1. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Lack of physical description

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by deadrats, Sep 29, 2016.

    I struggle when it comes to the physical description of characters. Or maybe I struggle with the idea of feeling it's needed. I am more likely to describe the look on a character's face than his/her actual face. I just don't see a need for it while I'm writing. I can go back and add it in, but I just never seem to find a natural place for this sort of thing while I'm doing the actual writing of something. And even then, I don't ever seem to know when it's really needed and when it's not. This drives me a little crazy. How do you decide if a character's physical description is necessary for a story? I don't think it's always needed, but I don't really trust myself to recognize when it would strengthen the writing and the story. I would love to hear from you guys on this. Does it really matter what a character looks like?
     
  2. TheWriteWitch
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    TheWriteWitch Senior Member

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    Elmore Leonard's rules of writing:

    #8 - Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    #9 - Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

    I like his confidence that a good story will form in the reader's mind and the author doesn't have to control every detail. Trust the reader and think about what they would find interesting.
     
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  3. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've never read Pride and Prejudice, but the instructor of a Great Course on writing mentions Elizabeth Bennet as a famous literary character who is not physically described at all in the story (in diametric opposition to someone like Sam Spade).

    If you have a detail that's incredibly important, then try to make it plot relevant as soon as possible – my UrbanFantasy villain protagonist's clean getaway from a bank robbery depends partly on his average height, average weight, and the fact that white guys are the majority in Virginia – before the reader has a chance to come up with (and commit to) something else, but that's about it.
     
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  4. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    There've been so many threads about this. Not saying your concern is overdone, just that it is at least one a lot of people share, if that's at all comforting.

    If it doesn't feel natural to include it, I'd say that more likely than not your writing doesn't need it. Does a character's appearance actually effect the plot? IE does it matter that they're exceptionally beautiful, or hideous, or unusual-looking in some way that propels the plot (looks significantly different from their family so they suspect they're adopted, have odd fashion sense that results in degrees of social ostracization)? If not, then in my book it's not strictly needed.

    Personally though, I have vivid mental images of most of my characters, so I like describing them. I think my descriptions are pretty decent, so it's good for the story overall even if it's not necessary - it's an added perk. But if you don't like descriptions or just don't think they're adding anything, why have them?
     
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  5. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    it seems to me that this is a style issue more than anything else. It has been done both ways (acute description and no description) successfully. What I've noticed is that contemporary writing has been moving away from much in the way of character description. There's also something to be said for what kind of narrative you're putting together. If the looks of the main character are important, include them. If their looks are not important, I see no need for it unless you are going for a particular style, which is totally valid.

    I'll contrast @izzybot 's post by saying that I do not usually have a strong mental image of what my characters look like. Sure, I throw in a rogue descriptor here and there when it's relevant, but usually, I stay away from it. And that might be that most of what I write is first person. Although the last three stories I wrote were third, and I've done very little in the way of describing the characters. And the descriptions that I do use are usually sensory details to add realism to my story so they are for a purpose rather than description for the sake of description.
     
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  6. TheWriteWitch
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    TheWriteWitch Senior Member

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    I agree about it being a style issue. I prefer a more hard-boiled style of description and yet I'm currently ghostwriting in romance where detailed description is practically mandatory. How do your favorite writers handle descriptions?
     
  7. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I include hardly any description, either of settings and characters, because I don't like to read it. I've had one or two readers who wanted to be spoon-fed descriptions, but the vast majority don't even notice--humans are generally very good at filling in the blanks.

    I write romance and have maybe one or two sentences about each character's appearance. It's definitely not mandatory!
     
  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The only thing I object to is producing a 'shopping list' of description. In other words, listing most of the character's physical features as an 'aside' to the story, rather than something important within the story.

    Other than that, I don't really care. I like forming a picture of a character when I'm reading and/or writing. If the author helps me a bit, that's fine. If not, that's fine as well, as long as the picture forms. I've always maintained this is best done through the eyes of another character. A character looks at a person, and reacts to what he/she sees. They can be repelled by some physical feature (yellow teeth) or attracted by a physical feature (unblemished skin) or reminded of somebody else (Aunt Frieda wore her glasses halfway down her nose so she could glare at us over the top of them, exactly as Grannie used to do.)
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2016
  9. Crybaby
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    Crybaby Contributing Member

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    I agree, romance does not make it mandatory. Less is more for me unless desciption is crucial to the plot. Colour of hair and eyes is as far as I'll go, I'd rather the reader create their own image. This way they buy into the character more, if that makes sense? From experience, when reading a good book sometimes too much description can ruin it a little. Every person has their own idea of what they class as an attractive man or woman. To be able to use your imagination whilst reading a book is more enjoyable. In my opinion. :supersmile:
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2016
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  10. Scot
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    Scot Active Member

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    I tend to restrict physical descriptions to one or two defining traits. Left handedness, weather beaten, eye or hair colour, etc. Overdo it and I believe you can inhibit the reader from identifying with the character. eg. Short, fat, balding, middle-aged man thinking of himself as the MC who's tall and fit, with long wavy locks and muscles like Mike Tyson.
     
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  11. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is the approach I like: hone in on a couple of details and let me (the reader) fill in the rest for myself.
     
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  12. Anna100
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    Anna100 Member

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    I would find it difficult to describe a character in detail (especially the face) because in my head I'm not entirely sure how they look like. Characters can be a bit vague to me. But if there is a specific feature that stands out about this character, I might include it. In general, I don't write much physical description. But as the others have mentioned, it's a preference thing.
     
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  13. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    No hard and fast rule here, I'm afraid. I've grown more confident when it comes to character descriptions simply through reading a lot. If I see a description I like, I tend to go for that style myself, though not always -- David Grossman's descriptions are beautiful in To the End of the Land, but I have neither the skill nor the confidence to describe my characters as lavishly as he does. I usually approach it through the character: how would this character see this other character? I try to keep it short and sweet, and rarely describe anybody's face in detail, although it kind of depends on the face and the POV character...

    So yeah, don't worry about it if you don't describe much: your readers will imagine something in any case.
     
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  14. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Unless you're like me, and everybody in my head is just a vague blurry human-shape. I can't even picture people I know very clearly. But I'm the same whether I'm given a 23-page laundry list of a character or nothing. :D The only way I can picture a character is if there's a photo or drawing on the book cover. Which is also dangerous because they often don't match the book descriptions...
     
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  15. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    A vague blurry human-shape is something. :D

    I'm the same, though. I need cover pictures or else all faces are out of focus.
     
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  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I dislike detailed character descriptions as a reader @deadrats. In most cases it doesn't matter. If certain details impact the story, then provide them.
     
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  17. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    I tend to be fairly sparing in description, I certainly don't want to go down the router of giving height, weight, eye and hair for each character... the closest i come for a description of blade (my Male MC) is when the female MC is called to have a one one with him

    " Keri sized Blade up as she waited for him to speak , up close he wasn't a big guy , not like Fowler who was built like the proverbial shithouse , but he was all corded muscle and scar tissue, with the only fat in him being the disgusting burger from lunch"
     
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Elmore Leonard's methods and preferences are just one of many different approaches to writing.

    I enjoy rich detail, and find it adds to my immersion in a story if it is depicted well. I wouldn't enjoy a film very much if it was shot exclusively in a bare room with one window and one light bulb, and the dialogue was spoken by people with bags over their heads. I'm not fond of stories written in the same mode. I've never been engaged with any of Elmore Leonard's stories I've attempted to read.

    It's all down to preference, really. Leonard is a well-respected author, but so are many others who do employ rich descriptions—whom I prefer. Every approach can work, but every approach won't satisfy every reader. Just do what feels right to you, create the kind of stuff you like to read yourself, and you'll probably be fine. :)
     
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  19. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think this is going to have a different answer for every character and story. In my case I do use them but I try to phrase them artfully, avoid info dumps, and keep in mind how the POV character thinks rather than how I think. And I have to acknowledge that nobody reading the book is going to see the same movie in their head that I see in mine - so if I'm describing a character's looks, it's really a matter of what details are important to set an image that approximates what they need to see for the story to work. With my main character when you first meet her, that means they need to know she's short in stature, has short black hair, and dresses tastefully but not ostentatiously - but you learn more about her from the fact of what she's doing at the time (waiting for her monthly download of all her nerdy TV shows at a kiosk in a coffee shop while she picks up coffee for all the other reporters at her TV station - where she is the most junior.) On the other hand, her fashionista co-protag portrays herself through her fashion choices needs a lot more up front - that character has glow in the dark blue hair, wears crazy clothes with glowing accents, usually is wearing weird colors of lipstick and generally presents a radical visual disconnect from the rest of the cast. So, her I have to describe - but really I never go much into her actual looks other than to point out that she has brown skin, because she's Indian-American and it's important for me to point out that she can't white-pass (which some Indian Americans can). Other than that I don't really describe her - although I do need to point out that she's taller and "prettier" than the protagonist according to Western beauty standards - only because that plays into the story.

    But really it's a matter of what details are relevant - with the protag I don't need a lot of details and the details I do need are mostly physical (short, dark hair). With the co-protag I do need a lot of detail but the details I need are mostly clothes.
     
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  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I have actually deliberately gone through vast collections of pictures until I recognise my characters! I have a few pictures of them on my corkboard above my computer just now. There is that moment of omigod, that's HER. I love it! It would drive me nuts if my story got made into a movie and the casting was ...just ...wrong. :eek: Fortunately for my sanity, that's unlikely to be happening any time soon.
     
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  21. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    The thing I don't like about it is that I form a fairly solid mental image of a character almost immediately upon that character being introduced. I'll latch onto the first couple of descriptors if they're significant, and my mind does the rest. Detailed descriptions then end up pulling me out of the story because they conflict with what I am already envisioning in my head, and they never end up changing the vision in my head they just present a hurdle to immersion. That's just how I read; others will read differently of course.
     
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  22. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually I can assume that this movie would probably be quite gory and rich in visceral detail - all the reasons I can think of that they would be in a bare room with bags over their heads don't end well. :)
     
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  23. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I've started doing that too; searching Google images until I find one.

    I think casting people have a really hard challenge. Sometimes they're very faithful to appearance at the expense of acting ability (coughHarryPottercough) and sometimes they go for acting ability/celebrity at the expense of appearance (Jack Reacher, IIRC?) It must be really hard to please both movie-goers AND fans of the book.
     
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  24. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    The casting of Jack Reacher was asinine. There's no other word I can think to describe it more accurately.
     
  25. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll actually commission art of my characters so that I can see their faces. I get strong visuals in my head of everything but faces, and I love the moment I get a drawing back and finally get to see the face that's been blurred out a bit in my mental image.
     

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