1. Totzlol
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    Totzlol Member

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    Personality vs. Appearance

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Totzlol, Jun 29, 2011.

    I have a habit of describing my characters personalities before even explaining what they look like. The reader will know if it's a male or female, but that's about it before they know almost everything about how they think and act.

    It seems to create a strange feeling when I finally explain to the reader what the character is meant to look like as, based on the personality, most readers just put their own ideas and images to the personality.

    The question is, do I switch it around and start describing the characters looks before his/her personality, leave physical description very scarce and let the reader decide their overall appearance, or change nothing?
     
  2. WastelandSurvivor
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    WastelandSurvivor Member

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    Readers are going to envision your characters in their own way, even if you are very specific with your descriptions. Personally, I tend to think that tossing in a tidbit here or there about what they look like is sufficient--just enough to cover hair, eye and skin color and any distinguishing marks if any of those descriptors are important to your story. I don't think you really need to start things off with a detailed description, so you should be able to throw in little bits of physical appearance even as you are introducing the reader to the character's personality.
     
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  3. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    How about giving clues about their personalities through their appearance?

    "Janine always wore simple tops and plain blue jeans. Her long hair was golden blonde and beautiful, but she always kept it in a loose ponytail."

    On the fly description, so possibly not the greatest I have ever written. But I think you feel who this person is from that. Someone who doesn't like to blend in, who is shy. I also like contradictory descriptions. Like a scary-looking character that can't resist puppies or something :p
     
  4. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    I think personality helps me envision the character a lot more than appearance, strangely. Your readers are going to form their own pictures, and their personalities are more important anyway IMO. :)
     
  5. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sounds fine the way you do it. You really don't need to go into details with looks.
     
  6. Totzlol
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    Totzlol Member

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    Exactly that. Those are the main details I will cover and I tend to leave it up to the reader from there. Even when I am reading and if I come across a detailed description, I manage to form my own image anyway, which is why I always dismissed the idea of going into intense detail.

    @spklvr What are your thoughts on doing something like that, but in a more reversed/mixed fashion? For instance, attempting to work it out as follows:

    Original Text - "Janine always wore simple tops and plain blue jeans. Her long hair was golden blonde and beautiful, but she always kept it in a loose ponytail."

    Reworked - "Preferring as simple a method as possible, Janine put her golden hair up in a loose pony tail that accented perfectly her ordinary outfit."

    Describing in half-detail her hair (being golden as opposed to golden blonde, leaving room for the reader to choose if it's a light brown/blonde vs. a more yellow/blonde color) and then letting them match the "ordinary" clothes to her "simple" hair to their liking. It feels like it still gives the impression that she is someone who prefers to stay less-noticed, but it also leaves out a lot more specifics.

    In short, do you feel like leaving it up to the reader that much kind of robs them of a true story because they are left to fill in too many blanks?

    @Gigi_GNR That has always been my thoughts! I always tend to overlay the authors descriptions with my own image based on the characters personality anyway.

    In fact, only recently have I questioned that train of thought with my own writing because I was discussing it with my brother and he said he kind of felt like he went too long without seeing any specifics of the main characters physical appearance.

    He did say that he went specifically out of his way to not picture anything because he wanted to leave it up to me to explain to him in the story what the main character looked like, and that normally he doesn't do that, but it got me wondering...do a lot of people actually do that? Go out of their way to wait and see it how the author sees it?

    Created a lot of questions for me. haha.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Describe only what your POV character (or POV virtual character) would consciously notice.

    For example, if you see your coworker every day, you won't take note that she has blond hair, unless ist was a different color the day before.

    The same goes for smells, sounds, etc, and personality traits.
     
  8. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    How much description you like is all about personal taste. I like to have a general description. Hair, eyes, body shape and style. That can be done in a sentence or two. From that I gather a picture, and usually end up using someone I know or an actor based on that description. If I never get a description of any kind, the character never forms in my head and I can't find someone who will fit as them. In those cases I can't connect with them, and in some extreme cases (usually if the story isn't that captivating either) it ends up feeling like reading a school textbook.

    As for the description of Janine, your way is just as good as mine, but I personally would prefer a better worded version of mine. But again, that is a matter of personal taste. I like a bit more detail. I mean, I don't need to know the exact shade of blonde or exactly what clothes she is wearing (writers who does that usually annoy me), but just enough to be able to form a picture.

    When it comes to waiting for the author to describe things, I can wait, but only for so long. I like when authors start a scene with the setting, but I want that done quickly.
     
  9. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    This is the way to go.

    Also, there's more to appearance than natural physical features: for example, do they wear makeup or not, do they have clothing stains or not, etc. This stuff will highlight their personality in a "show, not tell" way.
     
  10. MRD
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    MRD Senior Member

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    Personality should always come before appearance.

    That being said, it tends to help the reader picture the characters when you give a simple description. (Hair, eyes, height, stance and such)

    But if you are going to describe the appearance of your characters, make sure you do it early on. Nothing destroys the illusion that a good story creates like finding out your mental image of the character is nothing like what the character actually looks like.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You don't need to describe your characters' personalities anyway. You reveal personality through the character's word and actions.

    What you would describe about personality would reveal what the describer thinks of that person, so it's more revealing of the person giving the description.
     
  12. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's a hair obsession, for some reason.

    One character might meticulously comb her hair and fasten it in a bun before driving her BMW to the lawyer's office where she works, while another character ruffles his hair in a quick whirling motion before skipping off to school.

    Omitting direct description, but for me as a reader, a simple set of actions related to their level of comeliness vs. the social circles they inhabit and conform to (or defy) is more than plenty for me to form a mental image of either person. Does it matter if the lawyer woman is blonde or brunette? Not unless a hair found at a murder scene becomes a central plot device.
     
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  13. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    I'd go even farther. I'd give the external description and let the reader learn about their personalities as the story goes (show>tell).
     
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  14. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    That's true.

    And think about it, do you ever give a thought about your own hair color or how your shirt is plain or how your jeans are expensive? Well, I don't. I notice that about other people's clothes or appearence. And what I do notice says more about me than about the person I'm looking at.

    So, be careful if your character says "I'm going out to meet her in my worn out jeans and a plain white t-shirt." Does anyone think like that? Does anyone describe his/her own clothes to him/herself?
     
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  15. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Personally, I don't care if the author ever describes the appearance of the character (some don't), and I prefer less description in this area to more of it. Exposing their personality through the course of the story is, of course, quite important. So I think your priorities are in the right place.
     
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  16. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    I don't like appearance descriptions much, either. Just takes up too much space and seems unnecessary.
     
  17. Kio
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    Kio Contributing Member

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    It depends on what point of view you're writing from. If it's first-person, what would the character in first-person notice first? Usually, people are introduced to other people's looks than their personality (unless, of course, they are visually impaired), so, typically, looks will come first. If it's from an omniscient narrator, then personality will most likely come before appearance.
     
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  18. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agree with Cogito on this one.
     
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  19. lewisn1
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    lewisn1 Senior Member

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    I guess it does all boil down to personal taste. However i do think that a good story gently fuses both of these elements. I think it also depends on you as a writer and how your characters come to you, maybe you started off with an appearance then you created a personality vice versa. Personally i don't want to come to the end of a book and realise, Hang on, i know everything about this char, except what they look like. i like use ppls inner sterotype, nordic = blonde unless otherwise then state? :)
     
  20. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    That's a really good point, and I agree.
     
  21. Vespers
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    Vespers Member

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    I think the gradual building of characters is always a reliable path to development. It seems to always deliver good results. Introduce the character on some shallow basis, let the reader infer and project their own thoughts about the character onto the story, and slowly mold the reader's opinion/perception of the character through how that character responds to events within the story. As cliche as it may be, actions speak louder than words, so the more you show your character doing things, the less you have to explain about them.
     
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  22. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you listen to a radio play, there is no one, voice over, telling you what the characters look like or what clothes they are wearing - we the listener use our imagination based on the contents of speech and the interaction between the characters to build our own picture of the characters.
    When writing I therefore, unless it is integral to the plot, do not see the need to explain every single detail about a characters appearance - leave something to the readers own imagination, they have one, and imo they will appreciate you, the writer, for that.

    imo, To spoon feed you reader with every bit of minute information shows a lack of respect for the reader's own intelligence.
     
  23. Sydrak
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    Sydrak Member

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    I have to agree in that one. I just have problems fastening a personality to a character I don't know what look like. Besides, how they look and speak can also say something about them:) So I always let the personality shine through their actions when I write, but might emphasize some of their most important traits where appropriate.
     
  24. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    What Cogito said.

    Describe his looks in some ways, yes. But it's not necessary to give a full head-to-toe description. It can interrupt the flow of the story sometimes, especially when 'author voice' creeps in too much & goes overboard. I prefer the sparse approach.
     
  25. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think someone's traits should come through anyway. There should be no need to spoon-feed them again in most cases, I don't think.

    I just read something I wrote in 2004, and which had the most silly paragraph that explained at length that Character x 'was a stubborn man'. The story then went on, and that stubborness became self-evident very quickly. So I see now there was no need at all to explain it in advance.
     

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