I just read a description of a character as “nondescript,” which made my hackles rise. “Nondescript” is a way of saying someone is so ordinary that no one would notice the character and be able to describe him later, but for an author to use the word “nondescript” is a cheat. As an author, you have the ability (and responsibility) to describe your characters, no matter how nondescript. As readers, we need a bit of “script” to put the character in mind. It doesn’t take much, perhaps something like, “there was nothing remarkable about the fellow — not his lusterless brown hair, his round face, or even his well-worn jeans.” See? A description!
The thing that made the non-description of this nondescript character so heinous was a later description of the character as wearing an ill-fitting wig. Huh? An ill-fitting wig is certainly a description, and takes a character out of the nondescript category.
There is no such thing as nondescript anyway. I was sitting here trying to imagine a character so bland as to truly be nondescript, but everything I could think of tended to be a “script.” Most people have moles, so the mention of a mole, while ordinary, would be a bit of description. Everyone has a nose — big, small, ski slope, well-proportioned, hooked, babyish — though generally we only remark on those that fall beyond what is considered “normal.” But still, the mention of a nose gives some description. And lips — size and color varies. Eyes vary also — size, spacing, color. (I always tell people I have eye-color eyes since the color doesn’t really exist anywhere that I have seen. I used to call my eyes gray, though they are more of a dark blue gray with a brownish halo around the iris than a true gray. Now I call them hazel, though generally, hazel is considered a greenish brown.)
But back to non-descript. Try to think of a description of a nondescript fellow, and I guarantee you will come up with a description that will make him unique. Admittedly, any description will give readers the idea that the particular body part mentioned was important, even if it’s not, such as the mention of a mole. As I said, most of us have moles, so there is no reason to mention them, and yet, there they are. (In grade school, one of the boys in my class used to count the moles on my face. So embarrassing! And yet, I was one of those mostly unnoticed children.)
Apparently, nondescript is a recurring issue with me because I found another blog post I wrote about the same topic: Describing the Nondescript. In that post, I confessed my own use of “nondescript” in my books, but I guarantee, I will never use the word again. I hope you can say the same.
(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)