To describe, or not to describe

When I first wrote Shell Game, I didn’t put in a section where I gave a complete run-down of the main character’s appearance. You know, the dreaded “she looked at herself in the mirror” scene. Instead, I worked it in over the course of the prologue and the first two chapters. Not necessarily because I wanted to make things hard for the reader, but because (a) there’s a picture on the cover that’s pretty close to what she looks like, and (b) I was trying to keep things realistic in the character’s head.

How often do you think about your own appearance in an expository fashion?

This morning, as I brushed my teeth, I noticed that my facial hair needed to be trimmed. I did not think “his beard, mostly brown but with gray and white in liberal amounts as well, was getting a bit long and scraggly”; I thought “I need to charge my trimmer because it’s time to trim my beard”. I see my eyes in every mirror I look in, but I don’t usually think “his blue eyes stared back at him as he washed his hands”; I think “dang, that fluorescent light makes me look like my father”. And when I go to the bathroom, I certainly don’t think about the size, shape, and appearance of my penis; I think “aim it at the toilet, dude”.

The original editor/publisher who worked on Shell Game with me asked me to include more information early on about what Sarah (the main character) looked like, so I did. But then I think about other stories, like the one I posted about yesterday, where there really isn’t a good place for the main character to think about his partner’s appearance. Sure, I could add it in for the sake of the reader, but when I look at my partners, I don’t think about their body sizes or types; I think “this woman is beautiful, and she wants to spend time with me, and we’re going to fuck later”.

As a writer, I know readers should get to see what characters look like. But I also want my readers to read stories that are as realistic as possible, while still being erotic fantasies.

So I ask you: do you need to know what a character looks like, from head to toe? Or are you okay with some ambiguity? What do you picture when there is ambiguity? Does it help you picture yourself in the story? Is that something you want?

I’d really like to know what you think.

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