1. agasfer
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    agasfer Member

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    Physical descriptions of characters and their clothes

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by agasfer, Jun 16, 2016.

    Going through literature, I see a wide variety of approaches to the description of the characters' physical appearances -- the cut of their face, their build, the clothes they wear. Sometimes I have read that such descriptions help the reader picture the character better. Obviously this is important if the physical characteristics are relevant to the story: a sexy girl might use her wiles in a spy story, or a diplomat would be elegantly dressed, or Sherlock Holmes could tell the past of a character by his shoes, etc. But if it is not really relevant to the story, I feel sort of funny making up random physical descriptions. How much physical description is advisable, and under what conditions?
     
  2. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    As an experiment about fifteen years ago, I wrote an entire novel wherein not one single character got so much as one word of description. I'd read somewhere that every reader wants to see him- or herself in the MC and therefore a description would just get in the way.

    And strangely enough, every reader I asked thought the characters in that novel were vivid and were very surprised when I pointed that I hadn't written any descriptions. A couple even vowed to go back through the novel and prove me wrong.

    I didn't go so far as to ask them to describe the MC, but if I had, they each might just have described themselves.
     
  3. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    This is very much up to you and while people may well have heated arguments about it and maybe get too emotional (I quote a certain someone; "why don't you just wank them while you're at it?"):bigoops: in the end, there is no right answer. As long as you do whatever variation you do well, that's all that matters. You set the goalposts. Other people can only help you kick the ball.
     
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2016
  4. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    I never imagine any character like myself.
     
  5. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Some readers love physical description and want to be spoon fed a precise image of the MC. To others (cough me cough) most description stands out like a sore thumb and looks amateurish. IMO the best description is weaved into the story seamlessly, so you form an image without ever having a standalone sentence telling you what that person looks like.

    I'm very, very sparse on physical description and like @Sack-a-Doo! I've found that hardly anybody notices. Humans are remarkably good at filling in the gaps themselves.

    But I very much agree with your post--if a facet of appearance is relevant to the plot it needs to be shown to the reader very, very early on. You do NOT want readers forming an image of a character and to then be told it's wrong.
     
  6. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I'll include descriptions that actually effect things, like one character being taller or more muscular than another so they're able to reach/lift things a smaller/weaker character can't. Or if there's something remarkable about them, something that really stands out - for instance a friend of mine used to have really long, curly red hair, and it was undeniably the first thing you'd notice about him - I'll mention something like that, if applicable. I have a lot of characters who're siblings and some parents and children, and I like to describe how they look similar and different - a character whose way of smiling keeps coming up, and when her girlfriend meets her mom, she has this moment of "oh, that's where she gets it from" although it looks just a bit different on an older face. A kid is mentioned to look oddly like his mom's brother before anyone realizes who he's related to at all.

    I've seen people argue against including any descriptions at all, but I do think there are real uses for them. But mostly I just personally like them, because I always have pretty vivid mental images of my characters - as well as settings and props, and I enjoy describing them too. Which is really all you can go off of. Do you like writing them? Do you want to? Obviously you can go overboard with them and they become tedious and boring and bring the plot to screeching halt, but any tool in writing can be overused or done poorly. Write the descriptions you want to write, and if people tell you they're too much and making your writing unenjoyable (you'll almost never hear that they're not enough, as other posters have illustrated), maybe dial it back.

    I tend to distill a character description to about 1-3 points, like: she's tall, her hair's pink, and she wears a lot of gold jewelry. They don't have to be plot-important, but if I keep those in mind I'll be writing little thing about this character toying with her many gold rings, or the flash of pink when she enters a room, or her stretching her fingertips up to the ceiling, and I like the effect that has on my writing.

    eta: Another thing to consider is that if you're writing in first person, what descriptions you give can offer insight into the pov character - eg maybe they always notice the ways in which other people look 'better' than them because they have a poor body image, or they always remark on people having facial piercings because they think they're attractive (or gross), or they keep comparing people to their dead significant other. You can mention things like that in third as well ("Jo noticed the glimmer of her septum ring and grimaced slightly") but IMO it's just a little more organic in first, typically.
     
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2016
  7. Iain Aschendale
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    Iain Aschendale Contributed Member Contributor

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    It depends on how you want people to view your MC. If you want them to identify with her/him, less is more. I've never read the Twilight series (nor do I intend to), but I read a favorable review from a writing point of view that said that, while the various vampires and werewolves and... house elves? were described in detail, there wasn't a word about what Bella looked like.

    That way she looked exactly like every girl who was reading the books.

    Not at bad strategy at all.

    However, if your goal is to make your MC a hero, someone to be admired, feel free to describe their rippling muscles and lantern jaw. On the recommendation of a family member, I read a couple of Richard Marcinko's books. Mr. Marcinko is a former Navy SEAL who writes what I've heard referred to as "Harlequin Romances for Men", and he never fails to describe exactly how strong he is (he can bench press 450 pounds), his hair (black, tied into a ponytail) or the difficulties he has finding shirts and jackets that can accommodate his burly barrel chest. Again, this is a good strategy for his target market, as I suspect that most of his readers spend more time in cubicles than foreign jungles, but by letting them into his physique, he's fulfilling what they'd like to be.

    Now, this isn't meant to be sarcastic. I'm not a fan of either of the writers I mentioned, but they are good at understanding their target markets and writing what will entertain those readers, which is certainly what I hope to do at some point.

    If I ever figure out who my target market is, and how to convince the guards to let them buy my stuff, once published :)
     
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  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I like a quite limited amount of physical description of characters.
     
  9. hawls
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    hawls Active Member

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    This is the easiest approach. Mention those features that are immediately apparent.

    Just don't have your protagonist look into a mirror as an excuse to describe what they look like.
     
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  10. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    And, if you're going to get into a lot of detail about your character's description, get to it right away. A reader's mental image of your character is formed almost immediately. If you put the description in right away, I think you stand a chance of impacting how the reader views the character. If you wait a couple of pages to add a bunch of extra detail, I think the reader is not only going to ignore those details, it'll probably pull the reader out of the story to a degree because it will be in conflict with the image they already have in their head.

    One reason I write with minimal character description is that I know when I'm reading I form my own mental image of the characters, and author's descriptions be damned. Apart from some very high-level characteristics (gender, ethnicity, size) or some specific important detail (scar, eyepatch, prosthetic leg, &c.) I completely ignore what the author says about how the character looks. I'm not the only one who reads that way :)
     
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  11. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Part of my aversion to description is that I don't picture characters at all. I have vague, fuzzy images, a bit like in dreams (unless other people also dream more vividly than me...)

    Like I might see a woman-shaped person with white skin and red hair, but I'm not going to picture her face and body distinctly no matter how much detail you give me. I don't even picture my own characters very well.
     
  12. halisme
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    halisme Contributing Member Contributor

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    I try to have description given through the lens of either themselves or another character. That way you get both emotional and physical understanding of the person.
     
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  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The only thing I would be extremely cautious about is giving the reader a laundry list of description. By that, I mean a list of hair colour, eye colour, height, weight, shape, clothing etc ...in a way that lifts the reader out of the story. If it's done too clumsily or too early on, the description won't even register or stick. And that goes extra for 'describing' several characters at one time in this way. You see it done so often here on the forum in beginner's stories. They mean well, but don't realise that this is not the best way to get descriptions across. It's fine for the casting director of a movie to know these things, but a reader won't look at the list the same way.

    If you don't want any character descriptions in the kind of story you're telling, that's fine, of course. However, sometimes writers do need to say something about what their characters look like.

    I prefer this to be done as much as possible by the POV character, who reacts to what he or she sees. She thinks the head of curly red hair is intensely attractive on that guy because of the way it....whatever it does. Or she finds a head of red curly hair reminds her strongly of a cousin she disliked as a child, so it puts her off the newcomer. These kinds of things. If the description is given to the reader along with a POV reaction to what the character looks like, it's a remarkably easy way to kill two birds with one stone. Just try to be sparing and let more of the description unfold along with the story. Also include habits and mannerisms, facial expressions, etc. The person never looks anybody in the eye. The person taps his foot while he's speaking, as if he's got someplace else to go and can't wait to get started. The person's teeth are yellow, and they don't seem to care. The person's hair is so greasy it's got dust clinging to it.

    Careful not to whap the reader with so much detail that they can stop reading and paint the guy's portrait ...unless you are very skilled with this sort of thing. Too much information tends to have the opposite effect to what is intended. Instead of getting the character firmly fixed in the reader's head, you risk the reader not remembering the list at all.

    It's what the writer does with that list that counts.
     
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2016
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  14. Sapphire at Dawn
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    Sapphire at Dawn Member

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    This. In my novel, two of my characters have to be mistaken for each other, so it's important that the reader gets fed information that makes this believable. Generally, I trust my readers to build a picture of a character themselves (this is what I do. In Harry Potter, I always pictured Lavender Brown as being black, so it threw me in the sixth book when she was described as being blonde) so I use a bit of sparse description now and then to just nudge them into the direction I want.

    I mostly ignore large chunks of description I see in books and picture characters how I want.
     
  15. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Me too! I think it was because of the character Lavender in Matilda.
     
  16. I.A. By the Barn
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    I.A. By the Barn A very lost time traveller Contributor

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    I don't know how obvious my descriptions are but that they tend to be 'his hair disappeared into the darkness' sort of thing. They describe several things at once but they could be overlooked.
     
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  17. Sapphire at Dawn
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    Sapphire at Dawn Member

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    Yep, that's exactly why I pictured her as black!
     
  18. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    I write descriptions if and when it's relevant. If there's an unusual physical trait that would affect a character's strength or physicality, I mention it. Distinguishing marks, I mention it. I'll mention their clothes if it helps give a sense of the weather or fashion of the area.

    For example, my main character is very big and tall for her age, partly because she'll need to be able to hold her own in physical combat with grown men later in the story. She's repeatedly mentioned to be wearing a jacket, because the weather is cold and it actually becomes story-important later. Her face, though, eye color, hair, is maybe mentioned once when she's introduced, if I mention it at all.
     
  19. Buttered Toast
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    Buttered Toast Active Member

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    I like descriptions, I want to know what the writer wishes me to see so I like to describe my characters, but the reason is that they are different then normal people, there hair and eyes are different.
    I try not to go straight in a tell the reader what they all look like, instead I casually bring it up like I would say 'Tom mumbled as he twiddled his red hair with two fingers'
    Or 'he patted down his red velvet coat before knocking on the door'
    It's telling you what I would like you to know!
    It's up to you how much description you want in your book, I know what I would want :)
     
  20. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Gotta agree with that.

    As a reader, I've fallen into this trap. I don't remember if I continued reading after that, but faced with the same situation today, it would have to be a damned good story before I would.
     
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  21. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I was in my teens, I could form extremely sharp images in my mind. It was a big part of the reason I started reading again after dropping out of school. Can't do that so well any more. No matter how hard I try, the images are vague. I miss that.

    But even though I can't do it as well, I still like to imagine what characters look like. Often, they come out as whatever actors were in the last TV show or movie I watched. And if, the next day, I watch a different show and continue reading, the characters then become the actors from the new show. And yet, somehow, I don't get confused by it all. :)
     
  22. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's very much in keeping with the methods outlined in Dwight V. Swain's book. I like Blake Snyder's description of the method better, though: limp and an eye-patch. :)
     
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  23. Buttered Toast
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    Buttered Toast Active Member

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    Sounds like I need to read up more about descriptions!
    Thanks for that :)
     
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  24. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would never dissuade you from reading more about writing, but it sounds to me like you've got the knack of this one. ;)
     
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  25. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I had a beta reader say, "I like X! In my mind he looks like [Character from TV show I've never watched]." I thought that was funny because literally the only physical description of him in the entire book is that he has dark hair. Proves your point again--people fill in the blanks.
     
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