1. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    How do you choose character appearance?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by w176, Oct 24, 2010.

    Lets get shallow.

    How do you chose character appearance?
    And why?
    Or discuss any other aspect of the subject you find interesting.

    Personally I think character appearance is fun and useful, but a two edge sword. On one side you can use it to make powerful unconscious connections, and on the other side prejudice and bias.

    For example, I have no illusions that fat people really is any different from other people except perhaps for a few habits. But making a character fat in a story can be used as a negative marker because we have a society with a strong bias about fat people. Or that the character should be pitied. Or that the character wont play any sexual role in the story, as a romantic interest or otherwise.

    Or let generally have character we should connect with and identify with look good or at least cute. Or let someone have long fingers, or small eyes, or dress like an emo kid.

    Anything you chose will send a message beyond the mere physical facts. Part of me things its great and a fantastic tool, part at me hesitates as creating and upholding biases through using these messages in writing.

    Still I come to use it, some times mercilessly. Like writing a short story about the sort of person you just want to strangle and leave to rot, partly building up to this feeling by describing a person as fat, sweating and panting. It might not be OK, politically correct, realistic, or fair but it do make a useful tool because or society has told us to despise fat people.

    On another note I generally tend to avoid describing anyone in a way they could be mistaken for anyone I know, if I don't do it as a cameo appearance or a tribute.

    Or saying that someone look good or not, but convey that through other peoples actions and reaction because it more fun writing that people checking out someones ass etc.
     
  2. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    That's a really interesting question. :) I never really go into much physical description on my characters, to be quite honest. I'll slip in here and there stuff like "brushed her long brown hair out of her face" or something, but I like to let readers come up with their own images of characters, and I don't want to go on a long boring description. If there's some feature that's crucial to the story -- like if the character is fat, or small, or of a certain race, and it's significant to the storyline somehow -- I'll bring it up a few times to drive the point home. Otherwise I don't honestly think it matters much. :)
     
  3. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I kind of just let the characters tell me what they look like.
     
  4. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I usually end up with character descriptions through plot necessity, and the rest is just kinda how they appeared in my mind. One of my main characters looks sort of like one of my housemates from last year, but a lot shorter. Wasn't intentional, but his height was, so I pretty much described that to begin with. :p A lot of the time one tiny trait which is the first I think of influences their appearence big time, because that one trait sparks a memory or association with someone else, and from there I start finding images that suit them. I try not to stress a point unless I need to, though it has led to people assuming everyone in my stories are white, then I'm like, "er, actually, that character is black, that one is asian, that one is..." and end up feeling pretty silly because I *didn't* mention it. So then sometimes out of the blue I waste a paragraph going on and on about a character's ethnicity, to the point of ridiculousness. :p

    Especially awkward since in one novel everyone who's read it assumed the girl who just happens to be black (in a totally non-plot important way) was a redhead, I guess 'cause she was pretty angry a lot of the time (yay stereotypes!), so even mentioning dark skin and braids from time to time never shook that image. :p But, I mean, it's awkward because in the sequel she's very much the main character and I explore her personality in much greater depth (explaining why she was so hostile for most of the first story), and as a contrast character, I've been writing her rival as a redhead. Before I knew everyone assumed she was one herself.

    People are gonna end up thinking I have a fetish on totally unbased assumptions. :|
     
  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I am similar to Mallory in this regard. I will put in a few important details here and there, but that's about it.

    The reader is going to form a mental image of your character, and putting in a lot of character detail isn't going to make the reader's image conform entirely to your mental image as author. More likely, excess detail will conflict with the image the reader already has and the reader will simply ignore it or perhaps be jarred by it.

    So I pick a characteristic or two and stick with that.
     
  6. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I actually find it impossible to imagine people at the detail they are sometimes described at... Once we move onto facial features, I'm just lost. :p They appear how I want them to, no matter what I read, after the initial impression, and since there are few times when introducing a character via intensive physical description is a good idea, I usually have an impression long before that happens anyway. :p In terms of facial descriptions I very rarely describe anything more than eye colour close-up, and usually late in the game, if there's a romance sideplot, or it's plot important. I usually just say something like "pretty" and let the reader fill the blank with what they like. Only a couple of times I've been more specific than that, and then usually to say "pretty despite [quirk that is essential to character development]"
     
  7. erik martin
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    erik martin Contributing Member

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    I try to limit my description to a few key points and let the reader's imagination fill in the rest. It always worked for me as a reader. As for what they look like, I just describe them as they are. I generally have a pretty good picture in mind that develops organically in the pre-planning stage.
     
  8. Naiyn
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    Naiyn Contributing Member

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    You just described me perfectly. As a reader, I do get annoyed when an author describes a lot of physical features, cause they rarely-- if ever-- match what I have in my head.

    So I'm careful to remember that in my own writing. The reader simply won't know that my MC is a combination of three different actors.
     
  9. Agent Vatani
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    Agent Vatani Active Member

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    Well when I write, I always picture it in my head. (As if I was there.)
    Look so:
    She looks at herself in the water, her narrow blue eyes shines in the light. Her tan skin is just glowing, her long blond wavy hair flows in her face as the wind blows. (Just a quick like at.)
     
  10. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I've personally never been big on describing through reflections -- I mean most people don't think about their whole appearance and mull over what they look like in the mirror, you know? They just might think "Ew, I have a zit" or "My hair looks terrible today" or something. They wouldn't go on about shimmering long hair, healthy-looking skin, eye color etc.
     
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  11. Kaichi
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    Kaichi New Member

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    Very interesting question! I've never really thought about why I make my characters look the way they do so I may come back to answer after some deep thought. Unless their appearance affect the story in some way, how they look just comes up randomly in my head.

    In my story, race does come up often so each of my characters have a define race. I prefer to give a casual description of each one of my characters. As a reader, I hate when an author does not give any physical detail to any of the main characters. Unless the story is short, I want a character description.
     
  12. Agent Vatani
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    Agent Vatani Active Member

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    Well detail are great in a story, there fore a characters appearance is good to know. Race, like Indain, black and ect? I always try to give my best detail appearance, really with the main ones.
     
  13. Midnight_Adventurer
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    Midnight_Adventurer Active Member

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    For me appearance starts with their name. When I think of a characters name I begin to build a personality and appearance around it, e.g. I have a female character called Addison and through her name she's become a tough, slightly socially awkward character who has a softer side which is brought out gradually by the people around her. Her appearance is kinda tomboyish but still feminine. Another female character called Loralie (Lorie) is sweet, fun but a little naive and deeply troubled. Her appearance is a little unusual and quite girly.
    However I never have a clear mental picture of what they look like.
    So yeah, for me it all starts with the name.
     
  14. Leah Woods
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    Leah Woods Active Member

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    Well, as Midnight said it all starts with a name. Just when I figure my character then I go to Devianart some other art page, browse through portraits, until I find someone that resembles my mental image of the character. That's just for fun, because in stories I write I almost never mention the looks, except maybe hair color and eye color, and that's about that :D
     
  15. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Appearance can be very important i think. Their appearance will inform their experiences.

    An African American will have different experiences, attitudes and cultural perspectives than a Caucasian. A fat person will have a different psychological makeup from a thin person. They may have low self esteem because people shout insults at them on the street, They may be doggedly determined to "be themselves" despite what the world throws at them.

    People tend to adopt clothes, hairstyles according to their cultural clique. A goth will typically have died black hair, pale skin - wear certain makeup and have a certain outlook on life.

    Clothes are what structuralists call "signifiers". How someone chooses to dress will often signify some aspect of what they choose to show to the world. A successful business man in banking will wear a pin striped suit. A media person will wear smart casual - a suit jacket, jeans and a t-shirt - announcing that he is at once a successful business person and also doesn't adhere to the business world. The famous painter may be dishevelled with flecks of paint on his sleeves. There's a reason Tramps don't wear Armani suits.

    Their appearance may be practical. The shaved head of a rugby player (to prevent people from pulling his hair in a ruck).

    It may be to project a certain image. The be-hooded teenager trying to project an air of menace. The barbarian with skull tatoos to represent each kill.

    It doesn't have to be a limiting factor. Sometimes it's fun to play against their appearance - the athletic 300 lb man who somersaults into action... The effete strongman from Kung Fu Hustle.
     
  16. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree, appearance is a mean, never a goal in it self.

    I usually work with a few identifying traits, but though out the story I often use small details to convey a lot of things. Temporary traits is extremely useful to indicate states or character development. Examples: smudged makeup an and a red nose can frame someone emotional state, callus and irritation on index middle finger an strange observation giving hint of an the characters developing an eating disorder. Or observing something permanent in someones appearance that isn't in focus can lift and show a hidden side of the character, scars is a simple examples of this, but so can noticing that a character has a lot of dyed over gray in their hair.

    I like when the reader knows the character well enough that giving a small visual hint will say a lot about the inner working of the character at that time, without any need of explaining it.
     
  17. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Scars are great - everyone has a story :D
     
  18. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Scars are cheap. Overused and melodramatic in how they are used in many cases. :p
     
  19. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    Everybody has a bias opinion about physical appearance, and you are no exception. A reader's idea of perfect physical beauty differs from some other readers, and most likely differ from the writer's idea of perfect physical beauty. So, why imposed your idea on the readers? Just give hints that your character is physically perfect and let the readers' imaginations take over. The hints you give doesn't have to be physical traits at all. Consider this: He saw her for the first time and the first thing that came to his mind was "she will never have trouble finding boys to date". Don't you think I am saying she is physically attractive? You can give some physical descriptions after that sentence, but really, it's not compulsory.

    About fat chars... you can actually utilize the negative bias the readers might have about fat people. How? A writer can actually break the bias of the readers, and therefore making your char unique and memorable. You can make your fat char do things 'fat people' normally can't do. Consider this: Her arms were as big as my thighs and her chin rest directly on her shoulders, yet she was agile enough to defeat me in a ping pong match. Will you forget such a char? :)
     
  20. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Or even better, a fat person who is popular. I don't know if I've ever seen that in any medium.
     
  21. afrodite7
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    afrodite7 Senior Member

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    -i'm chubby but i still gets love!

    okay,to the point.characters do tend to write themselves.descriptions on how they look depend on who's talking about them.also,the same with attractiveness.

    -but things like hair color if the hair is black,its black

    -i get annoyed when i read a novel and the main lead is overly muscular and they tell me he's sexy...i'm not into roid rage.or the female will be anorexic with monster tits which looks scary in real life.
    -give a basic description when necessary and make it tie into the personality.there has to be a reason why they do what they dok,dress the way they do.but only get elaborate if its required by the plot

    -also,i tend to draw my characters too,so for me that helps
     
  22. Ashleigh
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    Ashleigh Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've seen it often enough in real life, so I don't know why it's avoided.
     
  23. JeffS65
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    JeffS65 Contributing Member

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    I don't write a character's appearance unless I have to. I don't there is much of a need to describe the appearance unless it is key to the character. Like any observational part of a book, you might note an item someone's wearing or a hair style but in all, it seems odd to full on describe someone. In a way, I think such a thing can be disruptive to the story. So, to my original point, I would only want to describe someone if it is important to the story.

    If I do, I don't describe it as a checklist. It makes more sense to weave it observationally in to a scene and the the appearance unravel itself. A person's most compelling feature would come about first then the remaining features would linger and be presented throughout the course of a scene.
     
  24. Zombie_Chinchilla
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    Zombie_Chinchilla Member

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    A lot of times, I just let my characters take on their own appearance. But other times, I'll have the image of a character before I have the story, and then decide to add it later on.

    I've had the character design for this one girl for so long, at least a few years. She's soft, gentle, and kind, and she wears her long, blonde hair down just past her shoulders. But she specifies in healing, so when she gets in serious healing mode, she'll pull her hair into a very messy bun.

    Yet I can never find somewhere to put her. xP
     
  25. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    "Ugly Betty"
     

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