as ‘pretty’ and 'lovely' are meaningless. Pretty to whom? Compared to what? And as for ‘medium’ and ‘average’, even if someone is precisely in the mean of physical statistics among the population, they are unlikely to regard themselves thus. And if they do, they don’t belong in fiction.

‘Brown hair’! You might as well say she had white teeth. Or toes that protruded from the ends of her feet. ‘Nice’ and ‘beautiful’…I’ll just get too angry pointing out the inadequacies of these words; hopefully they speak for themselves.

The reader cannot see a character, and whilst they don’t want to sink in a quagmire of physical chronicling, there must be sufficiently precise detail to bring them to life. (This applies to descriptions per se: ‘a big room’, ‘a lovely vase’, ‘a hot day’. NO. NO. NO.) If you say a character has medium-length hair, you’re essentially saying they have hair. Find something that isn’t average about it. Or concentrate on more salient features.

Be specific. Think of the characters in your favourite novels; I bet something stands out – if not physically, then a trait, a mannerism, a nuance. Weak generalisations are worse than no descriptions at all.


annie clarkson said...

She entered the room, a horse-faced woman, probably the size of my dun mare, but with a mane the colour of bran. Her dress was a designer number I could tell, but it might as well have been a hay sack for all I cared. She had blue water-bucket eyes.

Douglas Bruton said...

I agree... but some readers do like their reading a little more straightforward... brown hair is something they can relate to... 'a mane the colour of bran' isn't something that some people could 'see'. And she had 'blue water-bucket eyes' is not too different from she had 'blue eyes' and some readers prefer that straighter version.

'Horse-faced woman'... works for me... but I could see a particular readership not really getting it. So it depends who you are writing for, maybe.

I do think 'nice' and 'pretty' and 'lovely' are words that have no richness or texture to them. Vacuous terms that say nothing really physical. Though I have heard myself saying if a friend, you look lovely, what a pretty dress and isn't this food nice?
And I think I was understood.

Douglas Bruton said...

"She entered the room, a pretty woman of medium height, average build, with lovely brown hair. The nice dress lit up her beautiful eyes…"

'Try to picture this person. Really picture her.'

The point here might be to allow the reader to create something of their own 'picture', within certain constructs, and insofar as some readers 'picture' when they read.

I do have a pet peeve with the word 'nice', but that aside, this doesn't upset me enormously. It isn't the kind of literature I would choose to read, but it has an audience and it does what it does. That is not to say that you or I should be doing what it does. But it has its place.


TOM J VOWLER said...

YES. YES. YES, Annie.

I think, Douglas, that 'nice' etc work in real life as there's usually a shared reference or context or additional visual stimulus...but the reader of fiction has only the words you give them. They might relate to brown hair, but it's still lazy, and tells them very little of what the person looks like.

Some readers envisage every detail of a character, others just have a vague sense of person; but if the writer chooses only to give bland generalities that apply to 80% of the population, they're really rather wasting the reader's time. IMO.

annie clarkson said...

Just so you know, I was trying to be amusing. I don't write like this. I don't think anyone does. But I wanted to make the point to agree with Tom that nice, average, beautiful is fine in an everyday context, but in a literary context is a waste of words. A decription of a character should give so much more than a pen picture. It should give ideas of how the narrator views the person, a sense of place/social class/and so much more.

brown could be mouse brown, choclate brown, mocha, dun, caramel, earthy, ash brown, cocoa, pecan, hazelnut, coffee... and all of these are much more interesting words than brown.

TOM J VOWLER said...

I did take your description as somewhat flippant, Annie, yes!

TOM J VOWLER said...

I agree, Douglas, that readers like to build their own image of a character - I certainly do. But if I read that someone had brown hair, this would be instantly forgotten/discarded, because it's too generic, and my image would form from other detail, rendering the description of her hair redundant.

Douglas Bruton said...

Annie, sorry. Of course I knew you were being flippant... but the point I was making is that it's horses for courses (sic!). That it depends who your readership is.

I am in the middle of responding to edits on a children's book I have written and which is to be published later this year. I wrote the book 13 years ago for my own children. At the time they were aged 4 - 9, but they were pretty literate. Now I am having to prune back some of my writing, because it is not what a child would read. I accept what i am being told here, that my writing has to be tailored to the audience the book will be aimed at.

I think it is the same here. If I wrote your description, Annie, for some of the mothers I deal with in parents' evenings, they would switch off... or they wouldn't be able to picture what you want them to. Your description works for a literary audience. But if I wrote the bit that Tom was criticising, then they would get it and they would read on. So what I am saying is it depends who you are writing for. You might well consider such use of language lazy, but it might just be that it is right for the readership.

"She entered the room, a pretty woman of medium height, average build, with lovely brown hair. The nice dress lit up her beautiful eyes…"

I know what a pretty woman looks like in my head. I know what a medium height is and can picture it better than I can picture 'she was 5 foot six inches in her stocking soles.' I understand what 'lovely brown hair' means and her eyes all lit up and her wearing a dress that people would call nice. (i might even call nice). In a very economic way the writer here has done his/her job. I know what woman I have before me, even if I couldn't pick her out of line up. Now look at Tess of the D'Urbervilles and the very different actresses who have played her on screen... if you are being honest, are any of them remotely like the picture you had in your head when you read this book? Or is the picture in your head just so different from them as to be partly your own, and sometimes a bit partly your own?

The writer you have 'quoted' (and I get that it might not be an actual quotation) might well be wasting your time Tom, but it wouldn't be written for you. We can't be thinking there is only one standard by which a book must be measured and it is ours. And I am not even sure we should be thinking ours is the 'gold standard'... in my head the jury is out on that one.


Anne Brooke said...

Goodness, I hadn't realised you'd met my mother, Tom (and she'll kill me for that!!) ...


Hannah said...

Just joined a writers' group where one woman writes like that all the bloody time. I pointed out the lack of specifics in her first piece and she said she wanted it like that so the reader could make up their own mind... some people must just like bad writing.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Of course they do, Hannah. Just ask Dan Brown.