1. Beth
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    Beth Member

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    Secondary characters: no physical description?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Beth, Mar 15, 2009.

    Hi all,

    I was wondering what kind of effect the reader gets when some characters are given no description.
    Ex: my MC is spending some months in a rehab center, and apart from two or three people who are essential to the plot (who I briefly depicted, just to give the reader a visual hint), there are some side characters (other patients in the center) who I just name but don't describe at all.
    Do you think that's fine?
     
  2. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    It's certainly better than spending a whole page describing a character who will be gone forever after half a page of actually doing something. It's a pet peeve of mine.

    I've seen plenty of main characters, even, who get little or no physical description. Honestly, unless appearances are important to the story, or if the character just looks interesting somehow, describing the character doesn't do much good. I'd bet that half of readers either forget the laundry list of characteristics, or just skip over it entirely. Secondary characters don't typically matter as much as the main characters, so I see no problem with it.
     
  3. g1ng3rsnap9ed
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    g1ng3rsnap9ed Contributing Member

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    I have the same problem. I'll be re-reading my writings only to notice that certain characters (,usually those of the less important variety,) have no physical description whatsoever. Glad to hear that it doesn't matter all that much though. Personally I wouldn't think that you should worry too much about it unless all your side-characters begin to get confusing and thin as cardboard cut-outs. Then I would recommend just giving a significant feature off or two (,or just do that anyways, just in case,) that the reader can identify them with. For example if you have a few younger boy characters have one suffering from acne and the other short and tubby. Not a complete description, but enough for the reader to be able to differentiate the characters from one another.

    Hope that helps.
     
  4. Gone Wishing
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    Gone Wishing Contributing Member

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    Ditto all that (generally, the only physical characteristic I describe of my main chracters is the colour of their eyes, if they have any).

    If you feel like it leaves something missing there are lots of little ways that you can add details without interrupting the flow of the story and launching into descriptive passages; it can sometimes serve the purpose of advancing character development, as well. Lame example:

    She smiled as she squeezed the lemon wedge over the fish. "I used to use these to try and bleach the freckles on my nose."
     
  5. Beth
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    Beth Member

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    What do you mean? ...Some of your characters don't have eyes? :rolleyes:
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    To describe, or not to describe. That is the question.

    I tend to only provide sketchy descriptions of even main characters. I'd much rather hint at appearance rather than paint it in exsquite detail. That way, te reader's imagination is put to work.

    But a lot of it depends on point of view (POV). If the POV character is a detectiev, or an artist, for exaqmple, he or she may make it a habit to look at new acquaintences and to take note of details. Such people would still be unlikely to decribe themselves in the same manner, or even people they have known for a long time, unless the friend's appearance has drasticaqlly changed.

    What your character chooses to notice can be very telling. Watch out for the guy who describes every girl he meets in terms of her shoes, and imagines what her naked toes would look like.
     
  7. Gone Wishing
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    Gone Wishing Contributing Member

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    No, not exactly... For example, in one story, one of my characters looks mostly like a man, but isn't. He wears a top hat over where his eyes would be to disguise what he is - or rather, contain what is actually there. The top hat and the leather satchel he carries are actually the only things about him I have described in any detail.
     
  8. Beth
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    Beth Member

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    Thanks for your answers.
    I have a further question (which I think I can put here directly):

    In the rehab center there are about 40 patients (think of Girl, interrupted). In the first chapters I named a few of them but obviously I can't always use the same 4 or 5 people as side characters because it would look as there are only 5 people in this place. Do you think it's ok to introduce a new name just when I need it, and then never talk about that character again? I'm afraid the reader might say: "Di Cicco? Now, who's Di Cicco?"

    I hope what I'm asking is clear. :rolleyes:
     
  9. iolair
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    iolair Active Member

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    With my secondary characters, I've been generally giving a single piece only of physical description; whatever you would notice first.

    With the characters in the ward, I would concentrate on just the same few, giving just enough mention of the others (or even somehow sneaking in the figure explicitly) to communicate the size of the place. As a reader, I think it's better to have familiarity with the repeated names and a chance to get something of the character of the others there.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Patients come and go, and to a lesser extent, so do staff. Also, there may be doctors called in for consultation, outside doctors who referred patients for resident care, recurringand one-time visitors, etc.

    The point is that there will be unfamilar names and unfamiliar faces. It should be fairly commonplace for names to pop up and not be mentioned again.
     
  11. Speedy
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    Speedy Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like putting somer odd deatil into secondary characters. Nothing major. Just maybe the MC picking up their breath smells like cat food or maybe how they looks like shaggy from shooby doo. Sometyhing very small that might give the reader an imidiate image. Nothing to read over taking twenty lines that nobody cares about.
     
  12. Beth
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    Beth Member

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    Right, I do that too. One my characters is introduced like this: He had something of Groucho Marx. ;)
     
  13. Benska
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    Benska Member

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    In relation to your first question, and maybe your second; I think a sort of "title" works most times. For example in a book I read recently, where an ex Bombmaker is forced into an affiliation with terrorists, she never knows the names of two men who guard her, she simply refers to one as "the runner" because he is long and gangly, and the other as "the bearded one." But this only really applies when names aren't being exchanged, I suppose

    Otherwise, it is probably enough to state an outstanding physical quality that you would notice at first glance. Like a big nose, bald head, big ears, etc. Or, if they have none, you could call them bland, or plain.

    Also, I think it's fine for names to pop up, and pop straight back down again, so to speak. As Cog said, patients are naturally going to come and go.
     
  14. ArticulatedInsanity
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    ArticulatedInsanity New Member

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    I think that it’s fine to have characters phase in and out of a story rather quickly without adequate description. This should be done, but, ONLY if done right. The ones you are thinking of seem to be “characters of a third nature” as I like to call them. If there is a literary term for these, then please tell me. These are given less attention than the secondary’s. “Characters of a third nature” come and go in the novel extremely quickly, and, never again return in the storyline. This does not mean that their hastened appearance holds no importance, however. A secondary character phasing in and out of a story extremely quickly would work well in, say, a series of novels, such as a trilogy; these are in and out of the first book, – though, not as quickly as the “third natured” ones - and, then, in the second novel, are given a fairly important role. Secondary characters need to hold some importance and be described fairly well, especially if your book is not part of a series.
     

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