?

How Much Detail for Description?

  1. Bare minimum

    11 vote(s)
    25.6%
  2. Middle ground

    27 vote(s)
    62.8%
  3. Detailed

    5 vote(s)
    11.6%
  1. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Amount of Details in Character Description

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by T.Trian, Aug 31, 2013.

    I'm posting this thread out of simple curiosity after discussing this with my writing partner, KaTrian: I like books where characters are described in quite a bit of detail (like facial features), so naturally I also like to describe my characters in detail as well.

    For example, these are the things I've mentioned when describing one of my MCs:
    -pock-marked face
    -large nose
    -thin lips
    -nose closer to the mouth than average
    -chin-length hair
    -dirty-blonde hair color
    -three facial piercings (one on the right brow, two on the lower lip)
    -blue eyes

    In addition to those features, I mention her age, height, build (skinny/bony, bad posture, small bust), and general fashion sense (skater). Of course I don't list it all in one paragraph, but drop the details over the course of the story, a little here, a bit more there. Now that I think about it, all those details are revealed over the course of two full-length novels.

    When it comes to describing facial features, I tend to point out blemishes (e.g. the aforementioned pock-marks and piercings, possible scars etc) or other peculiarities that stand out, things you'd notice in a robber and then report to the police whereas I have a guy in another story whose face / hair I basically describe with "handsome, long, blond hair, blue eyes" because there aren't features that really stand out to me, i.e. no blemishes or other such peculiarities like facial tattoos, scars, or piercings.

    KaTrian generally prefers a more minimalistic approach (she can specify herself later on). Of course it would be nice if we could find a middle ground because we're writing together, but I'm afraid there will always be some discrepancies due to our personal preferences. Anyway, we started wondering how common is it to enjoy such detailed descriptions (am I 1:1 000 000 or 1:3 or what?). I never really gave it much thought and I probably won't change my ways regardless of how the votes / responses turn out, but I'm just intrigued if I'm a rarity here or just like half of all writers.

    So, here are rough descriptions of what the three options in the poll mean:
    Bare minimum: sex, build (tall, short, skinny, heavy), perhaps even the hair color or age
    Middle ground: same as the first option but throw in a few adjectives, a couple more details (like haircut, whether it's curly / straight / wavy, eye color etc), perhaps an oddity or two like scars, body modifications etc.
    Detailed: basically what I had for my character or more.

    The floor is yours.
     
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  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I usually like minimal character description. Description doesn't work on me, anyway - I tend to visualize the character the way I want, no matter what the writer says about him or her.

    The only exception is when some aspect of the character is important to the story - the character is so fat he can't escape through the window, for example. Or he's tall enough to reach the gun hanging over the mantlepiece. Or he only has one arm, or is confined to a wheelchair. Or he looks remarkably similar to some major political figure. Something like that - something that affects the plot - is a feature I'll remember. But if the character's features have no bearing on the plot, they probably won't register on me, and I'll just imagine the character the way I want to, based on how the character acts and talks.
     
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  3. smerdyakov
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    smerdyakov Senior Member

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    I tend to imagine characters for myself anyway and am not pushed on lots of description...
     
  4. Duchess-Yukine-Suoh
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    Duchess-Yukine-Suoh Girl #21 Contributor

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    I don't really like a lot of character description. All you will know about my MC is that she has black hair, ice blue eyes, and is quite skinny due to being poor in an apocalyptic universe.
     
  5. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    I know every detail of what my characters look like.... any that have an active role that is. I give my reader a basic sketch to start—relative proportions, hair colour, skin tone. I generally dislike long involved descriptions that have no relevance, especially at the point the character is introduced. When I go about peppering in the detail, I'm very careful how I go about it. Anything revealed needs to be contextually relevant. It also needs to be achieved relatively quickly so the reader doesn't start imagining something different to what I'm writing. That's the hard part. The best way I can describe what I am aiming for, is an almost subliminal effect.

    So... I'm not sure what I answer I should pick. I do put in a lot of detail but I try to do it so that the reader doesn't notice.

    EDIT: Thinking on it, by T.Trian's yardstick, I'm definitely a detailer.
     
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2013
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  6. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Minimum. Unless it's somehow important.
     
  7. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    All of the above ;)

    I normally write so that each chapter focuses on a different character, and one of my favorite ways of distinguishing is for the more detail-oriented to go almost overboard on descriptions, for others to not pay nearly as much attention, and for even the ones who notice the most details to notice completely different details.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Are you referring to your readers? If so, how do you accomplish this? How do you control what details some readers notice and what details others notice?
     
  9. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    1) Actually, I was referring to some of my characters noticing more details than other characters do, and 2) is it not possible to edit a post that's been quoted? Now that you point it out, I should've said "... for the more detail-oriented characters to... , for other characters to..." right from the beginning, but I'm not seeing the "edit" button. EDIT: I see it for this post, and I'm using it for this sentence right now, but my previous post doesn't have the same button. Is that just part of the quote system? Or is it about how long ago I wrote it?
     
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2013
  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't actually know. I always thought members can edit their own posts - at least, that's the way it should be. I've seen some members complain that there's a time limit, after which they can't edit their own posts. Daniel is looking at that, I think.

    Sometimes it's hard for mods to know what's affecting members, because we have a different set of features from you. I don't see what you're seeing on your screen, so it's hard for me to advise you.

    Anyway, thanks for clearing up the issue. I was a bit confused about your post.
     
  11. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's a great point I'd forgotten about (I was thinking of description in the narration, and not in 1st person either, instead of dialogue / a character's thoughts). We do this too with KaTrian and in these situations it's a god-send that we're a guy/girl team:
    when we first started writing together, we realized that men and women often tend to pay attention to different things and even these things sometimes vary regarding whether they are observing the same or the opposite sex, the observer's mentality, their sexual orientation etc.
    E.g. it seems girls don't look at men or women and go "could I take him/her in a fight?" as often as guys do when looking at other males. Likewise, surprise surprise, women don't really seem to pay all that much attention to other women's boobs... most of the time, that is.

    The observer's personality also affects this: if it's someone who doesn't really give a crap about anything, they're less likely to spot minute details whereas someone who's very visual in nature, is far more likely to notice even the little things.

    Anyway, I also like to always have some reason for including the smaller details. For instance, the girl I used as an example in the opening post ends up having two of her three piercings torn off during the story and that has an effect on how a certain scene plays out later on.

    Now that I think about it, one thing that does annoy me is when an author doesn't really tell much about a character, but very late in the book suddenly describes them. The Blade Itself is a good example of this:
    there's this fairly good-looking Aragorn-ish guy on the book cover, so naturally I imagine the MC looks at least a bit like that. Quite late in the story, however, the author reveals that the MC is actually pretty damn fugly and looks nothing like the guy on the cover.
    That kind of surprises are a tad... irksome when revealed so late, way after I've already established in my mind how the MC looks.


    ETA: It appears I can edit only my latest post to a given thread. Once I post another one in the same thread, I can no longer edit the older posts. I've no idea if I can edit the last post days after I've posted it. It would be nice to be able to edit all of them though...
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd say none of the above to the survey, because I prefer a "general impression" description. Details that fit the impression will come out; details that don't, won't.

    Random (if extreme) example:

    She wore a classic Chanel suit, likely worth more than my car, and had the neat lean figure required to show it to best advantage. But the hair, punk-short, unnaturally red with green tips, was from another world.
     
  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Momentary thread derailment: This struck me as a bit curious. I would have thought she'd select the suit in order to show off her figure. You're saying she has the figure in order to show off the suit. Is this generally how women think, or is this a subtle piece of character development that applies only to this woman?

    Sorry - gay guy over here, still trying to figure out the opposite sex. :confused:
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The most painless way to get detailed description written into a story is for it to come from another character's POV. If a guy is sexy, for example, somebody ELSE in the story needs to find him so. Then we can see the sexy guy through that character's eyes. What is it about that sexy character that draws the POV character's attention? That's where you can stick in eye colour, body build, facial type, mannerisms, etc, without having it sound like a job description form. Same if somebody looks scary or repulsive or intriguing. Who is scared or repulsed or intrigued, and why?

    And hey ...I always buy clothing that shows off (ie 'hides') my figure. Currently my couturier is Eureka Timberline. My fabric preference tends to lean towards rip-stop nylon, trimmed with no-see-um netting these days.
     
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  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Ah. My couturier is L.L. Bean. My fabric preference tends to lean towards whatever L.L. Bean sells. :p This is actually kind of embarrassing, but I try not to think of it that way.
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmm. Interesting question. I'd say that it's very common for women to feel that it's their job to live up to the clothes, rather than the other way around. The confident woman wearing the suit may not see the world that way, but the viewpoint character describing her apparently does.
     
  17. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I picked middle-ground because the amount of description I add depends a lot on the character and their function. In the story where T.Trian's example is, I have two MCs who are described to quite vague detail: one is a military captain with blond hair and gray eyes, but I don't explain the length of his hair (obviously it's short) or his build in particular detail (he's shown being quite active, so one would probably thing reasonably muscle-bound), and he looks down at people -- literally -- implying he's tall. The other is an overweight girl, and that's unfortunately what everyone seems to pay attention to, herself included, the size. Her age is not stated but implied (since she's in college) and she's never kissed a boy or been on a date, which further implies she's probably in her 20s (of course I know the "real" age) and if my memory serves me right, even her haircolor or cut is not mentioned because there is nothing interesting to it. However, as expected, she comes to accept herself over the course of two novels, so the hair- and eyecolor will be mentioned later. This brings me to the other criterium I have:

    Description placement. I know some people prefer to know right from the start what a character looks like so that they can imagine them "right" instead of being revealed 50 pages later the MC is black, not white. But I tend to look for context-wise natural instances where to describe the looks, even refrain from forcibly adding a context to serve just that purpose to the beginning of the novel if the plot or the setting or other characters haven't given me a chance to describe the character. Another thing is, when I'm in a certain pov, I tend to refrain from describing the pov character, 'cause it often feels unnatural. The overweight girl's case is a little different, she thinks of her weight a lot, but e.g. hair or eyecolor often feel like weird, almost forced things to mention when the chapter is from that person's pov.

    I've noticed that romance and fan fiction like to describe characters to great length, while the SF/F novels I've read recently left it very vague how the protagonist looks like, even their age was fuzzy, and I had no problem with that. I seem to be unable to attach the attributes the writer lists to the characters I'm reading about. They are often faceless to me, or at most have the face of the model on the book cover. For a long while I imagined Roland Deschain looking like Clint Eastwood because the picture on The Gunslinger's cover reminded me of young Eastwood. Then I hear he's supposed to look like Stephen King, and now I can't shed the image -- or side with the characters who think he's hot!

    I would imagine it depends on the woman, the day, and the suit. I go shopping on a bad-body day and I end up buying/browsing cargo pants and men's t-shirts. I go shopping on a good-body day, it's skinny jeans galore. But I'd imagine with a confident woman, it'd be more about showing off the suit on her smashing figure than picking a suit that flatters their figure and possibly hides "imperfections."
     
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2013
  18. kburns421
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    kburns421 Member

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    I agree with your method of "context-wise natural instances" when it comes to describing not only the MC but other things in the story, too.

    I have a question though. What you said about how a character would rarely think about and describe her own looks makes sense, so how do you accomplish description if you have a whole story based on one POV?
     
  19. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I never write stories from just one POV :D

    J/k. Anyway, there're different ways to write 3rd person, right? some methods are more nitpicky about what to show, some are very distant, and the more distant 3rd would allow descriptions like "she brushed blond bangs off her face." I also said rarely, which means I've done it, just not too often. One thing I did with the MC of our current WIP: he wondered how "anyone could be interested in an impossibly white 36-year-old guy with a nowhere career and an irritable bowel", or something along those lines, it might've been "ketose breath" too. It's not even that I go out of my way to avoid this, it's just that the opportunities I like don't represent themselves that often.

    In the novel I'm reading right now, the MC's chapters are written from 1st person. So far there's been no description of him, and I'm pretty far into the novel. One woman said in jest "attractive young man" about him, and he thought in his head something like "young, yeah, right." Ambigious much? But it doesn't really bother me while it could certainly bother someone else. Maybe he will be described later. I'm imagining him looking like the actor who played him in the movie adaptation, who was no pretty boy, thank God.
     
  20. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    I don't see the problem with not knowing what a character looks like if I'm seeing the world through their eyes. I tend to give a little to go by to begin with. For example in my current work I've implied by her naivety that the protagonist is young and stated that she has curly hair but other than that, I'm pretty far in and haven't given anything else to picture her by. I try to know really firmly what everyone looks like but in such a way as I'll only put in descriptions when it's natural or when a new character is introduced.
     
  21. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    In the current project I'm working on, the first chapter is written from the perspective of a woman that goes to a large mansion for the sake of meeting a friend (there's pov change throughout the course of the novel). She meets, in the course of this chapter, five other characters, all of whom will be important to the story.

    The first is, if you'll pardon the almost ridiculous phrase, her arch-nemesis. She hates everything to do with him, and, catching him in the act of, essentially, molesting a woman, she makes note of his "angelic" features, noting blonde hair, blue eyes and handsome face, all in the attempt of comparing them, somewhat wryly, to his true demeanor, which is anything but angelic. Those three features are the only things noted - hair, eyes and how attractive he is.

    Following this, she meets a woman whom she's not seen for years; a woman whom she has some physical, as well as emotional attraction to. Therefore, she drinks in every detail, and describes them to the reader. Everything from her gleaming white teeth, to her golden hair to her unblemished skin. She's completely in awe of this woman, and all her physical beauty, and her in-depth description is meant to portray this.

    Then, she meets her employer, a man whom she sees absolutely every single day and to whom she has no emotional attachments (that she's yet discovered) beyond the loyalty that she feels toward him. Absolutely no description is given of this character, though it's implied that he's tall, as she has to lean up onto her toes to peck him on the cheek.

    Finally, the last two characters (brothers) arrive on the scene. There is very little description of these two given beyond that they are quite obviously very important men (she notes the way they carry themselves) and that they are both, respectively, quite handsome.

    In the second chapter, we switch to another point of view. This is the first time that we get a description of the MC from the first chapter, from the perspective of one of the brothers. All he notes is that she's "relatively attractive," and that her hair is brown. Otherwise (as he doesn't know her name) he refers to her only as "Lyle's little girlfriend," or some facsimile there of.

    The description of the characters, in this novel, is dependent on the character that's first encountering them, and what circumstances are at the time of the meeting. Characters note only what seems important to them at the time. Catching the man in the act of molesting a woman, the MC makes note of the way in which is appearance conflicts with his demeanor. Had she walked by him on the street, she would have made an effort not to look at him at all, and still less description would have been given.
     
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  22. kburns421
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    kburns421 Member

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    Ah, thanks :) I actually do prefer to have descriptions of characters when I read books, but I'm still trying to figure out how to include description in what I'm currently writing without it sounding unnatural.
     
  23. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Look at your favorite books and see how those writers handled it. That should steer you right.
     
  24. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You're probably just too harsh on yourself :) post an excerpt to the writing workshop, that might help you get a better idea of your development.

    I think this is something many writers actually do when their pov is 3rd person limited or 1st person. I'd imagine even more common upon seeing someone molest another person is to remember how they look for the reason of reporting them to the police? But if one's character is not inclined to think like that, it'd make sense for the writer not to write in such descriptions but rather, it could also be that the witness is so shocked s/he gets the details wrong or they're all fuzzy.

    As for the amount of details, what's helped me is to analyze what I've noticed in other people. I can think back to having met attractive people but realize I haven't paid any attention to their eyecolor, teeth, or complexion (often the case with men), but I also remember having met my husband for the first time and being, pardon my cheesiness, spellbound by small details. Point being, even attraction can be portrayed without going into a lot of detail or bringing up typical features like eyecolor, depends on what type of characters one is writing.

    Perhaps it goes without saying that details that stick out or are somehow out of the ordinary get noticed more easily. There's an older woman at my workplace with smoke-gray eyes with a tint of green. I've never seen eyes like that before, and they were one of the first things I registered in her.

    I also think it's interesting that even 3rd person limited can be unreliable. The reader could get several descriptions, all colored by the viewer.
     
  25. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    XD The world that this is set in is a little strange. There's a fantastical element about this that would make her going to the police more trouble for her than for him. Actually, the amount of corruption is part of the driving force in the story - it's the thing she wants to fix that makes her a MC. And, at the same time, she already knows this man - she recognized him on the spot. But the flare of rage that seeing him "in action" gave her made her go on a mental tirade, which included the basic description listed in my last post.

    The note you made about third person actually intrigued me. I read a short story by a local author (we're such a small area, that we get all hot and bothered by the fact that someone local has had short stories published in literary journals) and there was one point in which he took the time to describe three different guys' responses to the same girl, and one of the things he included was that: A. They all noticed different things about her and B. The bits that they all noticed were described a bit different. I believe he had one notice her "black hair," the other notice her, "deep, rich, brown hair," and I can't remember the last, though I think he mentioned the way it was cut or styled rather than the way that it was colored. But it does show a very human trait. They've done studies about this. And it's fascinating to pull it into the writing process.
     

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