1. grimmsistr
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    grimmsistr Member

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    How thoroughly do you discribe a characters physical appearance?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by grimmsistr, May 25, 2014.

    Do you go into a lot of detail, at first glance, or wait for later on in the story with going for a thorough discription, maybe just starting of with a kind of siluette look at the character at first glance?

    How detailed a discription do you like to get from a readers point of view?

    .............
    Here is my first physical discription of a main character in a story Im writing. Its mixed a bit with some Family history too and other stuff, but its only the physical appearance bit Im wondering about.. do I need more detail in this paragraph, later on, or isnt it necessary at all?:

    Nelle looked most like her father, with her dark brown, almost black hair and deep brown eyes. Her father, he was of the Avonnian people and his family had always lived in this part of Ava's forest. But Nelles mother Kor, she came from the Camerro a different part of the land over a 100 miles away from here.
    Nelle looked nothing like her mother, who had a lot lighter skin than Nelle and her father, she had dark aurburn hair, green eyes and in the summer the sunlight sprayed freckles all over her body, Carra took after their mother.
    Carra had a long braid down her back, reaching all the way to her waist. Nelle envied her that, because her hair was always cut when it reached her shoulders. Her mother told her she looked so sweet with her hair like that, but Nelle didn’t want to look sweet, she wanted to look beautiful like her sister.
     
  2. Xueqin-II
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    Xueqin-II Member

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    I generally don't at all. I remark about the boots and the long hair, that's about it.
     
  3. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    There's a lot of yes/no when it comes to character description.
    The real issue with them is that new writers tend to break narrative but switching to a factual report and they over-detail.

    Your descriptions seems fine to me. I wouldn't be appalled for reading it in a book.

    Some authors write lots of physical details, some infer it, some pretty much omit it, some have none.
    Neither is wrong, it's just preference and how smoothly it can be integrated.
     
  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Depends on the story. In one of my recent shorts my 10 year old mc - Tetty is only described as having a tattered pinafore, black stockings and wildhair. At one point I think I mention her eyes are blue when she notices someone as having similar eyes - but for me details on looks are only as necessary if they can deliver or reinforce impressions, reveal character rather than just show character. In a novel I went to great lengths to describe a man because he'd transformed from filthy to beautiful. So I look to see always whether a reader knowing the mc or characters looks serve a purpose.

    I thought your example was fine. The only thing I'd wonder about it is whether Nelle puts all her stock into envying her sister's hair length or does she also envy the lighter skin which isn't really addressed. Maybe it shouldn't be, but as a reader it made me curious.
     
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  5. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Only as much as necessary.
     
  6. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If it's an important character, I usually describe them quite a bit, but almost always in bits and pieces as the story progresses. First I give the bare essentials (e.g. the character's sex, perhaps hint at their age) and then dribble further details as we go along.

    I also try to combine the descriptions with action. For instance, if a character is very muscular, I might let the reader know about it by mentioning how difficult it was for the character to fit through a narrow space because of their muscular build, something like that.

    In the beginning, I also mention the stuff that sets the character apart from the "norm" if it's something that stands out in a crowd. For instance, in my and @KaTrian's current WIP, my MC has fairly exceptional looks: she's tall for a woman (6 feet) and very muscular yet with low body fat (and with her short hair, she looks like an athletic man from behind), so I mention those details early on so the reader doesn't think she's some small, scrawny wisp of a girl and then wonder how come she's able to drag a 200lbs guy out of a building filled with OC and smoke during an exercise at boot camp.
     
  7. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I tend to switch POVs from chapter to chapter, so one of my favorite ways to distinguish between characters is to have them describe each other in different levels of detail:

    Character 1 primarily looks at people's fashions and notices a lot of detail (1 wears X shirt, Y hair, and Z shoes; 2 wears A trousers, B hat, and C jacket; 3 wears H dress, I make-up, J heels...)
    Character 2 doesn't normally notice very much (1 is 1, 2 is 2, 3 is 3…)
    Character 3 primarily looks at people's body language and notices general impressions (1 looks calm and composed; 2 looks both playful and aggressive; 3 feels tense and overly paranoid)
     
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  8. Kekec
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    Kekec Member

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    I used to put a lot of effort into describing my characters. But as I kept reading other works, I found out that dropping a detailed description at once is a bad idea. From a reader's perspective, it takes too much time to read through and visualize the descriptions, and more often than not, readers forget how your characters look like further in the book. Thus the best formula I could realize was to describe certain peculiarities (a mole, a smile, a frown, gesticulations, etc) and to repeat them at certain points in a work. Ultimately, readers will conjure their own vision of a character, no matter how hard you try to describe them.
     
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  9. pirate1802
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    pirate1802 Member

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    I tend to not dump all the info in a single place and space it out, and even then just what's absolutely necessary. Like one of MC steps out of a taxi, she is tall and extremely thin, in her late twenties. A few pages later she is staring at someone with her emerald eyes. Later on she might scratch the scar down her right cheek, and so on..
     
  10. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    For me, your paragraph felt strongly like infodump. I understand you tried to sandwich in some family history and character emotion, like how Nellie didn't like her hair, but it didn't feel like the description complimented the character and history. On the other hand, it felt very much like you wrote a description, forgot it had to be relevant to the story, and promptly tried to salvage it by injecting one or two sentences to justify why you've put such a lengthy description in there.

    That's not to say you cannot have a lengthy physical appearance description in there, but the way you've done it is clumsy, in my opinion. Especially because nothing that you've mentioned is particularly distinctive. The only detail that's necessary is how Nellie's hair is cut short and she wants to be beautiful like her sister. Everything else can be deleted - because it is her short hair that defines her. Who cares about everything else?

    Now, as to your question - well, personally I hate physical descriptions (and yes, that's definitely gonna colour the way I interpreted your description lol). I cannot for the life of me imagine a character's appearance regardless - I can't even see my own characters lol. Lengthy descriptions just put me off because they mean nothing - I cannot see it even if you would spell everything out down to the very last detail, and I'd promptly forget it all by the next paragraph, I assure you.

    For me, it is much more effective to inject some unique trademark of the character at opportune moments, the way they flick their hair, a hooked nose, a quivering lip, sturdy boots, a scar, or something like that. It's a lot more effective to give me a feeling for the character, and for that, poetic prose is the most effective. And poetry does not spell out every detail - poetry paints things in broad, beautiful strokes that gives you a deep impression of something with all its colours. That, for me, breathes more life into a character than a detailed list ever could.

    PS. Another advantage of not doing a list but rather only mentioning the defining features of the character is this - that the reader actually remembers the important aspects of the character rather than the important aspect being drowned out.
     
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  11. Storysmith
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    Storysmith Member

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    I'm not a fan of lots of character description - only what's important to the plot. Somebody being muscular or beautiful may well matter, but things like eye colour rarely do. If you're trying to help the reader picture a character, bear in mind that they won't remember more than the salient features a few pages later.

    Also, I wouldn't recommend putting in more description once a character has been introduced. If I'm picturing somebody with long hair for a few chapters, then read that they have short hair, I'm forced to either ignore the new description, or ret-con the change into my imagination.
     
  12. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I put in only descriptions which are necessary (like character size if involved in a fight scene with someone larger/smaller, for example). I skip reading character descriptions because I like to decide for myself - therefore, I'm willing to let my readers do the same.
     
  13. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Oh yeah, I forgot to comment on the example. It came off a little infodump-y to me as well. It would be easier to digest if all that stuff was presented via action, dialogue etc.

    In the case of my MC, if I wanted to let the reader know what kind of hair she has, another character might crack a joke about Swedish blondes (she's Swedish and blonde), or during hand-to-hand training, her training partner might grab her short hair, or I mention she cut it short before boot camp so that it wouldn't get in her eyes during sparring/shooting/obstacle courses.


    I think it depends on what kind of details you deliver later on. For instance, in Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, you have this Aragorn-type hunk on the cover, so naturally many readers think that's how Logen looks, but then, something like halfway through the book or close to the end it's mentioned Logen is actually fugly as hell and looks nothing like the gruff but handsome dude on the cover.
    That''s a tad annoying since it changes how you see the character in your head, how you've pictured him for over a hundred pages if not a few hundred.

    I don't usually make huge revelations about a character's looks late in the story, so I do inject most of the looks-related details early on, but not in one paragraph or even on the same page/in the same scene/chapter.

    For example, I might provide the bare bones in the very beginning, and in the next chapter, when the character undresses for shower, I could mention that another character asks about her tattoo in the locker room.

    Or if the character's looks change over the course of the story, I could show her wondering why her period is late, one of the possible symptoms of having too little body fat. I might also have another character remark on how her sixpack has turned into an eight-pack when she has lost weight/body fat and express their concern for her health.

    At least I prefer that sort of description over just telling she had lost weight, but again, that's just a way, not the way.
     
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  14. Macaberz
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    Macaberz Pay it forward Contributor

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    There's a simply brilliant post on character appearance here, it's well worth the read @grimmsistr: http://thebookshelfmuse.blogspot.nl/2010/04/writers-bane-describing-characters.html

    I believe Charles Dickens is a master at capturing characters in a few words, mostly through their faults and habits. He hardly ever goes into appearance as he doesn't need to because he can relay the character, the nature, of the person to us so well.

    Here:

    He was, altogether, as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.

    Or:

    He had a very full under-lip, a hoarse voice, as though he were in the habit of shouting very much, and very short black hair, shaved off nearly to the crown of his head — to admit of his more easily wearing character wigs of any shape or pattern.
     
    Last edited: May 26, 2014
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    In the original sample, I would suggest shifting the focus just a little. I see it as "Here's the description, and, oh, by the way, here's some family history." I would shift it to, "Here's how the character feels about herself based on her family history and, oh, by the way, here's some description." I'd like to see every piece of description belong there for other than a description reason. (That is, how she identifies with her father because she looks like him, how she feels like she's cast as the "unfeminine" girl because she doesn't look like the other women in the family, that sort of thing.)

    Even then, it may be too info-dumpy. You might get part of it in as part of a plot-driving argument with her mother, followed by a supportive conversation with her father that sort of thing.
     
  16. grimmsistr
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    grimmsistr Member

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    great ideas and examples you all have. I think alot of it does come Down to readers preference, I am a very visual person so that shows in what I write aswell, fx I also descripe the scenery a lot in this story.. But I will take the info-dumpyness into acount and see if I can make the descriptive parapraphs sound less so.
     
  17. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    I like the drip feed method too, a little bit at a time. I also like my characters to describe other characters. I have a short section where one MC is looking on a crowd for the other MC and she describes him by telling the reader that she's looking for that one man who's walk shows he's confident with his long limbs.
     
  18. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    The two writers I can think of who likes lengthy descriptions are JRR Tolkien and Lars Steig (or is it Stieg?) - the guy who wrote Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I never read LOTR because the details put me off and I have similar criticism towards Lars even though I did manage to finish his book (didn't really get what the hype is about though - it's a regular conspiracy/crime novel with some gender equality/abuse stuff thrown in).

    Anyway, maybe read their works - without a doubt they're both good writers and have charmed the masses, Tolkien especially. See how they do it :) Having lots of description isn't the problem - is how you write it and what purpose that description serves beyond just telling you how something looked.
     
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  19. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    There isn't a 100% right answer as to how much information to give and when to provide it to the reader.

    You want to give the reader enough information to allow their imagination to fill in the blanks, and create that character in their mind's eye. They'll better remember and relate to the character that way. You don't want to be too controlling.

    When and how much also depends on the situation where the character is introduced. In a stressful/active situation, clicking out of that pace to describe and give details will alter the storytelling, possibly breaking up the momentum or suspense--and for what? A reader does not need to know everything about a character, especially immediately.

    Also there are methods of direct characterization, which you're focusing on and indirect characterization, which is an even more effective way for a reader to get to know a character.

    Here is an article that I wrote back in 2006 that will give more detail with examples of direct vs. indirect characterization: Fiction Factor: Direct vs. Indirect Characterization.
     
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  20. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me, character description is a POV issue (though hell, for me everything is a POV issue, isn't it?). The POV character is not going to sit and take in the entire world around him/her. There's too much going on. He/she has an agenda, has preferences, has biases, etc. He/she is only going to notice certain things and ignore other things. So that means there's no definitive one-size-fits-all answer. It's going to depend on the POV of the piece.

    If we're in close third or first on a character who notices a lot of detail, then it makes sense to describe a lot of detail--if we're in the shoes of a spy who has to take in every little thing, for example. If we're in the shoes of a man walking the streets after losing a fight, he might be too preoccupied to notice details about the homeless person he passes by. A woman on a blind date is going to notice different things about the person sitting across from her than the woman interviewing a new prospective employee.

    Everything about the scene makes the difference--the POV, the setting, the current state of affairs, the mood, the pace of the scene, etc. It's not always going to be the same.
     
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  21. grimmsistr
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    grimmsistr Member

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    oh good ide :) thanks for that suggestion
     
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  22. GoldenFeather
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    GoldenFeather Active Member

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    I think it depends on how important the appearance is to the story. If your character is a redhead and later in the story this makes them stand out from a crowd, then its important to subtly mention this a few times throughout the story so that you're characters know who you're talking about when "Suddenly, he spotted the red hair of the man he was trying to kill." You know what I mean?

    If their hair colour doesn't ever matter, then I may mention it once or not at all. Readers usually come up with a particular image of the character in their heads anyways, and half the time it goes against what the author described too. So if it's not valuable to the story, I usually give an ever-so-brief description and let the reader do the rest.
     

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