Writing Tip #5 Over-describing Characters

This is the fifth of 12 posts for Writers who are planning to self-publish using the great services now available to the amateur writer, such as Smashwords, Amazon KDP, CreateSpace etc.
These mistakes are straight from week1 of “Good Writing 101”. You might get away with one or two of them; maybe people won’t notice. But if you consistently break these rules your chances of building a career as an author will be doomed.

5. Over-describing Your Characters

When describing characters, there is one rule: Less is more. Always keep your character descriptions short. This rule applies equally to major and minor characters. With major characters, give one or two important pointers and let the reader fill in the rest from his/her imagination. It’s a turn-off for readers to be told every detail about a major character; readers like to project characteristics from people they’ve met onto the characters they encounter on the page (or tablet screen).

For minor characters, restrict descriptions to the bare minimum. As soon as the reader sees a detailed description he/she is entitled to assume that this character will play a significant role in the story. If this turns out not to be the case, the reader will be annoyed that he/she bothered to commit all those details to memory, and may well stop reading your book in disgust.

Here’s an example:

A figure emerged from the shadows of the gothic pillars. At first I thought it was a dwarf, but then I saw that it was an old man, bent with age and infirmity. His head was bare and bald and covered in liver marks. He wore a 3-piece tweed suit and riding boots, and carried a fresh rose in his lapel.

“I know who killed your friend,” he whispered through a perfect set of dentures. Turning his head, he peered up at me with intense, piercing blue eyes. “It was—”

As he spoke these words, a shot rang out, the sound echoing from the ancient walls of the basilica. A dark red patch appeared on his chest and he fell forward. I caught him and lowered him to the ground.

I felt for a pulse, but there was none.

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