1. Gammer
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    Gammer Active Member

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    Character Description question

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Gammer, Aug 21, 2011.

    I was reading through some old crits from another site when a noticed a couple of them said for my character descriptions it's better if they're brief and gradual rather than a block paragraph which I had.

    I wasn't exactly sure how that would be better. I always thought it's good to describe how the character looks and what they're wearing right away so that the reader can have a better image of them in their heads while they're reading.

    It feels weird to me when I'm reading that I'm introduced to a character at page five and it's only at page ten I get a description about how he looks. It's especially irksome when during that time I get a full blown description about a tree or the setting and not of the character around it.

    So I guess my question is how/why is describing a character right away considered "amateur" or info-dumping?
     
  2. CH878
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    CH878 Active Member

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    I think when authors just list a load of details about a character right away it can seem slow and boring, but if the description is done cleverly or interestingly, perhaps mixing it up with action, then an immediate character description is no bad thing.
     
  3. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    A reader is not going to imagine your character in the same way as you do no matter how much you say about them.

    Personally, I forget character descriptions if everything is crammed into a single paragraph - it's too much to take in at once for a character I don't even know anything about -- or even care about -- yet. At that point I don't know if they're just a minor character in the novel or if they're someone as important as the antagonist or a love interest. If I don't have anything to match that description to yet then I won't remember it unless the author is just pointing out something small to distinguish them from others. I think my first description of the love interest in one of my stories just mentioned that his lips were too full and he wore a cardigan the MC considered ugly. :p

    A character's body language and dialogue describes them better than their physical description. Through the way they speak and their actions a reader will begin to conjure their own opinion of how this person looks - but you can of course influence that with little pieces of physical description here and there.
     
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  4. DBTate
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    DBTate Senior Member

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    I saw something in a thread about Twilight, how Bella is the perfect character for readers to 'fill her shoes', and imagine running their hands down Edwards sparkling body (vomit).

    I think that less is more in initial descriptions, and allows the reader to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. It means that the character is one that they are forming their own understanding and image of, without it being forced on them.

    That being said, it is important to drop enough hints in your phrasing of the character's appearance that when you go more in to detail (if you do), that your portrayal of the character doesn't differ too much to what the reader has already developed in their mind.

    Hope this helped :)
     
  5. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I pay absolutely no attention to character descriptions, even bit by bit and especially not in one lump. And I don't write any descriptions unless it has some significance to the story. Who cares what the author thinks his characters look like? His or her idea of good looking could be the reader's idea of homely as a cow. I might give one character's opinion of another's looks - but I don't have to describe said character to do that.
     
  6. Phantomwriter
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    Phantomwriter Member

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    Like most people said, it keeps things interesting. I like dropping hints because if you add it all at once people can forget what your character looks like or loose interest right away. For me, when I right, I usually just describe hair color and eye color when I first introduce a character, through out the story though I then add more detail to the character. I think most people just care about the basic stuff adding detail all at once is just too much.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I'm a minimalist when it comes to description. I think I'm in good company on this, too. Author Sue Grafton has offered very little description of her character Kinsey Milhone throughout her alphabet series. It isn't until the twentieth book we get much more than she has brunette hair that's not particularly styled and that she is moderately fit. In the twentieth book, Grafton boldly switches to a first person perspective as her antagonist for selected chapters, and late in the book, we get a somewhat unflatteringly-worded description of Kinsey that is more detailed than anything previously offered.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I prefer minimal description as well. Maybe an important feature or mannerism. Apart from that, I visualize characters in my own mind with little regard for how the author describes them, and so when the author insists on forcing minute details of the character onto me all it does is interrupt the flow of the work and the story. Let the reader's imagination work and you'll be better off.
     
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  9. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    As you probably understand from the other responses, this really is a matter of personal opinon. I prefer to get the character description at the start as the character is introduced, though I don't like loads of info. Try to break it down into one or two sentences, and don't waste time describing characters that don't matter unless it's plot important. Also, nobody needs to know a detailed description of anyones outfit.
     
  10. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    This. This, this, oh, and this.

    I very rarely describe my characters much more than the occasional mention of something that comes up. A character of mine just traded away the colour of his eyes in order to get a bit of help. Naturally, I mentioned the eye colour.

    I'm a minimalist in that sort of way. But when there's a character that I want to describe, I don't go over the top and info-dump. I just mention the few things that are noticeable and leave it at that.

    If you're able to read your own work objectively, do so. Read what you've written and look at each word and sentence. If you ever get the thought of, "Why did I even bother mentioning that?" then you've probably gone too far.
     
  11. Mikeyface
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    Mikeyface Member

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    We should learn about the characters as the story unfolds. I'm a proponent of under-describing to allow the reader to come up with their own visual ideas about a character-- they know what they like more than I do.

    Screenplays put the paragraph-length character vomit up front because that's part of the process, knowing exactly what is needed visually.

    Get us into the character struggles first, and we'll want to know more about them after.
     
  12. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to agree with this comparison.

    I enjoy reading screenplays and agree it's important to know about the characters appearance upfront -- as well as setting -- in this medium. However, in a novel it's not necessary.
     
  13. justforthesake
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    justforthesake New Member

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    Is this 'info-dumping'?

    i replied 'just because im tall, dark and wearing your underwear does not give you the God giving right to judge my long beard and grey sideburns. Look into my blue eyes and tell me you hate the sight of this green and white pullover, a tad over-hanging my dark coloured denims. And leave my slip-on shoes out of this arguement. Everyone said you would judge me on looks. I should have listened to the four judges on X factor.:)
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. And can you really picture someone talking like that?
     
  15. BFGuru
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    BFGuru Active Member

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    I don't feel so bad about not describing any physical characteristics about my major MC until after everyone else had a face LOL.
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm afraid so. And I fear that the attempt to tie it to some sort of interaction makes it worse - an info dump that's unsuccessfuly disguised as something else calls even more attention to itself.

    How many of those details does the reader really need to know? Is the precise amount of the pullover's overhang, or the fact that the character's shoes don't have laces, somehow important to the plot or to the personality of the character? Similarly, will the reader feel cheated if he finds out later that your character was wearing dark rather than faded jeans? If he visualized khakis instead, will he just throw the book against the wall when he finds out he was wrong?

    Your character is tall, he has a long beard, and he's dressed casually. I think that's all the reader really needs to know - and I'm not even sure he needs to know all of that.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Another vote for minimalist descriptions. However, once you've decided how much description you're determined to have, I think that it's usually best to openly describe, rather than sneak the description in there.

    So I'd prefer an open "I'm describing now" like:

    Jane looked rather like an aging Barbie -- the perfect blond hair, cheekbones, and blue eyes were still in place, but fine lines showed around those eyes and her figure was just barely flawed enough to be plausible on a human woman.

    to a sneaky "where can I sneak in some description?" like:

    Jane shook back her long blond locks, then leaned toward me, her blue eyes wide.

    When the viewpoint character is talking to Jane, they're generally not going to be thinking, "Jane's hair is blonde. Jane's eyes are blue." They already know Jane. So I think the honest description is better.

    Now, IMO, it's even better if there's a _reason_ for the viewpoint character to be noticing Jane's appearance:

    My growling stomach betrayed me into ordering the toasted ravioli, and then the second piece of ravioli betrayed me by shattering in my hand. I had just finished cleaning greasy crumbs and cheese off my (white) shirt and was dabbing at the smudge of tomato sauce on my (beige) pants, when I saw Jane.

    Have I told you about Jane? She looks like Barbie - an aging Barbie, but all the critical pieces are still there. Perfect blond hair, flawless cheekbones, implausibly blue eyes. Yes, the bombshell figure was thickening, but it was still fine enough to make me push the rest of the ravioli away. And her white shirt was, of course, still white - what you could see of it under her suit. Not merely an expensive suit, no, but a fine vintage Chanel that spoke of taste and intelligence. Feh.

    Jane is lovely. Jane is kind. Jane donates to charity and does rescue work with abused beagles. Jane has a sense of humor and a brain that belies her Barbie exterior. I hate Jane, hate her with a guilty and unreasoning passion that I have tried, for ten years, to overcome. So I put on my best smile and waved to her.


    ChickenFreak
     
  18. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    You don't want to disrupt the flow of the story with a huge block of text describing what the character looks like. Providing more than a hint of what the character looks like isn't really necessary; many authors don't even bothered describing certain characters (including MCs). The truth is that the way someone looks rarely affects the plot. If you want to indicate that someone's attractive to explain why the MC is attracted to them, you don't have to say much more than stating that he/she is attractive. You can, but too much is tedious and unnecessary. Only describe details if the details are unusual or relevant to the story.
     
  19. Clumsywordsmith
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    Clumsywordsmith Active Member

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    It seems I'm a bit of a relic, in that I'm a proponent of long and flowery descriptions wherever possible. I keep mentioning him lately -- probably because I'm rereading one of his books at the moment -- but Dickens is a prime example of someone who is far from a minimalist in his depictions and descriptions of characters. And while it might not add anything to the plot, it adds a huge amount to the reader's immersion; characters actually come to life when described in so much vivid detail.

    Use what style suits you in the end, but don't fall into the trap of believing that one is somehow "better", or that a paragraph taken to describe a scene or character will somehow bog your story down. A great deal of description has, unfortunately, decayed in this last century -- I would blame it on the limited attention spans of modern readers and authors alike, though some might disagree with me. To be quite honest, much of what people these days are fond of referring to as "infodumping" is actually the basics of good description.
     
  20. BFGuru
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    BFGuru Active Member

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    Tolkein is one for the verbose descriptions. Three pages of text heralding every shade of silver, sterling, cascading blah blah blah just to say what could have been said in four words. "Gandalf's hair was grey."

    Don't get me wrong, a long description, when warranted is fine, but sometimes a reader just wants to get on with the story. Give me the details to know enough to put the scene together. Fat or skinny? Bald or long blond hair? Great. I'm good. Let's get this show on the road.
     
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  21. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    There are many ways to describe a character. Subtle repetitions in his speech, like always saying Yeah, and mannerisms. You can also use style techniques to characterize. For example, if everything in a particular scene is described with negative words/images, hard consonant sounds like 'k' and 't', you can create a general, and very, very subtle impression of the character.

    Sort of a revelation for me, as I was learning to write better, was this idea that objects and people do not have a constant, true identity. Everything is colored by the perception of the character in the scene. A mysterious stranger may be a factual 6' tall and possess all the benevolence in the world, but to a nervous kid he may seem like he is ten feet tall and menacing.
     
  22. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    You've made me indecisive, especially after Googing for Project Gutenberg and re-reading "The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek..."

    I suppose that part of the conflict is that I don't see the above as a description. And that means that I've redefined "description" as "a big bag of words that breaks off the narrative in order to burble on about someone's hair and eye color, usually with annoying overblown vocabulary" A description that flows seamlessly with the narrative, that tells us engaging and relevant information is not, to me, a description, it's just narrative that, among other things, tells us what something looks like.

    So I suppose that that means that there's not necessarily anything _inherently_ wrong about description; it's more that when I see a long description in a modern book, and even more often when I see it in unpublished writing, it usually simply doesn't work. So I would probably reverse your statement - I'd say that what I call "infodumping" is _bad_ description and that, yes, there is probably room for good description.

    For me, part of bad description is that it has no narrative reason for existing. I don't mean that description needs to present things that are relevant to the action in the next paragraph, but more that it needs to have some sort of point of view, and it so often doesn't. We hear about someone's hair and eyes and clothes and feet and fingernails, but there's no opinion, no unifying conclusion, no point of view. There's a feel of, "Oh, yeah, got to describe this person. Hair, check. Eyes, check...." Sometimes there's a unifying point of view to the extent of "she's beautiful" or "he's big and manly", but this rarely seems to be enough.

    I just went looking for older novels, to see how they handle description and how I feel about it. Unfortunately, most of my older novels are children's books. I dug out _A Little Princess_ and looked for descriptions:

    "It was just then that Miss Minchin entered the room. She was very like her house, Sara felt: Tall and dull, and respectable and ugly. She had large, cold, fishy eyes, and a large, cold, fishy smile. It spread itself into a very large smile when she saw Sara and Captain Crewe. She had heard a great many desirable things of the young soldier from the lady who had recommended her school to him. Among other things, she had heard that he was a rich father who was willing to spend a great deal of money on his little daughter."

    That description works for me. It tells me just enough and it has a reason for existing. It doesn't tell us about Miss Minchin's hair and eyes and clothes and fingernails, but it really doesn't need to.

    Then there's the description of Ermengarde:

    "... she had notice very soon one little girl, about her own age. who looked at her very hard with a pair of light, rather dull, blue eyes. She was a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever, but she had a good-naturedly pouting mouth. Her flaxen hair was braided in a tight pigtail, tied with a ribbon, and she had pulled this pigtail around her neck and was biting the end of the ribbon, resting her elbows on the desk, as she stared wonderingly at the new pupil."

    This one _does_ get in the hair color, eye color, blah, but I don't have even a faint feeling of "checklist" descriptive writing.

    So maybe I don't object to descriptions; maybe I just object to ones that seem to come from a combination of a checklist and a vocabulary exercise.

    ChickenFreak
     
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  23. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    The best description is most often presented with an action, as in the examples you provided. It has the feeling of movement, the story is progressing forward, has energy, instead of those check-list type descriptions where it feels like the story has paused so the author can point out the scenery.
     
  24. Gammer
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    Gammer Active Member

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    Thanks for the advice so far guys. I kind of get where the minimalists are coming from now. Just thought I'd show a sample of my descriptions one of the critters had a problem with so you could have a better idea.

    A.) Harada was a head taller than Rin, but could still be considered short amongst average sized men. He was dressed in an all-black jacket and pants topped off by a cowl that hid all his features save his hazel eyes. He raised his gangly arms over his head and let out a pleasurable grunt as he felt the muscles stretch

    B.) Jelani was a tall young man, taller than anyone else in the village. His chest and legs were rippled with fine-toned muscles from his years of manual labor. His dark-chocolate skin made him clash with the brightness of the morning. His brown eyes looked at Kumello with impatience and irritation as he drummed his fingers on the desk next to him. He wore a simple pair of white work pants, and had yet to put on a shirt.

    C.) The old man wore a dark brown cloak with a worn out black shirt underneath with white work pants and simple brown shoes. His head bald with age held few strands of white short hair, which suggested that once the old man had a full head of hair. A full white mustache and bread with brown eyes that glared at Kumello capped off his facial features. In his right hand was a simple walking stick made from oak, and in his left was Kumello’s spear.

    There were a couple more but these three were then ones that stuck out the most in my mind .
     
  25. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    > Thanks for the advice so far guys. I kind of get where the
    > minimalists are coming from now. Just thought I'd show a sample
    > of my descriptions one of the critters had a problem with so you
    > could have a better idea.

    My issue with these is that the descriptions don't have any context. What does it mean, in the context of the story, that Harada is all in black? What does it mean that he's short? Why should we care that his eyes are hazel? I'm not asking these to be rude; I'm suggesting that you decide why specific facts are important and present them in a context. And when there is no reason why they're important, just leave them out - for example, I think that there's rarely any good reason to mention eye color.

    To add context, I'm going to imagine that these guys are robbing a bank and have the patrons and employees held hostage. My description rewrites aren't _good_; they're just there to demonstrate what I mean by context.

    > A.) Harada was a head taller than Rin, but could still be
    > considered short amongst average sized men. He was dressed in an
    > all-black jacket and pants topped off by a cowl that hid all his
    > features save his hazel eyes. He raised his gangly arms over his
    > head and let out a pleasurable grunt as he felt the muscles
    > stretch

    Harada was a small, lean figure all in black, down to the cowl hiding his face from a roomful of witnesses, only his eyes visible. He stretched, relaxed and unworried about resistance from the hostages.

    > B.) Jelani was a tall young man, taller than anyone else in the
    > village. His chest and legs were rippled with fine-toned muscles
    > from his years of manual labor. His dark-chocolate skin made him
    > clash with the brightness of the morning. His brown eyes looked
    > at Kumello with impatience and irritation as he drummed his
    > fingers on the desk next to him. He wore a simple pair of white
    > work pants, and had yet to put on a shirt.

    No point in Jelani wearing a mask; his dark skin in this town of pale men would make him easy to identify. Even if he were to disguise himself from head to toe, his height and well-muscled bulk would be memorable; he loomed a good head taller than the security guard, drumming his fingers impatiently on the railing as he waited for the guard to open the vault.

    > C.) The old man wore a dark brown cloak with a worn out black
    > shirt underneath with white work pants and simple brown shoes.
    > His head bald with age held few strands of white short hair,
    > which suggested that once the old man had a full head of hair. A
    > full white mustache and bread with brown eyes that glared at
    > Kumello capped off his facial features. In his right hand was a
    > simple walking stick made from oak, and in his left was Kumello’s
    > spear.

    And an old man, bald but bearded, shabby but with an upright military posture, glared as he watched the operation. Was he in charge or just another hostage, the only one that dared to show his anger?

    ChickenFreak

    Edited to add: OK, once I thought of it I had to add yet another pseudo-explanation of the importance of context in deciding what's needed in a description:

    Joe: "So my cousin has this fight with his girlfriend, see? Huge fight, and she packs up all his stuff in boxes and it's on the front porch when he gets back from work at ten o'clock at night. And he can't find a parking place, so he has to park his car three blocks away. So he's hauling his stereo, with the speakers stacked on top, and he's almost at the car, and he feels something poking in his back, and this voice says, 'Stick 'em up'. And..."

    Jeff: "Wait. Just wait. Hang on, you're telling this story all wrong."

    Joe: "What? What's the problem?"

    Jeff: "You didn't tell me what he was _wearing_."
     

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