Can you describe the scene? Look at it for 5 seconds, look away, try and ‘redraw’ it in words… (it’s actually not a fantasy cover, but a modern hamlet in the mountains. You can see powerlines, but not at a glance) Yeah. well the same applies to characters or people…
“Can you describe the villain who perpetrated this hit-and-run for us, Ms. Smith?”
“He was tall, blond, and was wearing a MAGA hat.”
The one thing you can be sure of is… if they catch the villain, she will be none of the above. She won’t be tall, as in above average height, she will probably have indeterminate color hair, and most likely won’t even own a hat of any description. Might have been wearing a pinkish-red bandanna.
Was Ms. Smith doing a Jussie? Was Ms. Smith trying to protect the guilty party?
Quite possibly not.
The honest truth is most of us are not actually much good at describing people. We may be good at recognizing them and picking up slight differences, but even then we’re not much good at minutely describing them. There are exceptions to this, of course, but they’re exceptions. In Ms. Smith’s case she saw the incident in a brief period of time, was shocked by it, and in practice retained some brief impressions, which her mind then tied to what she thought a villain would look like, courtesy of her diet of mainstream media, and a fairly limited intellect. The perp may well have been taller than her (therefore ‘tall’ to her) and had light hair rather than dark, and something of a shade that was vaguely red on their head. The sex she assumed, along with their politics.
This of course is not only confined to Ms. Smith. It’s most of us. I’m not much good at describing people either, and when it comes to ‘what were they wearing’ I almost always get ‘naked or not naked’ right, but I wouldn’t go a lot further than that. Clothes are not a big interest in my life. I’d be far more likely to notice and remember what someone was reading than what they were wearing.
Of course, for those of us interested in clothing, that could well be different. I have a friend who might not have a clue what the face or body shape was, but would describe the fabrics, the cut, the style, the trim, and the type of stitch and color of cotton used. Our perceptions are shaped by our interests and our background. I have another friend who agrees wholeheartedly that readers (who vote with their pockets) not editors (who at least in theory might know a great deal about books) nor English Lit professors (who once again study books at length) should choose what they want read. But she believes firmly that foreign policy decisions should not be taken by those who voted for them (or their representatives) but be directed by the unelected bureaucrats who study these things.
Because that is her world. In her head the bureaucrats know what is best for us. Editors and English Lit Profs don’t.
It’s not implausible that editors and English Lit Profs see themselves as the knowing guides who know what is best for us to read, but think elected politicians should make foreign policy decisions rather than bureaucrats – especially if their favored politician is in power, and they disagree with the bureaucrats.
Now I’d come down on the side of letting people choose their own books and foreign policy. If they’re terrible choices… well, there is no real evidence that editors get it right, and I am less than convinced that expert bureaucrats do either. Hopefully next time they’ll choose something else. YMMV. My point is that the individual’s perceptions (and therefore descriptions) are shaped by the individual and their background. Fact or logic or even the success of books or foreign policy may not even enter the race.
Now, come back to books and descriptions. We’re not trying to catch perpetrators, or decide foreign policy. All we’re doing is trying to appeal to readers so we can sell lots of books. And we go into this knowing 1) Readers are individuals. No two are quite alike.
2) They will notice and glom onto details that they are interested in. And those can very narrow fields.
We’re up shit-creek, aren’t we?
Ah. But there are further points which allow you to use things which seem against you to your advantage — like a judo-master might.
3) They will – despite obvious evidence to the contrary — see what they think they ought to see. 4) They will ignore things, or skim over them, that don’t interest them or comply with their interests
5) While the overall set of their interests is unique, subsets of those interests will be held by many.
6) And really, if I say ‘red-haired woman’ as my description, the image created in my mind is not the same as the one in your mind. The hair could be any one of 23 shades of ‘red’, and be short, long, straight, wavy, curly or even frizzy… And ‘woman’ cover a range of ages, shapes and other attributes. But we both think that description quite adequate, possibly even charming, depending on how much we like red-heads.
Look, your mileage may vary. I expect it to. But what I do – and what I have noticed far more successful writers than me doing, is to make sure I get the details in the main, popular subsets. I have ‘go to’ experts in those areas that I get to check my work (or their interest parts of it) even when my own expertise in that area is fairly extensive. There ARE readers with no interest in guns, boats or horses. They will skim those detailed descriptions (if you use them). The knowledgeable folk will however pan your book even if there is a brief, undetailed mention… which is wrong.
Secondly I try to ‘frame’ any description with a few small precise details… and actually leve the rest rather general (see point 6) unless it is plot relevant.
Thirdly you ARE to some extent working on stereotypes (point three). If you want to challenge/change those, you have to build that in as carefully (and with suitable foreshadowing) as a major plot element. Or you will have (and I have, and I know several dozen other authors report the same thing) the reader (or at least some of them) has reached their own (entirely unrelated to the author’s intent) conclusions. Their image is certainly a million miles from what you were trying to portray, but they can well believe you terrible or brilliant from it. I have been accused of not knowing any South African women, and making them seem just like American women. (Liz De Beer in PYRAMID SCHEME). Um. I’m not American and knowledge of American women, in the biblical and other senses) was miniscule when I wrote that. I was in fact modelling the character off two real South African biologists that I knew very well. But that didn’t match the reader’s stereotype of South African women. You can’t please everyone.
Finally… there is a place (and proportion) for precise description. But it really works best not in huge easily skipped chunks. Big lumps are a suitable requirement for vomit, not story telling.