1. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    How do you describe your characters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by jannert, Sep 9, 2014.

    This topic came up on another thread, and I think it's worth a thread of its own.

    How do you describe your characters? Each writer needs to know how to do it, and to do it well. I think we all agree that just listing character traits isn't good enough. But how do you describe characters, so that readers get the impression you want them to have? What's your favourite way to insert these descriptions into a story?
     
  2. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    This really depends on the story for me. Also on the POV. For first person, if it has a more confessional tone then I might include some description in internal monologue, but more likely for first person, I'll show their appearance through action. But relevant action, not shaving in the mirror unless it can be used for reflection on something just happened, or something otherwise important to the story.

    In third person, I tend to describe incidental characters in reasonable detail, but usually with the goal to hint at their personality or function. For main characters, I evolve their descriptions throughout the story, so that the reader feels they saw them in a variety of situations. Most importantly, though, these descriptions shouldn't be laboured or gratuitous. There needs to be something more important to convey then just physical appearance, to make it relevant.

    I think most important is to not make unnecessary value judgements that reflect the author's likes and dislikes in an obvious manner. So while sometimes it might be fitting to state that a character is 'attractive' or 'repulsive' or some such, it also needs to be 'shown' and explored in terms of someone else's response to them. Generally, though, I don't make a habit of describing my characters in terms of beauty ideals, attractiveness or obvious stereotypes, because that in itself doesn't say much about them at all and usually reads as superfluous. If it makes me cringe, it isn't done well (the ultimate test!).
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2014
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  3. JamesBrown
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    JamesBrown Active Member

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    I'm not a believer in going into excessive detail describing your characters appearance. Don't underestimate the capacity of a reader to give your character a face with only the meagerest information. You may end up with ten different readers imaging a character with 10 different shades of hair colour, but does that really matter? And something like height is only important if the character is excessively short or tall, because that will have a direct influence on the character's personality.

    What is most important is to accurately articulate the how the character feels about themselves in the body they occupy and how other characters react to them in the story.
     
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  4. Slade Lucas
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    Slade Lucas Member

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    I don't know if this is a good thing or not but I don't usually do physical descriptions of my main characters. Sometimes I will have a certain aspect of them pointed out by another character but never in too much detail. I suppose this is because I find that when I am reading a story where the main character is male I usually insert an image of myself into it, and it makes me feel more connected to that character. I suppose my lack of physical description is a way of me trying to make other people put an image of themselves in as well, instead of the image of the character.

    I also just generally have a thing in life about not liking to judge people on physical appearance and so I don't really like to describe my main character on what they look like because, just as some people do in real life, they might judge the character before getting to know him. They might come up with assumptions that are untrue, assumptions which may be hard to get out of their head. If I focus more on representing their personality than their looks then I can ensure that does not happen.

    I think the final reason is because, again, when I write my main characters always look like me in my own mind and I figured that if I just kept on making characters that looked about the same my stories would become very boring and those characters would not be distinguishable from each other. And if I changed it I would lose my connection with the character slightly.

    I might be wrong to not include physical description but I think I do it for good reasons.
     
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  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I do appreciate some notion of what a character looks like when I read. I find that if enough time goes by and the author hasn't even hinted what the characters look like, I start to search back to see if I missed something.

    Maybe I'm old-fashioned. I don't mean I need a nose to tail rundown on all aspects of their visual appearance, but something. I certainly do notice what people look like when I 'people watch,' as we're supposed to do if we're writers.

    It's not just features, hair colouring, height and weight that matter, of course. In fact, sometimes these things don't matter at all. But I don't think it hurts for the reader to get a mental picture of the person in question. The way they move, the way they sit, the way they look or don't look at other people when they have a conversation. All these are related to what a character's appearance is like, and can really help flesh them out, in my opinion.

    Other mundane matters, such as the clothing they wear and they way they wear it can be quite indicative of personality, social status, physical condition, etc. Are they shaven or unshaven? Is their beard scraggly or neatly trimmed? Are they wearing makeup? Odd items of clothing? Do their clothes have holes in them, are they worn, tattered, freshly pressed, smelly, up-to-date, etc? And of course when sexual attraction is an issue, physical presence may well be an issue, too. A person may well reflect on certain features they find attractive.

    I do think it's best if these kinds of things can get filtered through another character's eyes, though. It's less like 'telling,' and it also gives the writer a chance to develop the POV person's personality as well.
     
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  6. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I typically don't describe my characters unless there's something the reader needs to know (ie, it explains something, like why a fight is going the way it is, or giving a picture of the outcome of said fight).

    I guess I don't consider the clothing a real description of the character, but even in that I only describe it if it adds to understanding the situation. For example, a character is so focused on the task, he ignores his surroundings even though others are staring. Why are they staring? Because he's dressed strangely for the setting. But if no one is staring, his appearance doesn't matter.

    Actions - how they look at someone - definitely have a place on the description table. But that seems a different thing from telling the reader how a character looks. That's describing the action, not the character's looks. If the character is looking skeptical, it makes no difference whatsoever if s/he has red hair or black, blue eyes or brown.

    I tell them what they need to know - beyond that, I let them see what they want to see.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2014
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  7. PensiveQuill
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    PensiveQuill Contributing Member

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    I only provide a physical description of parts that are relevant. In my current WIP for example I give a character platinum hair, but only because he is an albino. His albinism is important to his characterisation and how the other characters react to him. I also dress him in 'splendour' but that's as far as it goes. Once again it has to do with his social rank and affectations.

    I wrote an entire chapter about a female character whom I did not describe at all. But her inner thoughts were on display in that scene which characterised her more than any physical description would. Oh and she was wearing a cloak, but I did not describe this item at all, merely mentioned it.

    I tend to think when you are too heavy handed with physical characterisations then you get in the way of reader immersion, as their mind will build up it's own image in accordance with who your character is. If you contradict that then you can frustrate the reader.
     
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  8. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    I'm not one for listing physical attributes (I.E. his hair was black, his eyes blue, his skin pale, his body slender, etc. etc.). But I am one for clear, complete descriptions, as long as they're written well. I like being given a clear image - I like knowing how the writer sees their character. Call me unusual, but when I don't have a description, I don't fill in the blanks for myself - I see a blank, bald, faceless character wandering around doing things. I can't make myself see something until I've been told what I'm seeing.

    Each of my characters, upon their entrance, gets a clear description. It may not be "complete" in the sense that every characteristic is plain, but I definitely show the most "important" (to me) descriptions - those things that define that character in my mind. My character, Imogen, is described (more eloquently) as blonde-haired, voluptuous, and a classic beauty that dresses in bright colors. Contrary, my character, Theo, is described as looking "angelic," upon first appearance, but when you look harder at him, you see cold eyes and hard expressions. I don't mention that his hair is curly and blonde, or that his eyes are dark blue... These don't feel important, to me. These are two, very different descriptions, but they both belong to the same novel.
     
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  9. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    This is one of the many things I struggle with. Since I'm writing in third person limited I try to describe characters through my MC's gaze and this sometimes limits me. At the moment I haven't described the two MCs in the first part of the novel because the POV character is very familiar with the other MC and is far to busy looking for her to pay attention to her appearance or her own for that matter but reading through this thread I may go back and add in some description of them. When they run into a third character the POV character is meeting this character for the first time so it was easier to add in a description. However I only included the basics because the scene is too tense to take in more than the most striking characteristics of the character.
     
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  10. Okon
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    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I usually just pick out a few of the more striking features at first glance: height, disability, colour, expression, posture etc... I've realized I never look at peoples shoes, eyes or even hair when I meet them, unless one of those are very particular, such as smoldering hair or an eye patch or really big muddy boots.
     
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  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Indirectly, and sparsely.
     
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  12. Alexa C. Morgan
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    Alexa C. Morgan Member

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  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, you're so right. There is nothing worse than a wad of character traits thrown in during an action or 'tense' scene.

    The two swordsman were taking great chunks out of each other, and blood flew in all directions. One of the men was blonde, blue-eyed, weighed about 160 pounds and stood six feet high, had two hands, two feet, dressed in brown leather armour, wore tackety boots made of leather with a silver buckle on the side, while the other was a short fat fellow with black hair and brown eyes and a big nose, wearing leather trousers that buttoned up the back, while his green cotton shirt flapped loosely in the breeze, and his neckscarf was blue.

    This kind of descriptive infodump happens so often. One of those bad writing traps we can learn to work our way past?
     
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2014
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  14. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    My MCs have sapphire eyes, porcelain skin, hair that glimmers in the sun, and 0 % body fat. ARE YOU FEELING NAUSEATED YET???
     
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  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    People always notice appearance unless they aren't actually able to see it. However, they might need just a few seconds and like with so much in our environment, unless it needs discussing, it gets filed away for recall for a period of time. So you will remember what your friend was wearing that day, maybe even next week, but beyond that, you won't maintain that particular memory for long because it isn't of any long-term importance or significance (hopefully). Still, you noticed.

    And since we are in that character's head, we aren't necessarily hearing what that character wants us to hear (because that would be the 1st person POV) but what the narrator wants us to hear. This is where the author can stretch and contract time, depending on desired pacing, and if the author wants to slow the story down or characterise the situation or the characters (always on purpose with these things, you are in control of what you put where), he can go into a four page description of a place or a person, even peppered with flashbacks and internal monologue, and it won't feel 'unbelievable' or out of place.

    Control of this skill is difficult to master, but it's worth trying because it adds a whole new dimension of control and ability to our writing.
     
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  16. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I usually only go with standout features that sum up the character, with the exception of my current MC where she describes herself in raw detail right at the start. It sounded confronting and a seems like a bad idea but works in the context of the story. At least, that's what readers say. It's nothing poetic, though. I can't stand those types of 'hair like the blah blah' descriptions.
     
  17. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Depends on what they're wearing....
     
  18. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Nothing but the bitter sadness of despair....
     
  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    oooh ...NUDE porcelain skin that glimmers in the sun ...woohhh
     
  20. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    That makes a lot of sense. I'll be sure to keep this in mind when it comes time to edit.
     
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  21. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I (and @T.Trian with whom I write) try to show the appearance of the characters through the POV, like, take into account what the POV character would notice about the other. If they're old mates, there wouldn't be much description I suppose. And sometimes this leads to conflicting descriptions, like, if there's a girl who's super skinny, some pro-ana would think 'omigod she's so beautiful' while someone else would think 'shit, she must be ill.'

    I don't personally like descriptions that are just listed, but I don't mind the author giving me a description. It's nice if there's inventive imagery or similes instead of just "his hair was blond." Blond like what? Give me an image! I haven't the book with me right now so I can't quote it, but I started reading Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger a while back, and she does exactly this.

    If there's a picture of the character on the cover, I tend to imagine them like that. Or if there's a movie out, that might also affect the image. Sometimes I end up thinking something completely different. I remember reading Andrezj Sapkowski's The Last Wish fantasy novel, and I imagined the main protag completely differently than the illustration offered on the last page 'cause the description was fairly scarce in the book itself. It was a stupid illustration, so now the protag looks like a tool in my mind. -_-

    ETA: @jannert I liked the way you described your characters in your WIP. Really helped me to create strong images of them in my mind. While probably different from what you see, the descriptions helped to get not only an image, but a feel of the characters.

    Come to think of it, I may have become more demanding on the descriptions over the years, like, don't just leave it all for me to imagine. You are the writer, you're in control, you entertain me, you know? :D
     
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2014
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  22. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Great idea...

    Dear reader,

    I am giving you 350 blank pages with which to imagine. Let me know what you think when you're done. Enjoy.
     
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  23. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    A choose your own adventure!
     
  24. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Dear author,

    I am shocked and appelled by this filth! You are a sick, sick person. I hope you never let me imagine another book of yours. I am scarred for life.

    Reader

    P.s. Though I did enjoy the scene where the pug rode the horse in the umbrella land.
     
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  25. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    To elaborate a bit on the way @KaTrian and I do it, I'd say we use action and interaction a lot as tools to help us show things about a character. For instance, in our current WIP, we wanted to show an MC's looks (tall and muscular for a woman, short and blonde hair) dribbled along the MS because her looks, particularly her physique affects the story.
    So e.g. one character cracks a joke about the stereotype of tall, Swedish blondes apparently being true when they meet (the MC is Swedish), another mistakes her for a guy because of her height, muscular physique, short hair, and lack of make-up; her background is in swimming and weightlifting so she has broad shoulders that make her normal-width hips look narrower than usual for a woman, lending for the "masculine" Y-body shape. Stuff like that.

    Sure, we could eliminate even those, but the character's build does affect her thoughts and feelings too (e.g. she doesn't think anyone would find her attractive since she's been bullied in school because of her physique and still gets some shit about it from other soldiers etc.) and while the things she does in the story indicate she kinda has to be taller and stronger than your average gal, the world of fiction is so littered with these skinny girls built like runway models (i.e. just skin and bones) who can still beat men twice their size into submission, which is often unrealistic, and we wanted to be realistic, so we figured it's best to find a way to show that no, this character isn't yet another one of "those," especially since muscular women are so rare in fiction that readers probably wouldn't even picture one if we didn't bring it up somehow.

    But that's just one example of many ways you can show things about your character's looks instead of just jotting them down like a shopping list. I'm not sure if it's the best way, but we like it.
     
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