The eyes are windows to the soul, and through artful description of what is seen (and felt, heard, touched, smelled) the writer can magically transport the reader behind those eyes directly into a character’s consciousness. Description and point of view are inextricable: whatever is seen must be seen from somewhere, by someone – even an omniscient narrator has a point of view. Showing what a character sees and, sometimes, what they don’t see, is an easy way to reveal important things to your reader without seeming to do so. I had the challenge, with The Book of Luce, of writing 160,000 words in the first person without ever revealing the sex of the narrator, or giving any clues. I was surprised, in fact, by how easy it was, though of course I had to limit any descriptions of the narrator. But that’s a good thing anyway: it’s always wise to refrain from too much description of your characters.
With all description, whether of your characters themselves or what they observe, first decide what’s necessary in each scene: your character is a small child; it is dark. Things which are essential to your plot must be set out at once, not allowing the reader any chance to form an incorrect image – the later, inevitable adjustment will be jarring, and will cause a reader to lose faith with you. After the necessary, everything further that you show must enhance the vividness of the character’s experience and the reader’s engagement. Readers must quickly develop trust in you – that you’re going to show them what they need to see. Too many details that prove irrelevant are annoying (though of course the occasaional red herring may be useful!)
Never miss a chance to show your characters’ inner realities. Everything in a novel needs to be doing at least two things simultaneously, or it’s a waste of the reader’s time and attention. Keep your descriptions relevant, brief and elegant. Every word must pull its weight. Don’t forget, you’re asking not only for your reader’s time and attention (and money), but you’re actually asking to get into their heads – so don’t mess about for your own pleasure alone. No matter how exquisite you think your description is, remember that the reader wants to move on, find out what happens next. Instead of whole chunky paragraphs of description, try slipping bits into action or dialogue. Instead of making static observations (‘it was raining’), introduce motion and change (‘it was raining harder’). Eschew unnecessary frames (‘he noticed that …’), as these just create distance.
English, with its huge vocabulary, offers deeply nuanced choices for every possible situation. Don’t pluck obscure words from the thesaurus, that’s just alienating. But descriptions can be poetic and evocative – though again, with a very light touch, keeping in mind always that revealing character is what it’s really about. One easy way to bring life to your descriptions (once you’ve got the necessary ones out of the way) is through synaesthesia: the melding of two senses to create a richer, deeper experience. ‘Bitter cold’ is an example (don’t use it, it’s a cliché). Try to come up with your own, original ones, exactly suited to the moment.
Never miss a chance to embed your character’s feelings into their sense-experience. Darkness, for example, can be soothing or terrifying, discomfiting or comforting, intriguing or tedious. How you describe the darkness will inevitably reveal character, so let it reveal precisely what you choose.
When you’re writing, you’re immersed in your characters’ reality: you’re seeing what they see, hearing what they hear. Take the time to enhance your imagining – flesh out the world by activating all your senses. Let it become as vivid as a lucid dream! You won’t put every detail into the text, of course, but out of the richness of your own inner experience, the right words will arise to bring the reader right in there with you.