Is there such a thing as too much character description? Should you leave some details up to the reader?
Too much detail can be a bad thing. Slamming your reader with a wall of text, describing in minute detail the appearance of the character, what they are wearing, and how they carry themselves can act to derail a narrative. It is as if you can feel the reader’s eyes glassing over, skimming over the text.
As a writer, you shouldn’t be afraid of allowing your reader to do some of the heavy lifting. Describe the character in broad strokes, hit on features that are absolutely key to the character. Do they have a distinctive mark? Is their overall height and shape key to understanding their character? Do they have a distinctive article of clothing they always wear? Be comfortable with the fact that readers might have a very different vision of your character.
A not terrible option is Roger Zelazny’s Rule of Three. Describe the character with just three terms. Pick the three most distinctive things about them, and leave them at that. Maybe for more major characters you give a bit more detail, but even then you don’t need to go overboard with your description.
A trap you can run into with character description is that your ideal might not match your readers. If you are conjuring an image of a romantic hero, and your ideal does not mesh with the ideal of the reader, then they are going to have a harder time buying into your story. By leaving the details broadly sketched out, by letting the reader’s imagination do some of the work, you are less likely to run into that kind of problem.
Not all characters need more than cursory mention. If the sole purpose of a character is to deliver the mail, then “mailman” is a perfectly acceptable description. Save your words for describing those individuals who are integral or important to moving the story forward.
You can also make character description work for you. You can use stereotypes to your advantage, especially if you later subvert them. You can have a character who is bullish, with sleeve tatts, facial piercings, foul language… and have them cry. You can have a five foot nothing blonde with a black belt in karate who happens to be a kindergarten teacher and likes to go to punk shows on Friday nights.
The most important thing you can do? Make your characters memorable. Make them stand out. Make them so that the reader wants to find out more, wants to know where they are going next.
Thanks to Riss-Ryker, M.L. Bull, Karen Holt, Cameron Mount, Anthea, Charles Stone, and Tim Hillebrant for their contributions. You can find the conversation that sparked this here.