1. FoxPaw
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    FoxPaw Senior Member

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    Physically Over-Describing a Character?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by FoxPaw, Nov 12, 2011.

    I've read a few posts on here and it came to my attention that I might be over-describing my characters' physical attributes. I don't go insanely overboard (I hope) and go into such things as skin tone and count every single one of their scars, but I go into a fair amount of detail.

    However, I've read a couple authors on here that just describe details here and there if they come up as important and nothing more; they let the audience paint a picture of the characters. I find myself agreeing that this is a good thing, and yet do the complete opposite. I suppose the root of my doing this comes from my RPGing days, when you made character sheets (everything from height, to eye and hair color, to clothes) and I can't seem to break the habit. =/ "This is how I visualize the characters, so I'm writing it down as such." I'm so use to writing this way that the fact that maybe I shouldn't describe eye color (when it's not relevant) bemused me.

    An example from a fantasy story of mine include:
    Clarice - a cursed woman with red eyes that have black irises and black, plus-shaped cross-hairs to mark her as cursed
    (In this case, describing the eyes are relevant. However, I've also described her hair as long and light-brown, information that isn't relevant to the story, but this is the way I see her as the author.)

    So I was wondering what people thought: is it better to describe characters how the author visualizes them, or to be as vague as possible and let the readers take care of the rest? Or somewhere in between? Is it just up to the type of writer you are? If it's better to be vague, how does one go about doing that when you have a picture of your character in your mind? How do I break this habit?
     
  2. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's a matter of preference and genre perhaps. These kind of descriptions probably work well in fantasy books.

    I tend to not go into too much detail, but then I write short stories for the most part. In longer stories, I like to give some insight into 'looks', but
    don't give the whole game away, as it were. I found during editing that I could cut out a fair bit of stuff that had crept in, but wasn't needed.

    I'd just write and not worry too much.
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm usually a description minimalist. I leave most of it up to the reader. Of course, if the character has some attribute that becomes important to the plot (he's very tall, so he can reach the gun over the mantlepiece, or he's too fat to ride a horse, or some such thing), I'll mention that. But I've written short stories in which I don't describe the characters at all.
     
  4. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    For me, the most important thing about a character is his/her personality. It tells me so much more about them, and I will automatically form an image of the character. I read an example of this in a writing book once that really opened my eyes. I can't remember it now, though. It went into the character something like this.

    His callased hands ran over the wood plank. A pinched cigarette hung limpy from his lips, the smoke not bothering his squinted eyes. He thought about her. How she smelled. How she felt. He didn't have time to think about that. The patio wasn't going to build itself.

    Just that alone can help me start to see him.

    But what about this next example?

    Sally woke up every morning at 7am and would throw on whatever clothes caught her eye first. She spent three hours of her day at the soup kitchen. The rest of her day, she baked at Mrs. Johnson's bakery. What I hated most about Sally was how beautiful she looked without trying. She just throws it all away.


    I think details like these are far more important than hair color, hair length, hair style, etc.
     
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  5. FoxPaw
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    FoxPaw Senior Member

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    VM80: I usually write out ideas in hopes of making them novel (or at least novette) in length, and they will almost always be fantasy. However, I've written a couple short stories so I'll definitely keep that in mind. I guess, "If it feels like there's too much description, there probably is." Thank you.

    minstrel: Have you posted in a thread like this before? I think your post might've been the post I read because your answer sounds like the one I saw. In any case, thank you for answering. I have a problem with over describing even in short stories so I'll try to cut back.

    architectus: Yes, I definitely see what you're talking about, especially with that first example with the smoking man. Okay, I definitely have to work at my stories to get to that level! Thank you for sharing!
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, FoxPaw, I have. People keep starting similar threads here, and I keep posting similar responses. Fun for all, I guess!
     
  7. FoxPaw
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    FoxPaw Senior Member

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    Oh, I'm sorry for posting a repeat thread then. I should have looked deeper into the archives.
     
  8. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    What on earth is "plus-shaped black hairs"!? Where are these hairs!?

    And it's best to go somewhere in between. You wanna guide the reader into visualising what you want, but give them room to fill in the gaps.
     
  9. FoxPaw
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    FoxPaw Senior Member

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    Cross-hairs are what you call the measuring ticks put on gun-scopes for distance. She uses the cross-hairs so she can always have a bulls-eye with each attack she makes, and it's a mark of her curse; she's a bounty-hunter in my story. Sorry I didn't explain clearer; I didn't because I didn't think it as relevant to what I was saying. Does that help?

    And thank you for your answer to my question. I have to go back and get rid of some of the "just telling" and let the audience create their own picture.
     
  10. Colin Ruggles
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    Colin Ruggles Member

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    Hi FoxPaw,

    I agree with Architectus. I used to read a lot of Wilbur Smith when I started reading for fun and not just for school.

    I used to enjoy the very descriptive method he uses, but as I have read more authors, i tend to prefer to visualise the characters myself.

    In order to find a bond with the character, I need to empathise with some part of him / her and you can only do that if the author incorporates their characteristics with the small snippets of desription when and where it becomes relevant to the plot.

    The best way to dive into a story is to visualise the characters and have your imagination stimulated as aposed to just have someone tell you what you should be thinking.

    Hope this makes sense.

    Good luck

    Colin
     
  11. Holo
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    Holo Senior Member

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    I wouldn't suggest spending a paragraph explaining your character's physical appearance, but you could slip in little features without putting focus on it. You could say "she pulled her dark hair into a ponytail" or "her green eyes widened" etc. So instead of putting a lot of detail, you give your readers enough to know what the character looks like but don't spend too much time dealing with the trivial.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    One possibility could be to _make_ the irrelevant characteristics relevant, at least in terms of someone's point of view. That would give you an excuse to provide them:

    Clarice glared at me when I walked into the bar, and I grinned right back at her. Most people wouldn't do that--most people got one look at those bounty-hunter-scope eyes of hers and found a reason to be somewhere that she wasn't. But--and I'd never tell her this--Clarice looked just like, June, my youngest sister. I could just imagine that long brown hair in a schoolgirl braid, and the slick black fighting leathers just made me want to laugh; they made me think of June when she set her jaw and tried to be as tough as her brothers. Yeah, don't tell her; if she knew I was laughing she'd kill me, and you, too.

    ChickenFreak
     
  13. flyguy07
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    flyguy07 New Member

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    Like most other people have said, I think it mostly depends on the author's preference. I personally like Steinbeck's very detailed approach, but there is no harm in having the readers come up with their own idea of what a character looks like. The main thing to keep in mind is that, if there is an important trait that comes up later, be sure to describe it when the character first appears. I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed after getting halfway through a novel just to find out that the heroine was a blonde rather than a brunette!

    As long as the discription isn't cumbersome, I think you can get away with just about anything.

    flyguy
     
  14. FoxPaw
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    FoxPaw Senior Member

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    Thanks Colin! I think I've settled for a mixture of both; I'm going to tone down a bit on descriptions (I have to go back and edit some chapters then), but take a bit of flyguy's advice when they says this:

    flyguy: Yeah, this also annoys me so I'm going to try and slip in a minimal amount of description, but not go overboard so the readers can fill in the rest. Thanks, flyguy!

    Holo: Yeah, the paragraph thing is what I have been doing and I want to stop that. RPGing has affected my writing and I want to cut away form that.

    ChickenFreak: Nice description piece! I see what you mean, but I don't think I'll be heading in that direction. Thanks for the advice and example, though!

    Thank for the feedback, everyone! I think I know what I'll be doing for descriptions from now on- hold back, but give the relevant parts and interesting features/traits. =)
     
  15. Thom
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    Thom Member

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    I would like the reader to picture the same character that I'm 'seeing.' But doing so is easy to overdue, so I would favor describing a character from another's perspective, or even self-reflection. So saying, you don't need to go overboard, but some definition is a good thing.
     
  16. FoxPaw
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    FoxPaw Senior Member

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    Thanks Thom. =) I was going overboard, like describing clothes and stuff, so I need to go back and simplify the description so the readers have a character, but they themselves can work in the minor details.
     
  17. ScreamsfromtheCrematory
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    It depends.

    For some more mundane characters (appearance wise, not necessarily in relation to the plot), perhaps a paragraph or two could do to generally set the visual tone and idea of him/her/it. It won't take up much space and won't be too "Huh? Wow." either but it'll keep things concise and fluid. When describing a character of this sort, in order to spice it up a bit, don't describe JUST how the character looks and the clothing - describe perhaps what it seems to represent and imply.

    "Horizontal ovular eyes, protruding from the sides of its lumpen skull, made the onlookers believe that there was always a presence watching them in the peripheries of their vision."

    "The sharp protrusions from under the thick jacket, harsh and jagged, held a subtle violence within their oddly fitting points. The lesser being secretly watched the every leaning and stretching of the mutant's limbs for just the slightest hints of what he knew it was more than capable of.

    When your characters encounter something say, to use less elegant language, SOMETHING TOTALLY FORNICATED UP AND JUST SO WACK, then you can start getting descriptive and using what some would call "big words". In order to drive in the point of its FORNICATED UP WACKNESS, you have to really make the description "big". Not necessarily in the amount of words but the literary scope you go for - the particular mechanisms of the whatever-it-is that make it seem so... grand (not necessarily physically), how beyond it is to the existential context they are used to living in, and other things to show how "woahwuuuut" it is.
     
  18. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like finding a balance between over-description and essentially telling me nothing about what the character looks like. lol
     
  19. gimble13
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    gimble13 Member

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    i think its very important not to stop your story or dialog in order to list your characters physical attributes you wouldn't do this with there emotions or any other aspect so why do it with looks.
    when i right i prefer to brake up descriptions in small chunks to precede he said or she said but i know this can seem repetitive but i do try to limit the amount of descriptions as much as possible.
     
  20. SilverWolf0101
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    SilverWolf0101 Active Member

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    When describing characters I try to avoid an info dump for their description (I was quite guilty of this). Instead I found a different method that seemed much more attractive, and it's certainly something to try.

    The number one rule of me describing characters is this: "What would you notice first?"
    If someone walked up to you that you've never seen before, what would be the first few things you notice? Take for example this description (which quite honestly is still in the works);
    It's not the longest description in the world, nor is it the best, but it definitely gives you a beginning idea of what a character looks like. It also prevents the reader from getting half way (or more) into a novel to find out the character is actually a blonde instead of a brunette. After the innitial description, you can then drop hints throughout the rest of the book as to how the character looks. This can, and often does, personality traits as well. Like for example;
    It may not be a physical description entirely, but it also helps paint the character so the readers can see them in their own way, while also seeing them in the way you intended.

    These are just the methods I use though, and I find them to be quite helpful, so maybe they'll be of use to you also.
     
  21. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally, I don't like to read detailed physical descriptions (like someone's hair colour, eye colour, type of nose, etc, all the way down to the toes) because I find them boring. I also find it hard to keep all those details in my head and put them together into a picture.

    I think a good description conveys the impression you get from a character. Ask yourself, "What is the first thing you notice when this character walks into a room?" Is it that they have very large glasses? Then desribe those. Is it that their bad skin? Then describe that. Is it their nervous demeanor? Then describe that. Two - three of those details are often enough to give an impression of the character.

    For example, this is how I'd describe Jack Nicholson:
    Notice how this description doesn't contain any objective physical details; it's all about impressions.
     
  22. Acid001
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    Acid001 Member

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    The above post hits the nail on the head. When your brain perceives a person for the first time, you're not immediately aware of every nuance of their physicality. At a glance, you get an impression; a feeling. The feeling is what should be conveyed.

    If the red eyes with crosses are an essential element to the story, then they should be introduced somewhere apart from the character's introduction. Perhaps they're noticed later-on and their meaning is inferred, or something like that.
     

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