1. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Does it really matter what a character looks like?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by deadrats, Aug 4, 2016.

    I'm not a very descriptive writer. I usually have to go back and add descriptions. And though I think this can make a difference sometimes in fleshing out characters, it's just not something I do naturally. How important is it to have physical descriptions of your characters in your stories? I think what I might be struggling with the why we should include physical descriptions. So, when do we need them and when can we leave them out?
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Not important to me. I prefer works with minimal character description because I just imagine them how I want. A couple of significant details are enough.
     
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  3. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Entirely up to you as to whether and how much you describe your characters, as long as you work it. Personally, I prefer to describe them because I like the sense of a vision, of something real to be absorbed into. And I want my reader to see what I see because why not? But again, up to you. Some people like to envision what they write, and they tend to describe, but others don't care much and don't communicate any details they do have. And there's degrees of both, of course, and different ways to go about them. It's not a right/wrong subject, more a right way to do what you want to do subject. It depends on where you set the goalposts as to what direction you need to kick the ball.
     
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  4. SweetOrbMace
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    SweetOrbMace Member

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    I don't describe my characters much directly, but I do try and give a sense of how others perceive them through other characters' speech and comments. I know what my characters look like in my head, but I don't feel that their objective appearance (skin/hair/eye colour etc.) is that important to the story, rather it is how the other characters' perceive them and their place in society that is important.
     
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  5. Sapphire at Dawn
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    Sapphire at Dawn Member

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    I think it's something that's personal to the author. You certainly don't need to describe a character's appearance, look at all the successful novels that have minimal descriptions of their characters. If you feel more comfortable giving descriptions then give descriptions. Just be aware of what is important to the story and how you describe them. Also, some readers (like me) skim description entirely and just see what they want. Personally, I don't give much thought to how my characters look, some I don't even know in my mind what they look like. There's a quote I read on here a few weeks ago from an author whose name I can't remember about how he just sees a 'blob' of character, and that's what I'm like. I know my MC has blonde hair, but only because she has to be confused with another character, I couldn't tell you much more than that. More important to me is their personality and their actions. Their looks (other than the blonde hair thing) don't really have much bearing on the story.
     
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  6. Ziggy.
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    Ziggy. Member

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    I don't think character appearance is paramount. Well, not entirely, at least. For example; like Long John Silver's peg leg is a part of his appearance and character. But I find that if you create the appearance yourself, and only for you, it means you can focus on showing tidbits of character as opposed to appearance. I think Elmore Leonard said something like this --and I'm paraphrasing-- I believe: "I don't want the author to tell me how a character looks completely. I want to see them through their speech, their mannerisms, their language and movement. I don't need the reader to be bogged down with character description."

    The best advice I can give you is that write a detailed character description for yourself. From head to toe, from fashion sense, to mannerisms and then look over it, and lock it away. Only show aspects of what your character looks like. Your readers aren't idiots, and they will put parts together and make similar if albeit slightly different projections of how they see your character.

    A character's character is more important and while appearance is a part of it, I'd say it's more like 20% of character and the other 80% is underneath.
     
  7. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's right, take somebody with a disability and define them by it...
     
  8. Ziggy.
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    Ziggy. Member

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    It's not that he's disabled--as his character shows he's more than competent in many ways. But his peg leg is a key part of him. When you think of Long John Silver, you think of his peg-leg and with that, you think of more. You think of how dexterous he is with it, how agile and smart he is as a man, and you think of his backstory and wonder how he got it; ultimately, it's all back to characterisation.
     
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  9. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I never put in physical descriptions unless they add flavour and depth to a scene or if the plot depends on them.

    And when it comes to heroes/heroines, every reader is going to visualize an idealized version of themselves anyway, so I see it as wasted effort.
     
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  10. Sapphire at Dawn
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    Sapphire at Dawn Member

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    This wouldn't work for everybody, though. It'd feel unnatural and forced if I did it for my characters and I think it'd put me off writing them rather than help me get to know them better. The same with character sheets. It's also a form of procrastination, in my mind. Does it really further the story if you know what sort of nose your character has? Is thinking about their strong jaw really developing them as a fully rounded character? I'd rather drop the character in a scene and see how it pans out.
     
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  11. Ziggy.
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    Ziggy. Member

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    It's subjective, I'd guess. When I say head to toe, I don't mean every single physical description of each singular part of a character. Maybe one thing or the others; eyes, mouth--build, height? It's subjective because you can decide how much or how little you want to put in for your character. I don't really go for FULL ON description, but I find tags that really make that character stand out, be it eyes, face, clothes, attitude, or anything else.
     
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  12. doggiedude
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    doggiedude Contributing Member

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    I may describe a character as being large and intimidating to another character or even sexy, but I rarely get specific. If I tell the reader that character A thinks character B is sexy, I want them to visualize what they think of as sexy.
    I also intentionally leave out anything that would characterize race. If a reader wants to vision my MC as an African, Asian, multiracial, that's fine with me. If it's not important to the plot, it doesn't go into the story. About the only way someone could envision my characters as a specific nationality is from the name.
     
  13. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's a good question, and I think the answer is probably, not very important.

    I think if a description is needed, something about the narrative or scene will let you know, and you'll find yourself adding it instinctively.

    Take for instance my WiP. It follows two lead characters, and even though I'm approx 18,000 words into the novel, not once have I described them. But, I've just written a scene where they're hitching for a lift and a car stops to pick them up, and as soon as they reached the car I knew instinctively that I had to describe the driver's appearance.

    My rule of thumb is that MCs probably don't need describing, because more often than not they're 'officially' introduced to the reader early on. Whereas later characters - especially if they're not known to the MC - work better with a description, simply because you can't always introduce them by name.
     
  14. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Why do people keep saying that? I find that kind of insulting. I never imagine myself as the hero/heroine because they're not me. Am I the only one who doesn't do this who speaks up about it? :confused::confused:
     
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  15. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    I generally try to visualise an actor/actress for each of my characters to give me an idea what i'm writing - so for example the for the female MC in my current WIP I tend to visualise Katherine Heigl (Izzy from Greys Anatomy) , for the male lead hes basically me (although younger, better looking, and much more violent) so naturally i think of brad pitt :lol: (anyone who knows me will realise i'm actually the lesser known Pitt brother, Grease )

    Description wise I try to stay away from the 'tell' word pictures as they get in the way of the flow of action , but i'll bring out certain atributes through the action sequences (e.g write at the begining ive got the female Mc giving a guy a blow job and he's "twining his fingers in her dirty blonde hair" and "imagining what those legs look like without battle dress" which gives a hint as to her appearance and attitude
     
  16. Sapphire at Dawn
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    I don't do this, and I don't think it's ever occurred to me to do this. I'm quite happy not imagining myself going through all the shit the characters I read about do!
     
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  17. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    No, I don't read that way, either.

    But I think your goal of wanting the reader to see what you see when it comes to character description is not likely to be achieved. Readers tend to form a mental image of a character almost immediately, and it's not likely to change much after that initial impression. A few significant traits that stand out will be absorbed, the rest ignored by most.
     
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  18. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I use descriptions when they're relevant to the story. In my cyberpunk story, I describe characters' augments and prosthetics both because they're important to the story (one character lost their hand and the mc doesn't think she knows how, when in reality she was there when it happened and her memory loss is part of the main theme) and useful for worldbuilding (a well-off character has stylish, expensive prosthetics while a poor character has a cobbled-together one that barely functions). It helps make the world more vivid and distinct, though that kind of thing mainly applies to specific genres. I'm also big into using colors for theming, so obviously I have to mention those colors in descriptions.

    I also like using sparing descriptions to highlight what's important to or about a character. Someone insecure about her femininity has long hair, though she finds it a hassle so she always has it pulled up or back. Describing someone's dirty, ragged nails and callused hands helps you tell something about them; so does describing their hands as soft and clean. I like to pay attention to what about their appearance a character pays attention to.

    It's easy to read bad descriptions and write them off entirely, but like any aspect of writing they're a tool that can be used poorly or well. It's also perfectly fine if descriptions just aren't really part of your style. Does it really matter what a character looks like? Only if and to whatever degree you want it to.
     
  19. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    That's why the description is part of the first impression.
     
  20. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, but they're still not likely to form the entire mental image you want. Probably just take a few significant details with them.
     
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  21. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    This is pretty subjective, but I like a bit of description when I read, so I put it in when I write. What I try to avoid is a 'list' straight from a character development sheet ...height, weight, eye colour, hair colour, etc. What I try to do is show the character through another character's eyes, if possible. What does the POV character think about this person, and does physical appearance contribute to the opinion?

    None of it will matter, though, if the author's descriptions don't stick. So if you're going to dole out descriptions, try to make sure they stick. A list of physical traits at the start of a story isn't likely to stick—unless the character is 20 feet tall, bright green, with orange teeth that trip them up as they come lumbering towards you.
     
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  22. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    That's why I keep it to a few lines. Not that much to remember. And put plot and character stuff amongst it.
     
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  23. Mumble Bee
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    Mumble Bee The writer formerly known as Chained. Contributor

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    Character apperances matter as much as you want them to. You can have an undefined character that the reader projects themselves onto, or you can have an entire story centered around how your character looks exactly like George Clooney
     
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  24. Romana
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    I'm awful about never describing what my MC's look like.
    I feel like it doesn't really matter what the MC looks like. The reader will envision what they envision. My descriptions are limited to comparing other characters to them.
    Secondary characters, however, are often fully described when the MC meets them. I feel like it's okay, even good, to spend a few words describing new characters because the diction through the lens of the MC (even if writing in third person limited, there is still a powerful lens), you can reveal a great deal about the new character and how they relate to your MC.
     
  25. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Don't feel bad about it. Some authors don't describe them. I prefer that to overdescription.
     
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