1. Darksoul
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    Darksoul New Member

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    Appearance

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Darksoul, Dec 18, 2007.

    Something I always find hard is describing characters' appearance. I just seem to lack the vocabulary (fitting adjectives etc.) to give readers a proper idea of how the character looks, what clothes he is wearing, etc.

    Does anyone have any concrete advice on this one? Is there perhaps a certain book or website that lists adjectives, colours, pieces of clothing and others to help a writer compose descriptions?:p
     
  2. ILTBY
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    ILTBY Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think I'll be too helpful but here's my advice-

    Start with the face, give some interesting characteristics to each facial part. I.e: Eyes, nose, mouth, possibly chin, forehead, etc. Or, if you want your character to be very plain and dull, make it clear that there's nothing distinctive about him or her.

    Then move on to the clothes and describe them in the same way you've described the character. Are they daggy? Worn? Elegant? Beautiful? Make the clothes suit the character and/or the situation they're in. A person in a war would be worn, ragged, torn, etc, and would therefore wear similar clothes. The same goes for a person in an upper-class hotel - they would be elegant, delicate, classy, etc. An author would probably be a bit scattered, stressed, maybe distracted, and so on. Often you can use the same words you'd use on a person on clothing.

    I hope that helps slightly.
     
  3. Bluemouth
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    Bluemouth Contributing Member Contributor

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    While I can't offer you much input on this, I will share my thoughts about the issue.

    When I write my characters I don't jot their full appearance down on paper. I may only give one or two small details about the person. For example, their hair colour. The way I see it - the less detail, the more the reader uses their imagination. Here's an example I've actually used in my writing:

    "An attractive female newsreader faded into view."

    With this I leave it completely up to the reader to establish what they find attractive, and therefore how they perceive the character. After all, why should I set the reader on a linear path when they could free-roam by themselves. So I give them a basic starting point and the rest is entirely up to them. And, if I'm honest, I don't know how effective this method is. I'll post up the Prologue of the novel I'm working on somewhere in the New Year and see if it gets brought up as being a problem.

    Most of what turned me off using character descriptions are things like this:

    "Sally is five feet tall and weighs forty kilograms. Her hair is long. She has very big eyes."

    Now, I took that off another site and I understand this is an exaggerated view of using bad character description, but I have seen it done in the past. When I see this I feel like I'm reading a list of measurements, which is exactly what the source of this article states. (I won't post the source because it's amateur and unhelpful)

    I guess in the end I read so many annoying and linear character descriptions that I thought 'To hell with this!' and went my own separate way.

    Sorry for the rant that doesn't directly answer your post. :)
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    When I use description, it's usually in the context of another character seeing them. But I don't say more than what would stand out to the other character. In one short story, I described a mysterious woman as catching his eye, and the only features I actually described was short dark hair and intense blue eyes. The rest I deliberately left to the reader's imagination, because the reader can provide his or her own standards of beauty.

    I wouldn't have a man's buddy describing his shirt, pants, and shoes, unless I were implying that the buddy has other ideas in mind for their friendship.

    In the same way, clothing only enters in to show some other element. A worn, frayed overcoat might indicate either that the character likes clothes he finds comfortable and familiar, or it may mean he has fallen on hard times. The context shows which it is.
     
  5. ILTBY
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    ILTBY Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, I'd also like to add that I think the level of description you give should depend on the importance of the character. I think introducing an important character requires a fair amount, while a minor one only requires a fairly un-detailed one, as both Cogito and Bluemouth mentioned.

    ETA: One last thing is that introducing all characters in the same way gets very boring and the technique you use should vary if that makes sense.
     
  6. Heather Louise
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    Heather Louise Contributing Member Contributor

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    Each person develops their own style of describing a person and it differs from each writer to the next. What you need to do is find a was of doing it you are comfertable with. Do you like to describe the charecot straight out when we meet them or later on or what?

    Personally I like to slip bits of description in as I go along. Mabye start with their hair colour, a bit later you find out their height. How I try to do it is to makeit relevant to what I was saying. Like if it is windy, you can say that her blone hair whipped around her face, sort of thing. That way it is relevant to the sentence and not just description for the sake of it.

    As for you saying you do not have the vocabulary; I think the best thing you can do is to keep it simple. there is no point farting around with long comlicated words, just keep the words fairly day to day so that we know what you are talking about. Sometimes when people try and use long words it gets over complicated and the meaning and effect is lost.

    I hope this helps anyways
    Heather
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    One idea - pick up a book or two by authors whose style you enjoy, and see how they go about it. Experiment with styles from several authors until you settle on what works best for you.
     
  8. Darksoul
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    Darksoul New Member

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    Ah thanks, ILTBY, Bluemouth, Cogito and Heather,
    all of your contributions have been very helpful indeed!

    I guess I am mainly jealous of writers like Philip Pullman (hope it doesn't seem too random an example, I greatly esteem him as a writer), who tends to write very poetic descriptions, not only of characters, but also of scenes. Passages in which I am mostly lost because I am unfamiliar with many words, but which afterwards I still look back on with admiration.

    Nonetheless, it is a relief to know that a simple set of words for description will suffice, or is even preferable. I only hope I will be able to vary within the limited vocabulary set I know.;)

    One question, still. If you wait too long to give description of your character, e.g. hair colour, won't it unsettle the reader when you finally say he is, say, blond, while the reader in question had imagined him dark-haired? Same goes for clothing and other external features of course. Description can be spread, but a reader's image of the character will be formed instantly, although perhaps vague at first. Are there rules as to how drastically you are allowed to change the reader's (random?) image of a character?

    (an obvious answer, of course, would be that any DRAMATIC abherrations need to be mentioned asap, because it will otherwise unsettle the reader's image...)
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    My feeling is that if it's an important characteristic, bring it in early. Linda Barnes' Boston private investigator Carlotta Carlyle is over six feet tall, with flaming red hair and a slightly crooked nose (it has been broken more than once). Linda introduces these details early in every novel of the series. She also introduces it early that she prefers jeans and running shoes, and generally comfortable rather than stylish clothing.

    Other details are less important, and are unlikely to greatly revise the reader's image of the character, so they show up later, if at all.

    The reader can supply his or her own details. As you point out, if you push a lot of details later on, they may conflict with the reader's pre-formed image. So why introduce them at all?

    Clothing changes, of course, so it doesn't matter much if you describe the character changing into a dark jiogging suit and a black watch cap for nighttime surveillance. In that case, it may be an important detail. But I once teased a writer here for going into minute detail about the military uniforms of the various characters. It broke the flow of the narrative, and to what purpose?
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    cog's advice here is spot on and you can't do better than to follow it...
     
  11. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    What I personally try to do, though it's tough as hell, is to show what the character notices- some people call it "free indirect style" or something. Basically you drift in and out of a character's head. Anyway, you see things through the character's eyes- what they notice is what you notice.

    And sometimes freak realizations happen. Don't tell me you never had that "Man! I never noticed that!" feeling upon noticing some blatantly obvious trait about someone- something that you never really 'caught' about them. To take one example from my own life (sorry pet., but I've got to give this example), a friend of mine has tanned skin, dark hair, and green eyes- but until just recently, I never realised that his eyes were green; my brain must have just filled them in with brown or something. It's perfectly fine to have minor- and in limited cases major- traits unknown to the audience.

    Also, it's important to note that a whole heap of description is in the name. Truth! ILTBY's avatar, Marv from Sin City, has the perfect name for his character. Marv. Single-syllabled, rock steady with a slight curl of rage at the end. Similarly, Jack Sparrow would not- could not- have looked like that if he had been named Jacob Matterhorn. See? Maybe not. Maybe it's just me. Does anyone else get that?
     
  12. Darksoul
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    Darksoul New Member

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    No, it makes perfect sense.
    Except, names don't always have to be iconic of a character's appearance. it's only logical: in the real world you don't wait until you are grown to see what you look like and what name would suit you best. You grow up with a name and your features will identify your name as well as the other way around, at least for those that know you.
    It's a common thing for someone to say "His name is Melvin? oh, I thought he looked like a 'Brad'."

    And Cogito, I have been thinking about what you said, the thing about picking up the book of a writer you like. It's true that the books you read last or that left an impression will influence your writing: for literature I have a set of compulsory 19th century books to read this year, so it made me laugh when, upon having posted my first narrative here, I got the feedback that it was too 19th-century-ish, because of the pompous style.
    I had better read a good fantasy novel when my exams are over! (unfortunately, that's not until the end of january).

    Oh and B-gas, that style you say you use for descriptions, it sounds similar to what I usually do. I am getting the more and more conscious of perspective, but I still find it hard to stay inside a character's head when narrating in third person. I often catch myself writing 'editorial comments' in the stories, remarks from the narrator and such.
    There is a lot of choice in perspectives and focalization, but it's important to stay consequent, or that's what I think.
     
  13. Heather Louise
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    Heather Louise Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would say that you need to get the major details of his appearence across fairly early, like the first couple of chapters. However, you can keep sliping in new details, little ones, as you go along. Like you may not find out that the guy has a scar on his shoulder till near the end sort of thing. Hope this helps
    Heather
     
  14. Edward
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    Edward Active Member

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    I find it hard to get across what I'm describing, because I have the tendency to describe things in minute detail or I feel I don't get my point across. I mean, how do I describe something that doesn't exist and give enough detail that a person could maybe sketch it out, without being so Tolkienish? And I mean, it's mostly character's clothing. In fantasy, people never wear anything normal. All dressed in motley and with various doodads on them:
    [​IMG]
    I could get a short paragraph describing his cranial accessories alone.
    [​IMG]
    He's got a mullet, bandana, a pack on his leg, shin guards, a harness, a jacket with crazy pockets, gun, shirt, camo pants that are digital-ish, that thing on his arm...

    I can't think of any more outlandishly motley people.
    I mean, I guess you could just mention things as need be, but I know I don't like having to change my image of the character so soon. I mean, I assume that every main character in a fantasy novel is a boy of 15-25 of average height with short brown hair and brown eyes. After the first description I don't want anything more than a change of clothes, not that the characters hair colour or eye colour or sex (I'm being outlandish here) is first mentioned a hundred pages in. But I'm just anal like that.
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it's much more important to capture how they behave, than how they look... details of their clothing can be doled out in digestible bits, amid their actions... like this:

    that's much better than the following, don't you think?:

     
  16. Neha
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    Neha Beyond Infinity. Contributor

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    Each writer has a unique way of writing, and even if one tries copying some other author, their styles will always differ somehow, because everyone has different taste. When I characterize anyone, I bring the charater to life first, I've tried many ways, there's this character, Indian in one book of mine, Rimi, I even lived as her for 1 week, and it became easier, the character was a part of me!! And then this other character, Tyesha!! I drew her, anything, I just took an actresses snap, drewher and then wrote down the features of my sketch according to my interpretation, and believe it or not, the person I'd chosen was Hilary Duff, but Tyesha was totally opposite Hilary in Nature!!

    Ohk let's do this live......!!

    I'm taking say, this character, Ahelna Sareen, I invented her right now, and when out sound out the name, the girl who comes to my mind is a short girl of about 5 ft, with long black hair, oval face, her eyes grey, full lips. But this is not enough. The girl has a Lindsay Lohan skin and her eyelashes are long. Her eyes slant a little and her neck is swan-like. She's waring black flow-skirt and black boots, with a frock top. Her face though not pretty is attractive, with a fresh look. She is so NOT the girl next door type.

    See how much just a name can help you in characterization, a new person is born, and if you know the meaning of that name, great, you can characterize the person's character that way!!
     
  17. Neha
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    Neha Beyond Infinity. Contributor

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    And yeah Mammamia, the first picturization is better, it tell so little, but if one understands then it tell everything.
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    How much do you, as a writer, want to impose your internal snapshot of a character into the reader's vision?

    It's probably important for the writer to have a clear picture of the character, in terms of what you notice most about people around you, so the character is real to you.

    But you need not present everything you see in your mind's eye. You may be better off deciding what are the few most important caharacteristics to present, and let the reader fill in the rest. This is particularly true if the reader is supposed to identify with the character, or associate the character with a particular emotion. The example I keep returning to is a character who stops you in your tracks with her beauty. If you overdescribe the character, you risk a reader response of "Yeah, she sounds attractive, if you like that look..." On the other hand, if you provide minimal detail, and let the reader fill in his own details, he is much more likely to picture someone who would stop him in his tracks!

    The same would be true of someone who inspires fear. If you concentrate on how other characters react to the sight of the frightening character, readers will imagine their own boogeyman, and he will be much scarier than if you describe your nightmare guy in lump by bulge by oozing sore detail.

    In the world of jazz, Thelonius Monk stands out as a brilliant pianist because of his mastery of the pauses between notes. Similarly, what you decide not to say as a writer can be as powerful as what you do say.

    In brief, use your imagination, by all means. But don't rob trhe reader of that same pleasure.
     
  19. Neha
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    Neha Beyond Infinity. Contributor

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    point! I agree with you Cogito!!
     

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