One of the trickiest parts of description can be side-characters, in this article we’ll use side-characters to refer to any character who isn’t part of the main cast. What makes it so tricky is finding the balance in how much description is required, especially if the character isn’t going to reappear. As mentioned in the first article we can get away with not describing characters, however if the character has no name and they speak no description to identify the speaker is tricky. On the other hand we don’t want a page for description for a character who appears in only on scene, unless this is relevant to the story for some reason, but it creates the expectation that they will return and are somehow important to the story which can create plot confusion.
A general ‘rule’ we could go by is that the less the character impacts the story the less description we ‘need’. Or, perhaps, that the description of a character shouldn’t be longer than their part in the story, an example being a page of description for a character who only has a few lines. However, I wouldn’t suggest these as absolutes because there could be reasons in a story for having a lot of description of a character with a very small part.
For instance if we have a waitress come to a table to take an order but we only mention that a waitress took the order then ‘a/the waitress’ is all we need. If the waitress engages the characters in a conversation, whether about their order or something else, we might say ‘the dark haired waitress’, or something similar. If the waitress is somehow involved in the plot and will possibly reappear or feature for an extended period we might have something like ‘a dark haired waitress, her name tag said “Mandy”’. We might have more description than just the colour of her hair or we might gradually build up the description of her over time but I’ve got to bear my word count in mind.
When we’re describing a character, side or otherwise, we don’t have to be minute in detail we can paint with broad brush strokes and let the reader fill in the blanks. A good place to start, especially with a character who is only fleeting in appearance, is to imagine what we might notice about them first. Would be notice her dark hair? Her make-up or lack thereof? The smiley face badge she wears? We can give characters very distinctive features if we want but we don’t have to because not every person has something immediately conspicuous about them.
Nor does what we describe about a character have to be something about their appearance. It could, for instance, be the way Mandy stands, the way she holds her notepad when she’s taking an order, or the way she rolls her eyes when asked to list options for the hundredth time. Alternatively it could be something about the way she speaks: is her voice high or low? Does she have an accent? Does she make a particular sound when she’s trying to remember the list of options?
We don’t have to answer all or any of these, when we first introduce a character we don’t even have to know the answer, sometimes we discover things about characters as we write, whether we plan or not. If we don’t know it’s also perfectly valid to use ‘place holders’ which are notes reminding us in editing that something needs to go there but at the time we wrote it we didn’t know what. It’s also perfectly valid to write something about a character and then change our minds later on.