1. skuld
    Offline

    skuld Member

    Joined:
    Jun 15, 2015
    Messages:
    36
    Likes Received:
    1

    Physical appearances - describe or not?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by skuld, Jun 15, 2015.

    Everybody knows that what somebody looks like in high school influences their relative social standing (especially for girls). I'm trying to write a setup that defines the relationship between two 16 y/o high school juniors, Kylie and Cindy.

    Kylie is one of the most popular girls. She is pretty and slim with long blonde hair. She is on the cheerleading team and the yearbook staff and short listed for the junior prom queen. Cindy is bottom-heavy, about 20 pounds overweight with colorless limp hair. Her mother works at Walmart so everything in her wardrobe is purchased from her mother's employee discount.

    In one scene, Kylie snaps a photo of Cindy in the girls' locker room while she is changing and shares it with a couple of the boys (definitely a nasty prank but Kylie is something of a Mean Girl) - I'm trying to emphasize how horrible it is (Cindy has just taken off her gym clothes and is wearing just bra and panties) and was wondering if it was apt to go into a physical description beforehand.
     
  2. No-Name Slob
    Offline

    No-Name Slob Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 3, 2015
    Messages:
    1,232
    Likes Received:
    925
    Location:
    Dallas, Texas
    How is her hair colorless? I think I know where you're headed, but you might try a different adjective there. Dull, drab, the color of dishwater, etc., would suffice.

    Anyway, that's not what you asked. I think that if you set the tone for Cindy's self esteem, there's no need to go into a detailed description for this specific scene. The fact that she's not one of the "popular girls" should make clear what she looks like, or doesn't look like, for that matter.
     
  3. The Mad Regent
    Offline

    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 26, 2015
    Messages:
    1,024
    Likes Received:
    427
    Location:
    Wirral, England
    I always feel physical descriptions are something that should be added if it says something about the character, like scars tell you that someone has been through something rough or traumatic, hair styles might suggest sometimes vanity, and shit like that. I wouldn't just introduce a character and start spouting a lot of descriptive text on their appearance, though.
     
  4. Vellidragon
    Offline

    Vellidragon Member

    Joined:
    Apr 27, 2015
    Messages:
    36
    Likes Received:
    12
    On a very general note (I seem to be better at speaking generally and I don't have enough experience with the genre to give much feedback on the specific situation), I like at least knowing a few things about a character's appearance, like hair colour or somesuch, to make it easier to assign characters a mental image and tell them apart. Different details are sometimes dropped at different points of the book, which makes sense so not to have a single unnecessarily long infodump somewhere. I personally find it bothersome if a trait that may really mess with my mental image is mentioned too late, though, as it's almost a "tomato surprise". Note that this is a general thing based on my reading preference. I don't really know enough to say how exactly this specific situation would influence the need for mentioning details.

    (I'm most probably biased towards describing appearances since my own characters are essentially aliens and more physically interesting for that reason. Humans can pass without being described since it's not hard to fill in that gap, but I still personally prefer knowing a few traits.)
     
  5. skuld
    Offline

    skuld Member

    Joined:
    Jun 15, 2015
    Messages:
    36
    Likes Received:
    1
    I had it down as "an indeterminate color that was not quite assertive enough to qualify as blonde". "Dishwater" is a good word too.
     
  6. nrextakemi
    Offline

    nrextakemi Member

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2015
    Messages:
    21
    Likes Received:
    2
    Location:
    Confirmed
    As far as physical descriptions go, I like sticking to what is necessary, and leaving the rest to reader's imagination. For example, if it's important that a character has green hair, then mention it. Otherwise, don't.
    Reading and writing detailed descriptions is a pain.
     
  7. Lux C.
    Offline

    Lux C. New Member

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2015
    Messages:
    9
    Likes Received:
    11
    Talking from my experience in a Westernized culture, beauty is a concept generalized with a specifc set of physical traits. From commercials and ads to magazines and politics, appearance does play a significant function. To emphasize the degradation, maybe you want to describe her physical aesthetic in relation to the defined standard of beauty in the social atmosphere.

    I think a fair balance of depicting the friends' reaction to the contents of said photograph complemented by a depiction of Cindy's physical appearance could perfectly execute the emphasis of the embarassment. I personally would like to read about you know, the flabs of excess skin, cheap quality undergarments and unpolished hair for example. I think the reader could feel a bit isolated if such was absent in their understanding when considering Cindy's insecurity with her image and how that conflicts with the standard of the social atmosphere she is subjected to in school.
     
    AmericanAmelie likes this.
  8. Rachelle
    Offline

    Rachelle Member

    Joined:
    Jun 21, 2015
    Messages:
    21
    Likes Received:
    5
    Location:
    Maryland
    Because it is such a significant event and so emotionally charged, I definitely think you should help reinforce the image into the reader's mind by giving a visual description. Even like, the flash of the camera when she snaps the shot and that click sound only helps make it real and draw the moment out to emphasize it. Even thinkin about that is making me imagine it myself... And how final it is and how sealed the poor girl's fate was once that little "image saved" prompt popped up on the cell phone screen..)
    I'm not saying you have to be extremely detailed because it is of course, a teenage girls body, but I think just 1-2 sentences just to help the metal picture will make it that much more effective IMO.

    So I vote yes only because it will help reinforce the image you want the reader to have so that it's more real to them (and therefore more interesting..etc)
     
    AmericanAmelie likes this.
  9. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,968
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    Actually, I don't know that.

    When I think back to the "pretty" girls in high school, they weren't always, or even usually prettier than average. They tended to be expensively groomed and dressed, and to have a high mastery of both visual style and social interactions, but in terms of prettiness they just had to lack any serious flaws. Prettiness was a result (of grooming, social talent, social position, etc.) rather than a cause.

    A girl who did have serious flaws was likely to be unpopular, but unpopular girls didn't need to have serious flaws.

    My point is that it's entirely possible that Cindy is prettier than Kylie, if one were to remove makeup, slick back wet hair, and give them identical clothes, to largely eliminate the advantage of expensive versus cheap clothing and grooming.

    It is, of course, perfectly plausible for Cindy to be ugly and Kylie to be pretty, but that would feel a little bit obvious and boring to me. I'd rather see you emphasize Cindy's granny panties and bra held together with safety pins, than to go straight to "she's ugly, fat, and unpopular" as if those things alway come as a package.

    I'm curious both as to (1) whether you were a high school girl and (2) whether former or present high school girls agree or disagree with me?
     
    Renee J and AmericanAmelie like this.
  10. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    I tend toward minimalism on character description, always asking myself what purpose a particular detail serves. I prefer to leave a lot to the reader's imagination.

    However, physical appearance is sometimes important to the story. Even more often, a character's perception of his or her own appearance, or the character's assessment of another character's appearance, is even more revealing.

    Consider exposing contrasting descriptions by different characters to emphasize the subjectivity of the descriptions.
     
    AsherianCommand likes this.
  11. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    You don't need to. Take a look at the breadth of literature you like, how many of them go into really fine detail about character descriptions? It's the old cliche of the hack writer who spends hours struggling to get the sentence 'Her hair was like ...' just right. The only time you would really need to mention a characters physical characteristics is if it's either really noticeable, or really important to the plot. Has a character changed? How do they look different?
     
  12. drifter265
    Offline

    drifter265 Banned

    Joined:
    Jan 29, 2013
    Messages:
    175
    Likes Received:
    38
    I think the best advice is to skip it all together and to let the character's actions and dialogue describe how they look like. If a character has blonde hair or is short, work that into one of their actions or narrative.

    Like, "As Jessica was reading her favorite book, she brushed the blonde hair out of her eyes that kept falling into her face," or "Dylan didn't have many friends at school. The ones he was friends with he felt he only was because they were the only ones who weren't taller than him or were as tall as him. He was one of the short kids in school."

    You see? I think it's better to say something like that than to just say: "She had golden, beautiful, sun-blazing blonde hair," or "he was short as a pig." If a character has a physical trait that you think is important and worth mentioning, then work that trait into the narrative and have it mean something. Otherwise, we all just have blonde hair or are short because if you just list physical traits that don't mean anything, they don't give us a picture because if the character doesn't care if they have blonde hair or are short, then neither will we.

    Turn those list of physical traits into part of the story, have it mean something, or don't put it in there at all.
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2015
    Lemex likes this.
  13. AmericanAmelie
    Offline

    AmericanAmelie New Member

    Joined:
    Jun 23, 2015
    Messages:
    8
    Likes Received:
    1
    I would use the thoughts or dialogue of kylie to give life to Cindy's plight, maybe she "thanks god" that Cindy wears those tacky granny panties and not a thong like "normal girls" and mentions to her friends how her cellulite/lumpiness is even worse in person, the photo doesn't fo her thunder is judtice, thank god for her granny panties or she would've been blinded - something along these lines. Maybe from Cindy's perspective, write about how uncomfortable she feels having to undress in front of girls who are much prettier and slimmer than her. She wants to avoid the issues she has with her body, but she can't help but compare herself, especially when the girls around her may be talking about how they need to go on a diet, get rid of their thigh flab and touch up their roots because they look so busted (i bring this up because don't teenage girls always suffer from socially embracing self-hatred? Even if you don't think you are fat, you need to let everyone know that you think you are fat, bc having a shred of self esteem is soo conceited.)
     
    Nicoel likes this.
  14. skuld
    Offline

    skuld Member

    Joined:
    Jun 15, 2015
    Messages:
    36
    Likes Received:
    1
    Just a few thoughts:

    Cindy is definitely not prettier than Kylie, but she's not obese either; she's maybe could lose about 20 pounds but she's got this sort of bottom-heavy pear shaped physique (inherited from her mother). Nothing grotesque, just not ideal as far as high school girls are.
     
  15. MariaAllen
    Offline

    MariaAllen New Member

    Joined:
    Jul 14, 2015
    Messages:
    7
    Likes Received:
    0
    Just like Harry Potter's character. It describes lightly. ^^
     
  16. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,791
    Likes Received:
    7,308
    Location:
    Scotland
    The biggest problem with the 'list' of physical descriptive characteristics is not so much that it's dull to read (which is is) but that the descriptions don't stick. They may not even register. Yet the writer then goes on, happily secure because they've described their character and now their readers know what that character looks like. No, actually, we don't. These details were just a meaningless list and we didn't really pay attention.

    There isn't any short cut. If it's a TV show or movie, we'll see right away what the characters look like. But a written story is NOT the same thing. You don't just describe everything you see. These are just words. For descriptions to stick, the words have to call up images in the reader's brain. The best way to do this is have the descriptions mean something to the characters in your story.

    1) (list method) Karen, the new girl, had blue eyes, blonde hair, and was 5 feet 2 inches tall.

    2) (image method) He first noticed the new girl in the hallway as they changed classes. She glanced up at him for an extra second as they passed, and the after-image of her solemn blue eyes lingered in his mind for the rest of the day. Her name was Karen Olsen, he found out later, when she joined his algebra class and gave the teacher her name. Karen. She chose the empty seat in front of his, and her pony tail brushed against the front of his desk as she stuffed her backpack onto the rack beneath her chair. Her hair colour was pale gold, like a stretch of clean, dry sand. It did not look bleached, or artificial. Karen. Probably Swedish, with a name and colouring like that. He wanted to ask, but class had started. He'd need to wait.

    I believe the reader will remember the second 'description.' The first is unlikely to have made an impression.
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2015
    BookLover and ChickenFreak like this.
  17. Void
    Offline

    Void Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 28, 2014
    Messages:
    303
    Likes Received:
    229
    Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I actually prefer offhandedly mentioning "she had blue eyes and a blond ponytail" than having to piece together a character's appearance through an entire paragraph. I'm aware there's more going on in the second option than simply describing her, but just from reading it that passage does seem like it's straining to sound as if it isn't a character description, when it really is. Just my personal preference, but I'd rather just have a basic character description up front (if it's needed) than being slowly drip fed details. For me at least, the first option solidifies a character's appearance more strongly. That doesn't mean the second option is bad, but if a character's appearance needs to be described I just don't see the reason to be coy about it.
     
    jannert likes this.
  18. Nicoel
    Offline

    Nicoel Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 4, 2015
    Messages:
    461
    Likes Received:
    330
    I've just been dusting character descriptions throughout my WIP.

    The first time I mentioned my MC's two best friends (who were also dating) I had them all in the kitchen, and Julia used her extra two inches on Steph to get at the brownie batter first. Then I mentioned how one of them had really long straight hair, because it kept getting in the way.

    I don't think you have to add in an extra paragraph JUST for character description, just take the paragraph you already have and add in some details like that. Some extra visualization probably wouldn't hurt anyways!
     
    jannert likes this.
  19. Lea`Brooks
    Offline

    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 11, 2013
    Messages:
    2,625
    Likes Received:
    1,720
    Location:
    Virginia, United States
    I despise the list method. So much so that I often consider dropping a book altogether after seeing it. To me, it's crap writing. Especially if the person being described is the person doing the describing.

    "I looked at myself in the mirror and cringed. I wasn't hideous by any means, but I knew I could never compare to the popular girls. I was only 5'4 with dishwater blond hair and muddy brown eyes. My thighs were too think, and my stomach fat hung over my jeans."

    Bleh. Makes me want to vomit. Not only do I hate the list method, but I also hate when characters describe themselves. Hate hate hate. I can see someone else doing the list method if they first meet someone...

    "She walked into the room and took my breath away. Her brown hair was long and thick, perfectly framing her face and accentuating her green eyes."

    You get the picture.

    Personally though, I'm with everyone else. Don't info dump it. Do it subtlety. Have Cindy think about how uncomfortable she is changing in front of the other girls because she isn't as thin. Have her be jealous of their perfect, natural blond hair, and how she wishes she could dye hers to get rid of the dishwater blond. Don't just come out and say, "Cindy was overweight with ugly hair." 'Cause people don't think like that.

    If you go inside your own head, monitor your thoughts when you look at other people. What do you think? "That guy is 5'9 with black hair and green eyes and big muscles"? Or "He's definitely taller than me. I wonder how tall he is. If I stood next to him, would my head be up to his shoulders? Or lower than that? Huh. That's an interesting eye color. I don't think I've ever seen that shade of green before. And green eyes and black hair? That's a rare combination. I wonder what his parents look like."

    Probably more likely to be the second. People's thoughts are fluid and analytical. We like to dissect traits and objects and really inspect them. Unless planning a task, people rarely go from point A to point B without any thoughts in between.

    Keep her description fluid and real, and you'll be in good shape.
     
  20. EricaJRothwell
    Offline

    EricaJRothwell Active Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2010
    Messages:
    112
    Likes Received:
    19
    Location:
    London
    As a reader, I like to know how a character is supposed to look. That being said, I usually create my own image in my head of how each character looks. I don't think there is anything wrong in describing a characters physical appearance as long as it isn't a massive info dump three paragraphs long, as someone mentioned earlier. You can create an image of the characters without going into excessive, literal detail. Try mixing up their actions (i.e Kylie slicking on pink lipgloss and smacking her lips together or Cindy insecurley, tucking her hair behind her ears and pulling up her hood, walking with her hands in her pockets, etc) as well as real descriptions of their appearance.
     
  21. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,791
    Likes Received:
    7,308
    Location:
    Scotland
    In actual fact—while the example was written off the top of my head and I don't defend its quality— what I was trying to illustrate is that there is MORE going on in the second paragraph than simply a coy, long-winded description.

    You have the outline of a story. Two characters getting developed. Karen is possibly shy and maybe not very happy (a glimpse of solemn blue eyes that linger in his mind), he's not so shy—he wants to start talking to her, but is prevented by the teacher starting class. A potential romance beginning? And of course, an idea of the setting—and by default, their ages—they're obviously teenagers and more or less the same age, if they're both in the same algebra class. All of this can be done at the same time as Karen's physical description. In other words, you're getting a more rounded picture of what's going on, not just a list of characteristics.

    Of course it's possible to step aside and describe the character. Then take time to describe the other character. Then describe where they are and what they are doing. And how old they are. And then describe the fact that he's attracted to her and she might be attracted to him. But that's a choppy way to start a story, and a load of telling that resembles the start of a old-fashioned role-playing game, when you determine the qualities of your character by throwing dice.

    Telling does have its place in creative writing—it's a speedy way to divulge information which can be a bridge between scenes. However, if you take the time to show your whole scene, the reader gets drawn in and begins to form opinions about what is happening. That makes them interested in what happens next.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2015
  22. Selbbin
    Offline

    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2012
    Messages:
    3,238
    Likes Received:
    1,806
    Location:
    Australia
    I like to highlight details that would pertain to their character traits, such as hairstyle, clothing choice, and body shape depending on their health and activity level. Just like in life, appearance tells you far more about a character than simply what they look like.
     
    jannert likes this.
  23. everett
    Offline

    everett Member

    Joined:
    Jul 4, 2015
    Messages:
    28
    Likes Received:
    4
    you feather in physical appearance as its relevant to mind state. everything is perception, remember. what is attractive here, thin, tall, ect, may not be to another culture. i say this to emphasize, you are speaking to a culture which is influenced by perceptions that are NOT a reality in and of themselves. to make it relevant to mindset. thus, your readers will not be informed of it, but will rather feel it.
     
  24. everett
    Offline

    everett Member

    Joined:
    Jul 4, 2015
    Messages:
    28
    Likes Received:
    4
    * So make it realevant to mindset *
     
  25. Lea`Brooks
    Offline

    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 11, 2013
    Messages:
    2,625
    Likes Received:
    1,720
    Location:
    Virginia, United States
    Psstttt... There's an edit button so you don't have to reply to yourself to make corrections.

    Down here
    |
    |
    |
    |
    V
     

Share This Page