As a reader, I admit that I tend to gloss over character descriptions. My brain and I prefer to draw our own characters based on other information, including our own personal experience. My vision of a surly, generous, or attractive character is undoubtedly different from the visions of others, so why not let me create him/her according to my personal tastes? Chances are I’ll like (dislike) him/her better.
The exception to this is when the race of the character matters to the story. In this case, however, there may be other cues besides overt character descriptions that will inform my imagination. If I learn the character lives in Lebanon, or if his mother has falafel on the stove, I’ll imagine accordingly.
As a writer, I hate character description, and not just race but pretty much all character description. Stereotypes and cliches are rampant (African-Americans have skin like some kind of coffee beverage, and boys have long curled eyelashes girls would envy–bleh and bleh) and the presentation is almost always awkward, standing out apart from the story, calling attention to itself. I’ve mentioned here before how much I hate self-description in first person narratives; it’s almost always unnatural (I gazed at him with my dreamy blue eyes–bleh again). Whenever possible I minimize or avoid character description. Unless it’s relevant to the story, I prefer to let readers have their way.
This is not unprecedented. Judy Blume never describes Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
In picture book writing, authors are taught to leave these kinds of details up to the illustrator. Many are surprised by the illustrator’s choice and perspective, like when a person becomes a lizard in the illustrator’s eyes.
Two nights ago, I started a new book. It’s a recently published book that was given to me; I’ve never heard of it, and I’m not familiar with the author; in fact, I can’t tell you at the moment the race or gender of the author. I did not read the jacket copy. It’s a book–I opened it and started reading. (I once entered a movie theater without any idea what movie I was being taken to see. Talk about clueless.)
The character was not described in the first two chapters. Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s been any description of the main character yet, though the MC has described other characters. My brain and I drew her fairly quickly, though, based on little more than voice, attitude, and situation.
Last night, at the beginning of chapter three, I got a name to go with the girl in my head: her name is…um…Jeff.