Descriptions That Don’t Quite Work

It’s hard to physically describe someone in a way that’s vivid and interesting. Tired descriptions like "Tall, well-built, and blond hair" do nothing for the reader. Stephen King, in his essential guide On Writing, advises writers to pick a single distinctive physical trait, preferably one that in some way illuminates the character’s personality or message.

I always enjoy seeing how writers describe their subject and whether they listen to King. Atul Gawande, in his otherwise excellent article on how ICU doctors use checklists to reduce infections, describes one of his characters thusly:

Forty-two years old, with cropped light-brown hair, tenth-grader looks, and a fluttering, finchlike energy, he is an odd mixture of the nerdy and the messianic.

This doesn’t generate any kind of image in my mind. What are tenth-grader looks? What exactly is "fluttering, finchlike energy"? And when I try to call to mind a mix of nerdy and messianic, I come up blank. For me, the one sentence devoted to physically describing the guy fails to do the job.

By contrast, here’s Nick Paumgarten describing Eliot Spitzer:

Spitzer, who is forty-eight, has a prominent nose, chin, and forehead, a hard jawline, and deep-set eyes whose intensity can give the extremely mistaken impression that he wears eyeliner. When he smiles or gets angry, his jaw juts out, underbitishly. The vigor in his features and in his manner, and his lean frame, tend to inspire descriptions of a man tilting into the wind.

This does more for me. The eyeliner image is effective.

One of my favorite descriptions — I have many — is this David Foster Wallace line:

A slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification.

Any favorites of yours?

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