Captain Bill

I’ve become a proponent over the past few years of taking a minimalistic approach to the description of characters in a story.  Whether it be a novel or a short story, or anything in between, the less description an author can give to a character, the better.  Within reason, of course.  The reason has to do with my favorite admonition to the writer which is not “Show, don’t tell,” but rather, “Never tell the reader what to think.”  Let the reader make up his own mind about a character.  Allow the reader the opportunity and privilege of devising in his/her own mind’s eye the image of the character.  That could extend to almost anything other than people—buildings, terrain and landscapes, interiors, plants, animals, anything that can be described.  Minimal is the word.  Let’s take the example of Captain Bill.

Captain Bill shows up in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, very early in the book.  In the second paragraph of the first page, to be exact.  He’s described minimally by Stevenson as “a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man” with a tarry pigtail, and a sabre-cut along one cheek.  A few other adjectives complete the description, but that’s all.  Captain Bill doesn’t last very long in the story; in my edition of the book, he’s dead by page 30 (and that’s in a book where the text doesn’t begin until page 11).  Captain Bill is the figure who owns the map that leads the main character, young Jim Hawkins, and his companions on the trip to recover the treasure.  We’re never privileged know Captain Bill’s last name.  We’re never even sure if he was really a captain, though Hawkins says he “seemed like a mate or skipper accustomed to be obeyed or to strike.”  When another character, Black Dog, appears, he calls him “my mate Bill” only.  Thus we, as readers, are left with a short description and several limited scenes of Captain Bill interacting with Hawkins, his mother and father, and a few others on which to draw our mental image.

Yet Captain Bill looms large over the story.  He introduces us to the general tone of character we see in others who stick around for the rest of the story, including during the voyage to recover the treasure.  People like Long John Silver, (the man with one leg), and Israel Hands, the scheming first mate.  Stevenson doesn’t bog us down in overbearing description and detail.  Our image of the man is based more on what he does and how he acts than on simple description.

I took this concept to mind when composing the description of a character in one of my science-fiction novels.  I originally had, in the first few paragraphs of the novel, a detailed description of the main character.  I did it because I felt the reader needed to know what he looked like.  I also did it because I had read the first couple of paragraphs of a novel by Tom Wolfe (of Right Stuff fame) where he indulged in a long description of his main character right at the front of the book.  I figured that since Tom Wolfe is a well-known novelist, then if he can do it, I can too.  Not necessarily.

I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that minimal is better.  Let the reader supply the details in his mind.  Never tell the reader what to think.  Get in and get out.  This is true even in science fiction.  It’s less boring that way.

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