1. LipMedex
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    LipMedex New Member

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    T.m.i.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by LipMedex, Jul 11, 2009.

    I would just like an opinion on a question that has been bugging me since my elementary writing years:

    How much discription of a character is too much?


    I am currently writing a little project novel about human-looking robots and it is told in first person by my main female robot, and as she goes along and first introduced people into the story, I have her lightly describe them.

    For example, for unimportant scientists I have her refer to them as short/tall, thin/fat, and a detail like... foreign or intellectual looking.
    And for her other fellow robots (only going to 5) I have her casually describe hair and eye color and a feature like, "His face seemed to illuminate more than the rest of us..."

    I know people may say that descriptions should be few and have the readers have their point of view... believe me I don't go into full paragraph detail of each character, I would just like people to see mildly how I see the characters. Is this a bad habit or okay?

    Thanks everyone!


    Ally
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Don't let readers have their point of view....I mean they will anyway, but don't deliberately leave the description so open that they can put anyone they want in the role...after all, you are the artist, you make the reader read and experience exactly what you want them to.
    That said, there are times when description isn't necessary at all as the character/detail is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, so obviously there is no hard and fast rule for description length. You show the reader exactly what you want to show them (whether its only her dazzling green eyes, for a lame example, or her entire body, in detail, down to every last freckle and mole). I would avoid listening (too hard) to anyone who suggests an "ideal" amount of description - if they say you have too much, what they're really saying is "this is written in a way that is boring to read - revise it so that I can care about what you are saying".
     
  3. LipMedex
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    LipMedex New Member

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    Thank you, this really changed my point of view and I appreciate you taking your time out to respond!
     
  4. Rumpole40k
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    Rumpole40k Banned

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    How you describe a character is just as important what information you give. As a reader, really don't care too much about what the character looks like. I can build a decent mental image from their actions and speech. When looking at your work, don't ask yourself if the description is too much or too little - ask yourself if this is something the reader is just going to skip over completely.

    This is my favorite example.

    Joel was a boring man, with dull clothes, and a body that wasn't horribly obese or skeletal thin. I had to help him.

    I might read this line or I might just scan past it if the plot was getting really good.

    But you can get the same end product in a different way.

    "Ya need help Joel. Look at you. Gray pants, gray slacks, gray couch, with the looks and wit to match."

    In both cases, we get a boring, dull person. One is clearly an info dump that might be ignored. The other could be the beginning of a dynamic exchange between two characters. After you read the second version, couldn't you imagine Joel's response? That's propelling the story rather than creating a speed bump in the flow. Don't worry about too much or little description - worry about how it helps your story flow.

    ~R
     
  5. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I agree that the way description fits into the flow of your story is very important, but just to offer another view: exposition isn't always a bad way to do things. There are already a lot of threads about so-called "info dumps", so I won't get into that here, but the general idea seems to be that "telling" the reader something is worse than "showing", which simply isn't always true. So definitely you should be paying attention to what is going on in your writing in terms of pace and tone and style, but stay cohesive with that, not with some "rule". If your story is slow and pensieve, then the kind of exchange described above might be out of place, even though it conforms with the "show don't tell" philosophy.....though obviously if your story is a fast-paced narrative that focusses more on action and things, then that exchange would be well-suited.
     
  6. Rumpole40k
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    Rumpole40k Banned

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    Actually, my previous post was a much longer winded version of Elmore Leonard's statement "When I write, I try to skip those things I would skip when reading." I guess it might fall into the whole show, don't tell debate (a debate which I try to avoid like the plague) but I tend to view stories in terms of flow.
     
  7. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    The amount of description would also vary depending on the POV character and what is happening, particularly with first person. How much of the other character's physical traits actually notice?

    A archetypical absent minded professor, probably wouldn't notice anything about his assistant except whether he or she preformed whatever function was required.

    An sculptor or painter taking a break with a cup of coffee at a sidewalk cafe and doing some people watching, though, would notice pretty minute details.

    So a large part of your answer is contained in how well you know your character.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I'm a minimalist. Give the reader what is needed for the story, including a few details for "color", but don't crowbar a photograph of what you see in your mind's eye into the reader's head. You can end up popping the bubble that the reader's imagination constructs.

    For an example, see my short story Blue. I deliberately give very few details about the woman in the dream: Blue eyes, blue dress, dark hair. The reader will fill in his (or her) own details of the ideal of an alluring, mysterious woman. It's better that way.

    The reader's own imagination is one of your best tools.
     
  9. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    I also think that keeping description to just the necessary parts is good, i.e. don't go overboard, since we're not in the 1800s and don't need long, winding descriptions. However, I'm also the type that likes "unusual" descriptions, as in describing a beard as a "lion mane" as opposed to a "big beard", for example. If there's something unusual about a character, or about the description, more specifically, I'd probably pay attention to it - furthermore, it makes the character more unique (though this is not necessary for all characters; some characters are better just looking "mundane"). But again, it can't be overdone, or else it could become winded and long.
     
  10. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    But again, there's this assumption that a large amount of description makes a bad piece by default. What makes a bad piece is bad writing, and since it seems that most people aren't able to get beyond basic, uninspired descriptions (and that more and more readers seem to have ADD) lengthy passages of description have become synonymous with that. The simple fact is, not every book has a plot that propels forward at 500 miles per hour. Some stories need to take their time and describe everything and everyone in detail. It may not be to your taste, but thats irrelevant. It doesn't make the writing bad, unless the writing is bad to begin with.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Description that enriches the story is fine. But all too often, decscription is only added because the author has an image in mind and feels compelled to convey it in high def to the reader, without regard for pace or plot/character development.

    We are used to television and cinema, in which the audience can be entranced by the pure visual beauty of the scene. There CAN be analogs to these scenes in writing, but the writer must take into account the fact that a reader is processing a linear stream, so the of a detailed description rises as the square of the linear detail level. With a visual medium, triplling the visua detail takes roughly three times as much time for the viewer to process it, whereas the same increase in detail would take approximately nine times as much time for the reader to process.

    Writers need to remember that literature is a different medium, and to place less emphasis on purely visual aspects.
     
  12. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    My stance on this is that first impressions are the only impressions that matter. The moment a character is introduced the reader will get a general image in their head of what that person looks like and then that image will stick with them for the rest of the story, which is good because hopefully they'll be too into what's actually going on at that point to care what everyone looks like.

    With this in mind, I always introduce each character with a physical description, if only to try to prevent the reader from getting the completely wrong mental image. Minor characters get very basic ones. ("He was tall, wore a pinstripe suit and looked like a ganster.") More important characters are described in greater detail, but I try to keep it to what the observer might actually be able to recount after the initial meeting. (Approximate age, body shape, hair and eye color, complexion, general attractiveness/repulsiveness, etc.) You don't really need to go into details because the readers will either not care or be more then happy to fill in the blanks themselves.

    To balance all this out, I make a point of never describing the characters again for the rest of the story, if I can avoid it.
     
  13. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    I think it's not nearly so important for readers to see (mildly or otherwise) how you see the characters, but vividly how other characters perceive them and why that matters to the story you tell. Anything else is just excess. Aside from that, there's no way to answer the hypothetical question of how much is enough or too much, because it's what matters in the story you aim to write that's important. Nothing else ought to be there at all.
     
  14. Rumpole40k
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    Rumpole40k Banned

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    I will be stealing this advice in the future. Thanks.
     
  15. LipMedex
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    LipMedex New Member

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    I thank all of you for your help on this. I'm surprised that there are so many different opinions of this topic as well.

    In the end, I chose to just describe eye, hair, skin color, and just some little fact. I agree with Cog, and loooong descriptions are not my thing. And I agree with aaron and few others as well who had the opinion of showing the readers what I wish them to see. I know where I am going with the discriptions in my story now, thank you all very much (people are so nice on here, I'm glad I joined)
     
  16. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    Consider it yours;). Someday I'll steal the fabulous effect of your blinking eye avatar!
     
  17. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Arron makes a good point. There's never going to be any particular method that is 'best' in every circumstance. I generally prefer the 'less is more' approach in short stories. In novels I like to see more description, when handled skillfully. If the character is gonna hang around for 12 books and 10,000+ pages, paint me a good picture, please. If your mc is infatuated with a certain character, it makes sense to describe his obsession in somewhat obsessive detail - especially if your character's voice/personality dominates the narrative.

    I deal with the issue by writing mostly what my mc is likely to notice. It's only realistic. My mc doesn't make a habit of daydreaming about himself, so I'm not gonna list his attributes out of the blue. (I have green eyes. . sexy green eyes, rippling biceps, pecs of steel, and oh, my spikey blonde hair! Don't get me started on my hair. If only I could duplicate myself. . . *sigh*)

    No. . . If I want to say he's tall, fat, muscular etc, I'll show it somehow. Perhaps there might be a scene where he's feeling self-conscious and thinking about this stuff, but I would never create a situation like that just to describe him. I try to only describe what is natural and relevant to the characters, scene and story.

    If he meets someone for the first time, I keep the description relevant. If she has massive breasts, he's going to notice. If the rest of her is relatively plain, I indicate this by leaving it vague. If my character has an ear fetish, I might mention her cute little ears. Otherwise. . . not. I'm unlikely to mention eye colour in any non-romantic context, because I don't see how it's important. . .

    When I meet people for the first time, I make an instant, subconscious assessment. How do they carry themselves? Lazy, shy, confident, assertive, nervous? Are they attractive? There may be one or two things that really stand out for me as 'attractive', but most of the time this is just a general sense I have. A hundred little details click together in an instant, and the judgemental part of my brain gives a thumbs up or down.

    Too many tedius and pointless 'grocery list' descriptions have given 'details' a bad rep. Often, descriptions are handled badly. A good number of those need to be cut altogether, or mentioned at a more appropriate time. Figuring out which ones need cutting and which ones need a rewrite or different placement is a tricky business. In the end you have to use your own judgement.

    Just think: what is realistic and relevant in the moment? Which details suit the scene and your character's thoughts right now?

    With all that said, I started out writing grocery lists, too, and still catch myself in the act from time to time. It's a very easy habit to fall into, and a challenging problem to solve.
     

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