1. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    Is it necessary to describe my characters' hair colour if all have black hair?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Drusilla, Dec 20, 2012.

    I'm writing about a fictional human ethnicity where everybody have black hair. I like to describe how my characters look, but the problem is that they may look very similar when it comes to facial shape, nose shape and (especially) hair colour. It is a very homogenous group.

    When doing multiple descriptions of the looks of characters, is it necessary to describe individually that they all have black hair when it is a well-known fact that "all people in that country have black hair"? Is it enough to describe that "all people in that country have black hair" once for the readers to understand it?
     
  2. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    You don't have to describe anything you don't want to, it's your choice. So if you think it's unnecessary (and I agree it doesn't need to be repeated for everyone, if it's clearly stated beforehand), don't worry about it.
     
  3. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    Yeah....... The thing is that virtually everyone will have straight, black hair. In some individual cases, I might point it out if there is something more to their hair than it being black. For example: "The sunlight was shining on her waist-length black hair, almost making it appear blue". But I feel it would be tedious and unnatural to repeat over and over again every time I introduce a new character that "character X had black hair" and "character Y had black hair".

    I want to clearly state beforehand that all people of that ethnicity have black hair. How should I clearly state it? Is it enough to mention it once for the readers to remember it?
    What about facial features that are typical to that group of people?
     
  4. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Does their hair colour have some significance for the story? If not, why even mention it? The bottom line is, whether your readers remember your people as having black hair or not is, frankly, irrelevant.

    So sure, describe it once and like you say, you can occasionally highlight the hair if there's some significance to it (say, some romance where the characters are admiring each other), but otherwise, why worry about it?

    I had a similar problem. For some reason, I really wanted my readers to know that my character Silas was wearing a red robe, Kai a green one, Ravenna an amber one and Arlia a blue one. Like, I really REALLY wanted my readers to remember this and I was putting in their robe colour left right and centre. And in the end I asked my friend, "Does it matter if Silas is wearing a red robe really?"

    The answer? "No."

    So he's still in his red robe, but I don't go dropping in the colour of it everywhere now lol.
     
  5. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    You know, all this is individual. I can enjoy a story without knowing the appearance of the characters at all (assuming they are human; I'd like to know a bit more about any aliens or fantasy creatures and such), so mentioning it once would be enough for me. No idea what people who prefer long description would like to read.
     
  6. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you want readers to know the homogenous looks, describe one character using a simple phrase such as "Like all [the group], she had the straight black hair and..." and then let it go. Since all the people have the same basic looks, there's no need to describe any of them - you'll have to make the characters individual via characterization, not description. (And what wonderful reading it would be if all writers could learn to do that)
     
  7. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    What do you mean with the same "basic looks"? All individuals are unique, although they share the same hair colour and some similar facial traits. But they don't all look the same.

    I disagree with you about not describing any of them. Although the ethnicity has some "common traits", the characters have different eye colours, eye shapes, lips etc. Why shouldn't I describe them? I am a person who loves details and I couldn't dream about not describing what my characters look like!
     
  8. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    What you originally said was "they may look very similar when it comes to facial shape, nose shape and (especially) hair colour. It is a very homogenous group."

    I'm one of those readers who prefers to see the characters through my own eyes. If I start reading descriptions, my eyes glaze and I skip it, especially if they get that detailed.

    Descriptions (of anything) should have a purpose within the story, and not just be the author trying to dictate to the reader or indulging themselves. I've found very few instances where the characters' looks matter one whit to the story. Readers don't remember eye color - they remember what the character said or did.
     
  9. Ian J.
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    Ian J. Active Member

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    I have a general rule of thumb: 'mention it once, don't repeat'. The only exception I can think of would be a repeat where a change to the thing described is going to occur. If your character chooses to colour her hair, then repeating that it's black before becoming blonde might read better in whatever circumstance that might occur.

    In the specific case in the OP, I'd generalize first, then only mention differences. So "The sunlight was shining on her waist-length black hair, almost making it appear blue" would become "The sunlight shone on her waist-length hair, making it appear almost blue". But you'd only ever use that description once.

    As for using some level of description on a general level, I look inside my mind's eye and imagine how the scene might look if filmed for a movie. I think 'What are the key things that would stand out?' and allow those through. Details that don't give a good indication of character, story or atmosphere get ignored even though in a film they'd obviously be in shot.
     
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  10. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Generally, I think it's better to let readers imagine how the characters look, although you could occasionally slip in something like "small streaks of grey were beginning to run through his jet-black hair. I don't know why I hadn't noticed before, but I was suddenly reminded he was getting older." It may be different in your story, since it's a non-reality based race, but I think overall it is better for readers to imagine.

    I read a story based in Sweden. All of the characters were Swedish. But there was one character who, for some reason that I can't fathom, I kept picturing as looking like a particular Iranian actress I've seen. I don't know why I kept picturing this actress, since the character was Swedish, and there was no indication that she would look anything like this actress, and it would make no sense whatsoever for the character to look like this actress I kept picturing. So, even though I pictured this character as looking very different from how she must have appeared to the author, it didn't take away from the essence of the character of from the story.

    How many times have you seen a movie that was based on a book you've read and thought, "That's not what that character looks like!"

    Also, even if you do describe something, readers might not get it, especially if it doesn't comport with their expectations. A recent example is The Hunger Games. In the book, there are two characters who are black. When I read the book, I thought it was made pretty clear. But apparently, a lot of readers either rejected this, or since it didn't fit in with what they expected, just didn't take in that information, because when the movie came out, there were a lot of people who caused an outcry about these characters being black.
     
  11. mg357
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    mg357 Active Member

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    I suggest that the character should be describled but in very small details don't go overboard.
     
  12. Ian J.
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    Ian J. Active Member

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    chicagoliz has highlighted something that is an issue I've come up against: reader baggage. That is, what understanding a reader brings to a story that they read such that it inflects their understanding, normally incorrectly.

    To illustrate, I'm working on a series of novels that aren't set on Earth, and don't have humans as the sentient race (though they are human-like). The facts that they aren't human and aren't on Earth are actually quite important in the grand scheme of things, but it's not something I want to have to outright state at the beginning of every novel. So, as readers start to read, it's either something that they know already from other information before they start reading, or it's something that can be implied from the story. But there will always be readers who bring the baggage of believing that all characters are human until spoon-fed otherwise, and they find it very difficult to adjust their view as the story unfolds. Fighting that baggage can be very annoying.
     
  13. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    Well, similar does not mean identical. Even if they have some similar features, a person can have eyes or a mouth that stands out from the crowd.


    We can agree to disagree about the descriptions. I am a reader who loves details. If the author writes that "Marcus has red hair", it is how he/she pictures him. I like to know how the author pictures the character. After all, the author is the person who created the character. Why shouldn't he/she share the character's looks with us readers? And the author is not trying to dictate the reader, after my opinion. The author is trying to tell a story.


    I would not feel comfortable with not sharing the characters' looks with the readers. I sometimes feel that writing is like "painting/drawing with words". I want to deliver exactly what I see inside my head. I see the fictional characters, landscapes, houses, rooms, clothes etc extremely clearly inside my head (like a movie) and I want to share that with my (future) readers.
     
  14. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    What happens if you describe a character, intending them to be beautiful - and the reader finds people with those attributes to be ugly, or at least, not attractive? Then you create dissonance for the reader. I've run into that, particular when reading romances. I think that may be where I got into the habit of skipping descriptions, actually.
     
  15. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I never describe my characters as "being beautiful", unless, of course, other characters are referring to them as such in their speech (but that rarely happens anyway). I will never describe a character looking beautiful or ugly. I will only describe the physical attributes: how tall that character is, what kind of facial features that character has, hair colour, eye colour, if that character has got freckles etc. What is wrong with describing what the characters look like?

    I cannot remember having intended for characters to be beautiful or ugly. I think that is up to the readers to define, since I believe beauty is up to interpretation. I believe that the "beautiful vs. ugly" thing is a social construction, while things such as freckles, red hair or almond-shaped eyes are not.
     
  16. Cerebral
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    Cerebral Active Member

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    Some unnecessary descriptions may piss a reader off. For example, when reading "Atlas Shrugged," I was completely put off by the author having all of the good, powerful, self-absorbed characters have this very same attribute (stated explicitly): tall. The "bad guys," or the people running charities or people who were not rich and powerful were either "short" or "not tall." As a man under 6 feet, that pissed me the hell off.

    I agree with this. Especially if they're a homogeneous group...unless there's a specific reason for them to have that specific quality, I'd just generalize. Otherwise readers might think that you attribute all the qualities you ascribe to your characters to black hair (and whatever else) and might get personally offended like I did. :mad:
     
  17. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    I apologize if I offended you. I never intended to offend anyone.
     
  18. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    of course it is... that said, if some have a different 'quality' evident in their hair, such as a sheen, or being dull and lifeless, or wavy vs straight, that can add to the readers knowledge and visualization of the character... as can the way each character arranges their tresses...

    so, give as much description as you think is needed, short of repeating 'black' all over the place...

    love and hugs, maia
     
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  19. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    You don't have to state outright that they're beautiful. But if the romantic interest is described in a way that readers find less than attractive, that's where the dissonance comes in.

    Give the reader some 'input' and involvement in the story. Let them see the characters how they want to see them, unless there's a definite reason why the story will go awry otherwise.
     
  20. Cerebral
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    Cerebral Active Member

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    You didn't offend me at all...Ayn Rand did!
     
  21. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    Ah. I see.
     

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