1. bibliolept
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    bibliolept Member

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    Physical Description: Yes Or No?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by bibliolept, Jul 2, 2012.

    Sorry if this post makes little sense. I'm having a hard time composing my thoughts.

    Obviously there are some stories that overuse physical description. I've read some writers say to avoid doing character description, to use it sparingly, especially for main characters. Then there are people who say they want their characters to be very vivid, microscopic detail, etc. Where do you draw the line?
    Say I have more than one character and while in this narrative view describe another main character. Is that bad writing? (Is it a bad idea to have more than one "main" character?)
     
  2. michaelj
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    michaelj Senior Member

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    You dont have to describe every character in detail but I would advise describing some of your main characters at least.
     
  3. Cassiopeia Phoenix
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    Cassiopeia Phoenix Contributing Member

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    It depends on the situation. I do use more details on major characters but not in only a paragraph chunk -- I go adding slowly as the story goes by. But for minor characters, a one liner does the job just fine.

    Furthermore, I find yet more important to describe their manners/impression they give to other characters and their quirks. I prefer "Her gaze was sharp and piercing" instead of "her eyes were blue". Or I use a mix of both, in case of a major character.
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    A lot of the time I find a simple 'they were young' does the job quite nicely, and imply everything else necessarily through the narration. Typically I find paragraphs devoted to describing clothing amazingly dull, I have actually put books down for long periods of time because of it. It can work in some cases, stuff like The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, where I guess more detail on a character is required because it's another world, and J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the very few who can do it and not have it be boring as sin. Or when it's indicative of the character - like in Pynchon's V. which starts with the main character wearing a big cowboy hat and walking through Norfolk, Virginia. It works there because it's the only time a character is really described in the novel, and even then it's because it's funny and ironic.

    And now I feel like a hipster.
     
  5. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me, as either writer or reader, descriptions have to have a purpose in the story. It's the old Chekov's gun thing - if there's a description, there better be a good reason for it (the character is huge, which is why it takes three others to take him down). Otherwise, I don't care what the author thinks the characters look like, since their idea of handsome or gross could very well clash with mine.
     
  6. Chronicle535
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    Chronicle535 Senior Member

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    When I describe my characters I usually don't try to go too heavy into the detail but I also find it to help the reader along with the description if I go into more detail during a fight sceen just to clairify what exactly my character is going through
     
  7. marktx
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    marktx Contributing Member

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    When it comes to description, either of people or places, I tend to select a few elements to describe and leave the rest to the reader. I like to give a few visual cues to set the reader in a certain direction, but let them fill in the gaps.
     
  8. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    It doesn't take much to put an image in your reader's head. Your goal is to give them what they need to know and make sure they come away with a clear picture of who the character is. Giving them too much will muddle the image. Readers will not remember every detail in a paragraph-long description, so try to stick to the basics.

    There are two things I take into consideration when deciding how much to describe:

    Necessity:
    Someone a few posts up used the example of "Chekov's Gun;" this is exactly the same concept. Don't describe things that don't really matter. If your character's eye color is not necessary or noticeable, don't waste precious words desribing it. There is one character in my current novel who has robotic eyes. Not only are they noticeable (they glow slightly, making them hard to miss) but they are plot-relevant. In the chapter after she is introduced, she and my MC are fleeing a villain. They go underground, into total darkness, and her nightvision comes in handy. She leads the MC to safety. If her eyes weren't mentioned beforehand, this could come across as a deus ex machina. Similarly, if you know your character will be entering a fight scene sometime in the future, let your readers know what tools/weapons he has.


    POV preferences
    Always keep your point of view in mind when decribing anything. If your POV character isn't an observant person, there shouldn't be long descriptions. POV dictitates most of what gets described to the reader. If your character is a womanizer, he may notice the woman he's talking to has amazing breasts, for example. If he's a fighter, he may notice the guy he's talking to has a defensive posture. If he's a fashion designer, he might notice what the person is wearing.

    If your POV has no preferences, (3rd person omniscient, for example,) just choose one or two key traits and stick to them. Most people have one feature that stands out above all else. "The tall man." "The thin woman." "The guy with the big nose." "The man in the trench coat." "The girl with glasses." This is also useful when the character doesn't have a name. When my characters encounter strangers, they are usually labeled in this way until a name is found.

    If you do this long enough, it becomes part of the character's identity and will be instantly recognizable. Now, instead of using "he" and "she" all the time, you can mix it up a little by tossing in "the woman in red" once in a while, and your reader will know exactly who you're talking about. It cuts down on repeptitive pronoun usage. You can't do that if you have extremely long character descriptions; readers are less likely to recognize her as "the woman in red" if her dress color was buried uner a hundred other descriptions.
     
  9. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Obviously, description goes far beyond "blond hair, blue eyes, 5'10", etc." Description can cover the way a person carries him or herself, including attitude and physical posture as well as other visual and psychological quirks and cues. All of this cannot be bundled into one big info dump near the beginning of the story. And sometimes the physical attitude can convey a lot more about the character than their actual physical appearance.

    It is important to sort through all you know about your characters and dispense such pieces as you need them throughout the story. Maybe you need to show his height because it is an important part of the character - say he is 5'8" tall or maybe 6'8" tall. This can be an important factor that your readers need to know so you let them see that at the beginning. And, is he 260#? This can drastically change your readers' perception of your character if he is 5'8" or 6'8". Things like hair color, etc. may or may not be critical in the very first pages of your story but it can be jarring to a reader to have an image of your character as a fat, slightly paunchy redhead for two chapters and have you suddenly reveal he is a slim, slightly muscular brunett.

    Now, of course, it is not important to describe every little thing about any character and, most especially about secondary or tertiary characters. Your main characters will need more in-depth development than others and secondary characters, sidekick/best friend/regularly recurring character will need less description than your main characters but more than incidental/tertiary characters. Those incidentals will need very basic description, if any at all.
     
  10. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    Great advice that I agree with 100%
    When writing in Third Person Limited, I tend to use description scarely and describe important details that with guide the reader with envisioning the character.
    When I'm writing first person, I refer to ^POV preferences. For example, if my character is quite observant. If he is attracted to someone, I'd probably have him describe her a bit more, notice the finer details if he's looking at her long enough. If he doesn't really care for them, he'll vaguely describe them or not even describe them at all.
     
  11. amecylia
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    amecylia Member

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    Include physical descriptions that you think are of importance to the story, or that you think will help the reader get a better understanding of the character/ story. And as stated before, revealing vital character traits too late in the story can be a bit jarring for the reader, so it might be a good idea to mention these details early on.

    You can describe how a character perceives another character in order to reveal the physical characteristics. Example: "It looked at me, with its red, glowing eyes" or "he noticed her long, purple hair". I prefer to give descriptions within the context of the story, rather than long descriptions of physical characteristics.

    Having more than one main character is not a bad idea. This, of course, depends on the story and how this is implemented.
     
  12. noodlepower
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    noodlepower Member

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    I would suggest reading the works of authors to get a feel on the way they handle descriptions. For example, Laurel K. Hamilton gives somewhat detailed descriptions of her characters. I read an article that the author of the Hunger Games gave rather vague descriptions of her characters and one character she never even discusses whether he's white, black, Asian, or martian.

    It wasn't until I really started examining other authors' style that I realized what was lacking in my own.
     
  13. Luna13
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    Luna13 Active Member

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    Make the description fit in with the story. Don't say "she had long shiny brown hair and blue eyes and pale skin." Say something like, "her long brown hair, usually brushed to perfection, was tangled and looked as if it had not been washed in days, contributing to my impression that something was wrong." Or something like that, whatever fits with your story. Hope this helps.
     
  14. Eliot Bauers
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    Eliot Bauers Member

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    _____Maybe adding on to what Thewordsmith said, physical descriptions ARE important to the character. After a certain age, a person's physical appearance is a direct reflection of life choices, experiences (good or bad), and family background. Somebody who's built like a 300-pound bodybuilder on steroids is going to move, act, and otherwise behave differently as compared to a 90-pound anorexic. A meth-mouthed cokehead celebrity is going to look zombielike (like someone I won't mention), while the woman who spends most of her time composing New-Age music and walking the Irish countryside is going to look loads better. Hell, it doesn't even have to be New-Age music. Just stayin' away from the meth does wonders. Living a rough life makes for a rough physical appearance, while living the pampered life will make a person look like Roseanne Barr before cosmetic surgery. Physical apperances matter.
    _____This isn't shallow. This is reality. How's that song go again? We are living in a material world, and Madonna is a material girl? We're not all material girls, but we're all made out of living stuff. See this desk? THIS is real. See this hand, the scars across the knuckles from martial arts practice? THIS is real. We are all real. We are physical beings. We have physical attributes. The only people who think otherwise are probably meth-head nutcases who think we'd be better off as disembodied spirit beings that commune with spirit crystals on Planet Bumbleflex or wherever. (Don't you DARE turn that into a sci-fi novel. Post-1980s science fiction is too full of that Frank Herbert-esque, LSD-inspired crap as it is.) Do you need physical descriptions? Do you need a body? Do your characters need bodies? There you go. (I'm disagreeing with a published writer and college professor when I say this, but the lady never wrote a single best-selling novel in her life, so HAH.)
     
  15. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Obviously we all have physical bodies and the physical reflects [somewhat] on the life we (or our characters) have led. However, the question is whether or not mentioning those physical attributes are necessary to the story. Many of us maintain that unless it has a direct bearing on the story, it isn't necessary and may actually hinder the reader's enjoyment (the jolt of picturing a character looking one way and having the author contradict that). I repeat - as a reader, I couldn't care less how the author sees the characters. Unless it explains why they got the pulp beaten out of them, for example, it's meaningless to me.
     
  16. LuminousTyto
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    LuminousTyto Senior Member

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    It depends on what you're going for. Less description leaves more to the imagination, making readers envision your world with THEIR imagination, while more description is YOUR imagination projected into the readers heads... to a degree. I wouldn't say either way is wrong, you just need to know what you want.

    George RR Martin has a lot of description of his characters in his series A Song of Ice an Fire, even non viewpoint characters. He also has around 5-8 main characters per book!

    It's all about what you're going for. Is your story about 1 character? 3? 6? You decide.
     
  17. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    There are several schools of thought on this subject. There's the Stephen King school where everything about anything (character right on down to fence posts) are described in minute detail. Then there's the minimalist school, which I somewhat subscribe to. Then, like other posters have said, is the Chekhov school of thought. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses and it's up to each individual writer which one they prefer or even a combination of the above.

    I tend to use minimal basic descriptions when first introducing my MC. This allows the reader to get their imagination in. Then, as other characters are introduced into my novel(s) they have their observations: how tall or short she is. How long is her hair, eye color can be fleshed out more at that point also. It's individual preference.

    My recommendation would be to try all three when you do your rough draft in the section you want to introduce and see which one you prefer. Once you've settled, it's easy to cut the others out and you can keep on trucking.
     
  18. Brinda
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    Brinda New Member

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    Sorry if this has been said already, I just skimmed.

    I give more description for major characters than minor ones, of course. I usually describe a character in a few defining details--ex. I might artfully include that my character has blonde hair, blue-grey eyes, and a crooked nose from an old fight, all on what would have once been a handsome face before it got grinded and pummeled in all the fights his quick anger got him into, but I wouldn't say that he had blonde hair, blue-grey eyes, a crooked nose, a cleft chin, a square jaw, and freckle just above his left eyebrow.

    So, basically, I would include some basic features that can help the reader form a picture of the character, and then throw in some features that tell something about the character him/herself. When writers don't include a good enough description I read the book with a half-formed character floating around in my head. On the other hand, a hefty, pointless description can weigh the book down.

    I hope this helped.
     
  19. aimeekath
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    aimeekath Senior Member

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    It's good not to describe every character in massive detail, but it does help to form a picture. Like in the Hunger Games, where Katniss mentions Effie's pink wig to demonstrate how odd the Capitol is in comparison to the districts.
     
  20. Complex
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    Complex Senior Member

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    Introduce the character once and leave it as that I say, unless a plot element requires bringing up the feature. Since I have a fair amount of nudity and characters who don't care one bit, I never dwell on physical descriptions of the form unless another character specifically requires it. Its like describing a painting, if 'The Birth of Venus' rattled on for three pages about her naked beauty in minute detail (like some mole on her forth rib) no one would care; not like they can craft a complete picture in their heads anyways. I'd much rather pay for some actual artistic rendering of the character to be included in the book to accompany the introduction of the character then to spend a lot of time describing this and that.

    Seriously, did anyone really bother that the most lasting impression of the Hobbits were the hairy feet and the stature matter? For the most of the book we don't get another 'this is what my character looks like' image. You craft the image and you move on, just don't go missing the unique bits of the character... like robotic eyes or a tail.
     
  21. Eliot Bauers
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    Eliot Bauers Member

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    _____About physical descriptions and character construction, you want to hear something hilarious? I read this one novel where this one female character started out bald and was supposed to STAY bald 'cause she likes a chrome-dome. But suddenly, nearing the end of the novel, the character had shoulder-length hair. No, the writer didn't say when the female character stopped shaving her head. And no, it wasn't a wig. Just to make sure it wasn't me having a '60s-pharmaceuticals sort of moment, I bookmarked the spot where the character had hair on her noggin, then went back to near the beginning of the book when the character was being introduced. (My brother in law recommended the book, one of those urban fantasies. I think it was the one where this character's girlfriend got burned up, and him getting her ashes at the end of the thing...) Yup, the writer screwed up! That, or the editors at ROC fell asleep at the keyboard. (Those poor saps; novel editors get worked to the bone these days--quantity over quality.)
    _____Now before anybody accuses me of not being pertinent, there's a reason why I'm saying this. And no, that reason has nothing to do with mind-altering substances. This is a stupid and dumb tip, but even published writers get this wrong. Writers have to keep track of characters. Trouble is, nearing completion of the novel, a writer just might sort of forget what Zaphod Beeblebrox had tattooed on one of his brains. Or, they just might forget that a character likes a shiny noggin. When it comes to telling a story, be it tellin' it to yer buddies or tellin' it to the boys in blue, ya gotta keep yer facts straight. And by keeping characters' physical traits in mind when writing occasional scenes, it helps keep the facts straight--for the reader and the writer. Otherwise, the writer ends up being seen as a screw-up; then people go onto Teh Internetz and talk trash about it.
     
  22. Complex
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    Complex Senior Member

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    That's why you have character sheets or artistic renderings of the character. 'Police sketch' programs (some are free even) are absolutely perfect for defining your characters facial look. That way you can refer to it when you write. I really wish there was a 'dress up' game which allowed for customization like more western rpgs. Though I know of no such programs. Even really lame character sheets saying where the tattoo is, how many rings on this finger, a bangle on this hand and so on.

    Consistency is key. Yours is a good example of an 'oops'. The colors of the eyes change the most, despite few people actually getting close enough to see what color eyes people have. Kinda creepy to inspect a person that close anyways.
     
  23. Eliot Bauers
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    Eliot Bauers Member

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    _____Complex, what you've said has brought up the importance of... Will I say it? Will I say it? (Gulp.) It's pre-writing. Where one's writing goes depends on the plan in place. Back in my brutal old school days, when writing research papers, all I had to do was cook up an outline after lectures, then hit the library after dinner to fill in the gaps with researched quotes and actually type the darned thing. (Then I'd stagger back to the dorm at 2 a.m., play video games for an hour or so, and do the same thing all over again the very next day--Monday through Thursday.) But now that I'm in the real world and writing novels, just an outline won't cut it. A dude can get lost with characters' physical appearances, factions, premises, all of that, even when putting down the outline. Architects don't just sit down with a cup of coffee and sketchpad and come up with whole buildings--right down to what kind of plumbing (pvc or aluminum) goes into each and every floor. No, there's a speculation stage of sorts, the pre-planning--where major stuff gets jotted and noted down.
    _____Don't know about what kind of whacked-out witch-hazel the rest of y'all do before writing your next novels, but getting the character descriptions and notes written down on separate sheets of paper is part of my own ritual. Even in the age of internet and tablets and phones that can play movies, writing down character descriptions by hand is important. It makes them seem more real, more touchable. This way, when I'm an hour and a half into crafting the outline or even when doing the actual typing, I can just snatch up those notes, glance at the character's physical description and capabilities. Then I can then get back to the madness. (By the time my novels are done, the paper outlines and notes are frayed and grayed from all the manhandling they've been through all those months.) So, remember to brush your teeth after every meal, and be sure to have passable notes always on hand for your characters--written by hand.
     
  24. Complex
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    Complex Senior Member

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    Pre-writing? There is a certain amount of ground work to be laid if you make an entire world and its characters, unless you are particularly good are writing inside out. If I can't describe the character in 4-5 sentences then I am not doing it right. For my own sake, I just make sure that if I say blonde hair it doesn't become auburn. No tattoos shifting arms, no disappearing wounds which come back in another scene. Consistency. Its not pre-writing, its diligence to what you have written.

    Speaking as an architect, they are required to know standard code, which dictates what the vast majority of the structure will be. Walls of certain thickness, doors which open a certain way (i.e. out rather then in for entrances) the architect is not going to whip it up without paying attention to certain details. I got scolded for not having a master bath accessible from the master bedroom. So I tend to disagree with that one, certain details are required for building plans and just like 'writing outlines' or 'character sheets' they are the blueprints which will help realize the story. No having a blueprint/outline is more likely to cause errors that could have easily been avoided. Like the matter of the hair.

    Hand writing them out just seems to be preference, for someone with no artistic talent I much rather have a visual and a 3D model in which to work with. Its basically like the old D&D sheets.
     
  25. marcuslam
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    marcuslam Senior Member

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    Everyone has been giving out great points. I would also suggest picking unique points in particular to describe. For example, mentioning a character has only four fingers on one hand. Well, that might be a bit extreme, but you get the idea.
     

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