1. appledotte
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    appledotte Member

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    How do you feel about not giving characters physical descriptions

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by appledotte, Jan 14, 2016.

    In a lot of the short stories that I have written I have not given my main characters a physical description. At most I give them a gender. In my current book, I have not given my main character any traits, and if I were going to it would be something generic like "brown hair and brown eyes" because they are dominant genetic traits and I didn't care enough to really think about it, but I wouldn't say how long her hair is or what shades of brown. As far as her description goes, I have described her hands, not by color of her skin, but by the size comparing it to the people around her. (The size, and change of size, are indicative of a larger phenomena going on in her life.) Most of my IRL writing friends are obsessively detailed about their characters and the worlds around them. They know all the little details, and I'm over here like "yeah I don't know or care what they look like." It's pretty funny because it irritates them that I somehow make my lack of caring work. Only one character in my book receives true descriptions, and it's because they are a) not human and b) its appearance is important to what's happening in the book. For me I just don't really care if it doesn't support the story in a meaningful way.

    How do you all feel about reading character descriptions or writing them? How much is too much or too little?
     
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  2. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it is important to do it little bit.

    And I am saying that as someone who wrote a full Novel without doing it once! Let me explain.

    I feel it is important because I have kind of seen the effects of it. The issue is this. Eventually, a reader is going to want to know, sort of. I think it is less the reader wants to know trivial details like hair color but more the reader wants a short way to mentaly recall the image. I don't think that even has to be hair color. Hair color is an easy one though.

    Because in a sense, names are meaningless. A reader may remember a character as "the one that picked her nose in class in chapter 04" or "the blonde that was really smart". Physical apperance is just another ay to give the reader a easy way to instant remember the character, which I think is beyond helpful.

    One of the reasons I noticed this, is because I get art of my characters. So one reader in real life, I simply gave him the book plus the art. He directly told me, that without the art, he would have been less interested, because he could look at the art and go "blonde girl with a dirty mouth" and as he said. He didn't feel he would have remembered her as easily during the material. Obviously the dirty mot part is something he got from the material, but the blonde part he didn't/ Because I didn't include it. He came up with a lot of nicknames for them actually. lol.

    So at the end of the day, my book was enhanced by art, which is not innately a bad thing, but in this case my book was under par and the art was helping it reach par. As writer, this is unacceptable!

    Oh and to help show my point. I bet @dreamersky1212 who has read some of my work can name drop the above character nickname my friend gave. Being "Blonde with a dirty mouth." Care to give it a shot @dreamersky1212
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2016
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  3. appledotte
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    appledotte Member

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    That's a really valid point. I also think it would depend on the size of your cast. Most of my stuff tends to have a rather small cast. It's only recently that my book has more than 4 characters, and so it's probably easier to keep everyone straight.
     
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  4. appledotte
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    appledotte Member

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    That's a really valid point. I also think it would depend on the size of your cast. Most of my stuff tends to have a rather small cast. It's only recently that my book has more than 4 characters, and so it's probably easier to keep everyone straight.
     
  5. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    While I won't argue that the concept of my argue is more important with a larger cast I don't think it is unimportant even with a small cast.

    See? Me? I tend to lean away from overly detailed material, but this is not true of most readers(as I understand it) and even if there is just two(actually especially if there is just two) it may be even more important to include physical detail.

    Again, let me explain.

    Being wrong is can really suck a reader out of material. And even the premise of being wrong. So if you never give me her hair color, I may begin to wonder and with no way of knowing, I will probably assume I am wrong, or being completely thrown off when I learn I am wrong.

    Because, afterall, a smaller cast means you spend more time with each of them. So if I try to mentally picture then, and I fail because I have 0 detail, then the material may begin to lose me.

    Actually, I once read material from a person. It was in first person. He didn't indentify gender until like 3k in. So my mind began to assume it was a she. I was wrong, and that threw me so completelt off, that for a moment I thought I had miss read it.

    Once I realized I didn't, I was so taken out of it. I stopped reading right there. Which may sound unfair, but I had liked the material. In my head I saw this girl kicking ass and I liked it, and then suddenly it was like she was dead. Well, the reason I wanted to keep reading is because i wanted to know what happend to her, but well, she died(to me) okay technically she didn't die, because she never existed, because it was a he. But it still completely ruined my mental image. Which is enough to kill it.

    If that makes sense?
     
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  6. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I'm very light on physical description too. Laboured descriptions of appearance always seem very YA to me, particularly in first person (and particularly particularly the god-awful "looking in the mirror" trick). I give a couple of pointers, like hair colour and age, as well as any distinguishing features that are important to the plot, and let the reader fill the rest in. I also like to give clues through interactions with other characters / the environment, rather than description. For example, instead of saying she's short, show her struggling to reach a high shelf, or have an antagonistic character look down at her, or a friendly character tease her about it.

    One thing I've learned is that if you do need to describe any features (like the hands, in your case) do it early. It's annoying for readers to build up a mental picture and then have to alter it when you give them new information several chapters on.

    This is a hit and miss approach. Some beta readers haven't commented it, so presumably they are happy filling in the blanks, but others commented in the very first chapter that they want a physical description of the characters. I've chosen to stick with my approach, but I know not all readers will like it.
     
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  7. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    I am used to a few dozen characters defined more by their personality and views over their physical appearances. A single sentence is often enough to craft enough of an image to go on for me, but the body and its garb is a canvas for defining an entity for the reader to build upon. It can be less than fifty words, but paint us a decent picture to work with.
     
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  8. Toomanypens
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    Toomanypens Member

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    I am modular with all scene and character descriptons, meaning, I do a little package that describes them and just insert it, or a little package of a scene and insert that. That helps me minimise fussing but also ensures a person can visualise them clearly.
    Its not terribly hard to insert after the first draft is done imho.
     
  9. karldots92
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    karldots92 Active Member

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    I think it's important for readers to be able to visualise the characters but it takes away from the action if its a list of traits of the characters. It should be included as part of the narrative as some of the previous comments indicated. It makes for better writing when its weaved into the story rather than "looking in a mirror" as someone stated before
     
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  10. R.P. Kraul
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    R.P. Kraul Member

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    A little description goes a long way--and it's really easy to get excessive. I would say if you're going to do it, do it early. It's disappointing when you draw a mental picture of a character--blonde, for example--only to be told on page 89 that she's brunette. And I would caution writers against having a character gaze into the mirror for the purpose of describing her. It's self-reference of the worst kind.
     
  11. ToeKneeBlack
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    ToeKneeBlack Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't know if I'm doing this right or not, but I put pieces of the character descriptions into different chapters the story to allow the reader to build a mental image of them slowly.

    One example is of my main character, who is made fun of by her co-adopted brother for being "Chinese" in the prologue (even though her parents are from the UK and Japan), then in chapter one it states that she wears her black hair in a pony tail, and so on. This doesn't happen in every chapter though.
     
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  12. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I try to avoid it.

    I read once that giving descriptions (unless the story absolutely depends on it*) can hamper the reader's imagination, force them to see someone differently than they've already pictured them.

    *If someone has a disfigurement or unusual feature that plays a part in how the story turns (or turns out) it's gotta be described.

    Conversely, if someone is 100% average or "normal" (whatever that might be) and it's unexpected, that too should be described.
     
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  13. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I grew up reading the Babysitter's Club with all those wonderful outfit descriptions that lavished attention on make up and hairstyles and color. For a long time I did the same. All my heroines had long lemon-blonde hair, and sea green eyes, and perfect figures. Daryl Hannah fixation. Lol. It was a hard habit to break so occasionally I create a character that I can let loose and really describe - down to painted toenails.

    But for the most part I don't find description all that important. Whether or not a character has gold hair or brown hair is of little consequence. Behavior is more important. But if I can make it do double duty, let a description foreshadow or symbolically link to behavior - stubborn jaw, wild unruly hair - then I go for it.
     
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  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think you should avoid describing your characters' outward appearance, although it's perfectly fine not to, if that's your style. However, we don't shy away from describing other things (preferably via another character's POV) so why leave out the people?

    What I think does not work well is when an author steps outside the story to dump a laundry list of characteristics on the reader. He was tall, with black hair and blue eyes, lots of muscles and a gorgeous smile. Or conversely, he was tall with black scraggly hair, bloodshot eyes, not very muscular and yellow teeth.

    It always works best when somebody's physical appearance is relayed to the reader by how it impacts on other people. But I'd say don't be afraid to put them in.

    I go with what @Tenderiser said, regarding getting the descriptive bits in fairly early on, though. It's true that if they come later, and they are radically different from what the reader had been picturing, that can be annoying and disconcerting.

    However ...I started my story with a mirror!
    :eek:

    Not the usual 'waking in the morning and studying my face' kind of thing. Instead, it's the first time identical twin brothers (young children) have ever seen their faces in a mirror before, and they realise they can't tell each other apart. That's very important to the opening scene. I did keep the actual description very minimal, though.

    Józsi saw two heads, each with sun-browned skin and a tangled mop of black hair. Both were staring back at him out of wary black eyes. Both heads looked exactly like Jenő.

    The scene wasn't there so much to show readers what the twins looked like (although I didn't think a little description would hurt), but rather to depict the boys seeing their own images for the first time—and being unable to tell which of them was which.
     
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2016
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  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    People are highly influenced by one another's appearance, and one of the things that I care most about is character interaction, so I need a tiny bit of description. But a tiny bit is usually enough.
     
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  16. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't care to read them or write them. It doesn't matter how the author describes it anyway because I can never visualise characters, not even my own. The most vivid characters, to me, are not the ones with loads of tiny details - the vivid ones are the ones I can feel, whom I find believable.

    I only ever get a strong feeling for characters - like, if I asked you to describe your best friend, your sister, someone you know well, how would you do it? You can't ever describe them - not to any degree of accuracy that they deserve. But you do have a feeling, a very strong one, about that person. It's that feeling I get when I encounter characters, either in books I'm reading or ones I'm writing.

    So when I write any character "description", I don't go all brown hair ripped jeans 6 foot tall blah. I try to recreate that feeling I have instead.

    A poet whose reading I went to put it well once. He was talking about poetry and he said, "I would never write, 'He was 6 foot tall'. That's boring. I'd rather write 'He was a 5 o'clock shadow.'" I'm the same - I far prefer the five o'clock shadow because now I see a long, slim, dark shadow, faceless, mysterious, and tall. Stick-like tall. I'm imagining an image I saw as a child, to be honest, the anime series based on an - American? - classic called Daddy Long Legs.

    Whereas 6 foot tall? I have no image for that when I read it, so it does nothing for me.
     
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  17. HistoricalScience
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    HistoricalScience Active Member

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    I add small descriptions just to give the reader an outline that they could fill in the details with on their own. As a reader, sometimes I feel a little lost when not a single character description is included. I have no starting point, perhaps the character's actions and dialect give me some idea but as a reader I appreciate at least something I can work with.
     
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  18. Lew
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    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    I did very little description of the characters in my WIP

    The Arab pirate is in his sixties, face pockmarked, salt and pepper bread, about 6 feet tall, thin and muscular.

    The Roman officer is about 5' 10, muscular, brown hair; think quarterback

    The centurion is the same high height, but hairy, very broad shoulders, huge biceps and thighs: think fullback.

    The Chinese girl is 5' 2 or so, slender, Chinese features but with blue eyes from her Roman ancestor. Pert nipples and small breasts... married to the centurion, this had to come up!

    The Xiongnu warrior woman is about six foot, red-haired, green eyed, fierce demeanor, good-sized breasts... married to Galosga, so this also had to come up.

    Galosga is copper skinned, about six feet tall, hairless face, bronze skinned, very muscular, straight black hair worn in a top knot. Biggest man of the group after centurion. Pressed into service as deck hand by ship somewhere far to the west (stranded or exploring by intent, unknown) and brought back to Cadiz, Spain and ultimately taken on as deckhand in Alexandria on the Europa going to China. The reader has to figure out where he is from... he does not know where home is, other than "Etowah" and none of the other characters know either.

    This is about all my physical descriptions, and very little given at any time, but all the readers claim to visualize the characters vividly, perhaps because each sees them in their own interpretation.
     
  19. Lew
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    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    Like Mckk noted, I didn't SAY six feet, etc. "Very tall" or "Short" etc. sufficed. Likewise weight: they didn't have scales, and wouldn't have used the term: The Xiongnu woman is powerful muscled fighting woman, well armed, implying she is powerfully heavy (150 lbs?) but none of it fat, the Chinese girl is slender, but as she learns to fight under the Xiongnu woman, she too becomes muscled, but it is more tautness.
     
  20. Wolfmaster1234
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    Wolfmaster1234 Member

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    I would say physical description isn't massively important but giving your character... Well, character is. It perfectly fine being left to imagine how the character looks but what is more important is making sure you develop the characters personality even without the appearance to go without. So just give the finest bit of a hint appearance wise and put most of your effort into personality rather than appearance.
     
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  21. Fighting Kentuckian
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    Fighting Kentuckian New Member

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    I like to give my character a general physical description cause I know what they look like & want people to have that image.
    But I always remember being taught don't give descriptions to ham-handedly. Instead of saying, "He was a hefty man with a ratty brown beard." and giving us a big exposition dumb, weave them in along the lines of, "The man ran his fat fingers through his brown beard with some effort." That was just on the spot, but you get the drift.
     
  22. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    While I do like to sneak descriptions in, I don't like the "insert an adjective" method of sneaking, because IMO it's too detectable--I think that the reader knows that they're being handed a description, and they know that it's trying to sneak in. There's a sort of "gotcha!" distraction with that realization.

    I'd rather see a flat-out description

    He was massive; even his fingers were extra-large, and his hair and beard reminded me of a brown bear.

    or one that's even sneakier than the inserted adjectives, even if it leaves some ambiguity

    Joe was a big brown bear of a man.

    or one that has an excuse for existence beyond description

    No one ever guessed that they were brothers. Joe was the classic lumberjack type, down to the dungarees and plaid. His hair was brown, hacked short perhaps four times a year, but no one ever touched the beard. Platinum-haired Paul, on the other hand, got a trim once a week, and spent more on his city-suit wardrobe than on his share of the mortgage. Paul's friends assumed that Joe was the handyman; Joe's friends didn't know what to think.

    Usually, they got along just fine. But not this week. (Story commences...)
     
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  23. appledotte
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    appledotte Member

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    I definitely relate to this. I feel that so long as my characters have a distinct vibe to them then everything else is just the icing on the cake: pretty and maybe enjoyable but utterly useless without what's underneath. I don't even need to know a character's backstory so long as I have a sense for them.
     
  24. appledotte
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    appledotte Member

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    Yeah, for me unless their appearance seriously impacts how they interact with the world or how others interact with them then it's not particularly important.
     
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  25. appledotte
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    appledotte Member

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    I like the idea of this and try to do this periodically as well depending on my current project. For example I don't think about the length or color of my own hair very often, but I will think of how I am wearing it.
     
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