1. Sang Hee
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    Sang Hee Contributing Member

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    Mentioning the looks

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Sang Hee, Aug 7, 2010.

    How important or unimportant is it to explain how the characters look? And what is the best way to do it?
    I mostly write fiction and the characters tend to have many unusual characteristics therefore I always want to describe them as soon as possible but what is the healthy approach to it? I don't want the description to stand in the way of action. Any tips on the art of mending those two together?
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally I like a bit of description when I meet a character and then more depth added to it throughout the chapter. I like an idea of their usual dress sense, demeanour and physical.
    characteristics.

    With a short story I weave it into the story so as not to waste words.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    How important is it? Not very important at all. Many of my stories give very little character description. In Blue, none of my three characters are really described. The main character's dead wife gets more description than any of the actual characters of the story, and the nameless woman in the dream is only described by her hair color, eye color, and dress color. This was a deliberate choice, not just an accident of writing. I wanted the reader to picture the ideal dream woman as much as possible, rather than impose my own picture of her. And it wasn't to the story to know what Kyle looked like, or Glenn (in my mind, Glenn is black, but you won't find that anywhere in the story).

    However, the more characters you have, and the more story they occupy, the more important it is for the reader to have enough of a description to tell them apart easily.

    Sue Grafton's alphabet mystery series currently stands at twenty-one novels. From the first novel on, you pretty much know her main character, Kinsey Millhone, has dark hair that isn't well-coiffed, and that she has a reasonably athletic build, and she is around average height. The clearest description of her doesn't even appear until book twenty, in a chapter late in the book that is told from her adversary's POV. And yet nearly every other character is described in some detail when she first meets him or her - she's a private detective and former cop, so the first thing she does when she meets someone is to note what they look like. It is in character for her to notice.
     
  4. Anonym
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    Anonym Contributing Member

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    Depends on the characters that are percieving and being percieved. An MC chatting with his brother likely wouldn't make mental note of every aspect of his apparence, if any at all; where as, conversely, someone meeting someone else for the first time would probably notice the other's apparence more, but even then, not nearly as meticulously as some authors try to pull off.

    What do you notice when you meet someone? When you speak to someone you're overtly familiar with? What is 'natural' for you?

    To be fair, I think you could get away with describing unusual characteristics. I would notice if some dude had an eye-patch, or a distinctive scar, but likely not his eye/hair color/style, build, ect. Something like that. Hope it helps.
     
  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think description is very important unless the character has some physical characteristic that is important to the story. If he has a special feature that is startling to see, like a hook for a hand or something like that, go ahead and mention it.

    I just submitted a short story for a writing class I'm taking and I didn't describe any of the characters at all. None of the other students who have commented on it have even mentioned the lack of description, let alone thought it was a problem.

    Let people picture the characters the way they want to, as much as you can.
     
  6. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, I'm not down for a play by play in the description of the characters. Some basic items and only if they matter to the story. Other than that the whole deal with giving me a narrative version of a character bio is just another aspect of marionetting.
     
  7. Sang Hee
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    Sang Hee Contributing Member

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    Ew! Ok, I'd better watch out for that.
     
  8. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    It depends on what I'm writing. Sometimes I'll read a book that won't include any appearance description at all. If it's more of a domestic, high school story, that kindof annoys me. But if the story's chocked full of action, I don't mind so much. Other times, instead of describing appearance, the author will simply include the character's nationality through a name or the language they speak. For example, if the character owns a Korean restaurant, I assume the character possesses Asian features. Not 'cause I'm racist or anything *Shifty Glance*. It's simply common sense.

    When's I'M writing, I usually just drop details in so they mix with the narrative. Nothing too info-dumpy past the point of hair color and eye color. Just something like this:

    "I'm on it!" Alice said, batting her long, tangled eyelashes. Her doe-brown eyes gleamed with the glee of a new challenge. She sat down at the computer, preparing to crack the password.

    Of course, I try not to write anything explicitly involving hackers (so I don't experience any kind of critical research failure), but that's beside the point.

    EDIT: I totally agree with Cogito, BTW. One time, I wrote a beginning chapter including the "looking in the mirror" cop-out. Cue scathing reviews from the FictionPress community.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    What I often find intrusive is when the author leaps through hoops to make an excuse to describe a character, whether it be stopping to check her look in a mirror while contemplating her social life, or deciding if he looks presentable enough for a job interview. The author may think it's subtle and clever, but it rarely is.

    If you find yourself looking for a way to slip in a description, don't. Don't have her running a comb through her flame-red tresses, or checking her freckled cheeks for blemishes. Don't have him brushing crumbs off his beige chinos, or straightening his burgundy tie. Limit description to what the character will legitimately and consciously notice.

    The single guy will likely notice the cute woman's tight jeans as she walks away from him, especially if she wants him to notice. But chances are he won't notice her eye color, especially of she has a nice cleavage - ask any frustrated girl. And she may not be able to tell you what color the handsome stranger's hair was five minutes later if he had a really nice smile.

    EDIT: I swear, I was writing my post before JTheGreat posted this:
    Sorry, but it is a perfect example of what not to do.
     
  10. Sang Hee
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    Sang Hee Contributing Member

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    Yeah, I know, the 'by the way' description of features is what I'm mostly trying to do.
    For example: Her eerie white eyes simply refused to close. She nervously played with her sparkling silver hair while the whirlwind of memories kept her mind occupied.

    Guess that's easier to digest than 'Her eyes were white and her hair was silver.'

    I don't know, guess it takes a lot of practice to nail it good. I'll keep experimenting.

    Edit: Oops, guess I nailed it too, Cogito :D
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends if you ever envisage it becoming a movie. The books that translate best and are less disappointing on the screen have a good level of description. Otherwise people see the movie and become disappointed:)

    The Harry Potter movies work so well for me because of the descriptions in the book, they don't intrude into the story much. Bones by way of TV series about the only thing that has similarity to Kathy Reich's novels is the physical appearance of Temperance Brennan, and Sealy Booth is similar to her love interest in the novels. Without that I couldn't have reconciled the two.

    Otherwise like with Narnia I find it more difficult to reconcile the two because the image in my mind is so different. Personally I imagine a Ghibli film and can tell you who the voice actors for each of my characters should be lol:)

    Most bestselling writers have the right level of description in their books. For me its Patricia Cornwell's best bit is her character descriptions takes the clinical nature of her writing and adds some warmth to it etc.

    But then not many sci-fi readers go for warmth in their books lol
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I don't suppose you read much science fiction, then.
     
  13. Sang Hee
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    Sang Hee Contributing Member

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    Yeah, most of the stories that I write are a supplement to the scripts I want to realize as a movie.
    But before that happens I should perhaps stick more to the 'imaginary' way of writing and try to be as least descriptive as I could be. Don't people like reading books also because it stirs up their fantasy? Because it's only important what happens and not how it looks like?
     
  14. Hazel Eyed Scribe
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    It depends on your story. If the descriptions give flavor then go ahead, or if they show a little important detail about a character (like a scar or a missing eye).

    True, some stories don't offer much in the way of character descriptions but for those particular stories the descriptions probably weren't necessary. I just got done reading The Bonesetter's Daughter and there wasn't much description of the main character (it wasn't needed) but I've read others where the descriptions were freqeunt and fantastic.

    BUT, If you decide to describe your character just make sure the details are important. Not just, "She had blue eyes." Is that really important? How about "She never washed her hair on Saturdays and Sundays." Or something. =)
     
  15. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually yes I have done. Right now no. But whilst I was at college I read hundreds of Sci-fi books because my landlord had them on a bookcase outside my room. Was easier than going to the library or going to the bookshop. I read Orson Scott Card recently because I loved his series about women from the bible and his newspaper articles are fun. CS Lewis Dark Tower and Mars Trilogy is my favourite. OK I admit probably generalising, it was the reader I was talking about not the writer. But warmth is not usually the first thing a sci-fi reader tends to mention.

    Also because my bestfreind is male at school he would lend me sci-fi books. I personally prefer things with a virus to be cured or murder to be solved. I can read a book in hours so go through a lot in a month.
     
  16. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    Whoops. Me fail. You learn something new every day.

    I'm a bit better with it in my actual stories. A description of one of my main characters is limited to this:

    He gestured to his companion, who curtsied obediently. She would have been striking, if it weren't for the large burn scar that marred her left cheek.

    The POV character is just meeting the girl, so of course he notices the scar. I was a bit skeptical about this line, since I used the generic appearance-word "striking". Meh.

    You have to admit, the line I used in the previous post is better than, "This is Alice. She has brown eyes and beautiful long eyelashes and she's good at computer hacking."
     
  17. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Absolutely. But how about:
    Maybe there will be a good reason to look into her big brown eyes later.
     
  18. ChickenFreak
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    See, this bothers me as much as or more than a straightforward description. When you throw in physical characteristics that aren't directly relevant to the action, it feels obvious that you're trying to sneak in some description, and also obvious that the description isn't needed. Also, "romantic" descriptions like this tend to put me off even more.

    I'm most willing to forgive a description when it's relevant to the plot. For example, maybe a character is expecting Alice to be a typical geek and is startled when she turns out to be fashionable and polished. Maybe Joe always dates blonde bombshells but his new girlfriend is brunette and a little pudgy. Maybe Jane is much more popular than her sister Joan, which is surprising because Joan is much more attractive. And so on.
     
  19. SilverRam
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    If you have to slip in a descriptive word along with the action, please don't do this halfway into the book. By then the reader will have their own mental image of the person and telling them it's different just screws with their mind.

    It is probably safer to be on the less descriptive side. At least don't try to convey exactly how they look. Your reader may get a very different picture than the one you're describing in every detail.
     
  20. ChickenFreak
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    The visualization is important, but in the end the visualization happens in the reader's mind. And I think that a few hints often work better than a long, detailed description in creating a vivid picture in the reader's mind. That vivid picture may not precisely match the picture that was in _your_ mind when you wrote the description, but that usually doesn't matter.
     
  21. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    One case (probably a rare one) in which you would probably want to describe a character is if that character has an unusual name associated with a famous person. If your character is named Elvis or Madonna or Shaquille, to pick three utterly random examples, readers are likely to have preconceived ideas of what he or she looks like. You might want to correct them.

    Also, your approach to description will likely depend, at least to some extent, on the style and tone of your story. For example, if your story is set in nineteenth-century England, you may choose to write in a style readers associate with that setting: something approximating Dickens or Thomas Hardy, maybe. With that kind of leisurely pacing, more description of your characters may be appropriate.
     
  22. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    I don't give physical descriptions unless it is very important to the story. I usually find it advantages to leave it to the readers' imagination, only giving some important details here and there.

    I wrote a story for a popular gay site. I knew that it's readers were from all over the world. So, I never gave the physical descriptions of the chars. I concentrated the descriptions on other aspects of the chars. It was quite successful.
     
  23. Sang Hee
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    Sang Hee Contributing Member

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    That's a huge problem for me, actually, as I mentioned before. I still can't develop this fine way of knowing whether to write the description or not and if yes then how much. I don't know how much the reader would like to know about people/things that I'm writing about. Maybe this doesn't mean much if you write a story from this world but when it comes to fantasy it could make a huge difference in making the world interesting.
     
  24. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I am writing fantasy

    I need my descriptions they form part of the story. The uniforms of the Royal Family have ancient significance. It is important to the story that my main character is 6ft10 blonde hair and blue eyes for many reasons. The rest of his family are dark haired, normal height range, it adds to his feeling of not being one of them.

    My indigenous people are red haired and green eyed/blue eyed (sea colour). Their height distinguishes them. The green eyes are the clue to who the Abbot has fathered and the aquamarine ones to who the other character has produced. The green eyes of another character indicate another secret

    The sand is white and the buildings are whitewashed to provide camoflauge later on. The stone the palace is built out of has significance but not until the next story. The fact everyone is on the beach dressed smartly is the only clue about what is about to happen etc

    If I let my reader make up their own mind about some of these things the story won't make sense.

    The monks outfits have significance eventually

    I have got round it by writing first person present tense. The main character is talking to the voice in his head, ie the reader. That allows him to describe what is registering in his brain, and to give asides and information.
     
  25. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Leave as much to the reader's imagination as you can. That is where stories come to life - in the imagination or the reader.

    Strike a spark, fan the embers. But let the flames grow and dance in the reader's mind's eye, rather than planting each fully formed tongue of flame.
     

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