I agree with Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle “[snappy dialogue is] the best way to keep the momentum going, rather than to interrupt it constantly with physical descriptions of people . . . It gradually came to me that I didn’t really care what Jimmy looked like, as such. It didn’t matter too much—I didn’t give him eye colour, hair colour, a height. The best way to get characters alive is to get them talking.”

[in an interview with ‘The Bookseller’ magazine [June 2013] about his creation Jimmy Rabbitte in ‘The Guts’]

Roddy Doyle

[photo: Amelia Steiner]

Do we need to read a physical description of a character to really know them? I have pictures of my characters stuck on the notice board above my desk, but I don’t think I’ve written a physical description of them. The pictures are there to make my characters into real people, and it does help. Reading Roddy Doyle’s comments set me thinking: how many physical descriptions of characters are actually written on the page, and how many have I imagined. We all know Harry Potter has a lightning scar on his forehead because JK Rowling told us, but when I see Elizabeth Bennet’s face is it because of Jennifer Ehle in the TV series, not because of Austen? One of the things we have to learn as writers is to trust the reader, and it seems to me that physical description is definitely something we can leave in the reader’s imagination.

Roddy Doyle


If you agree with Roddy Doyle, perhaps you will agree with:-
Sarah Hilary research can become an obsession – and a distraction
Michèle Forbes – I was born there, grew up there, and I felt I had to reconnect with the place
Frederick Forsythall authors are only half in the room

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle [UK: Jonathan Cape]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Get your characters talking: I agree with… Roddy Doyle https://wp.me/p5gEM4-rZ via @SandraDanby #amwriting


  1. Very interesting post. I agree too – at least to some degree. Certainly you learn more about a character through his speech (and actions!) than by knowing what his eye color is. It maybe is revealing that you admit you have photos of your characters above your desk to “make them real” for you. Wouldn’t knowledge of a character’s appearance also make them “more real” to a reader, then? 🙂

    It’s also an interesting phenomenon how the images of actors’ and actresses’ portraying characters “take over” any image we have may have formed through reading them. Sometimes I’ve found this to be a blessing (e.g. I can finally keep the names straight in the Game of Thrones series!). I feel its an unfair fight to be asking an image we’ve formed through description rather than viewing to be our primary one,though.

    I think the “answer” may be that abandoning description of physical characteristics altogether – though it can be done – should be the exception rather than the rule.


    • Hi Jay, Yes I think you have struck the middle ground. I do talk about my characters’ appearance on occasion, but as I write about identity this tends to be comparing physical likenesses [or not] among family members. Roddy Doyle’s approach is rather extreme, but it is a good talking-point!