1. Stormsong07

    Stormsong07 Contributor Contributor

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    Character description- how much? How often?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Stormsong07, Jul 14, 2018.

    How much do you describe your characters? Most of mine are fairly short descriptions:

    -A trim woman with her blonde hair cut short emerged from the entrance hall.

    -She looked young, in her twenties, with her dark locks tied back from her heart-shaped face.

    -The bear rider was an older blonde. Her worn face placed her in her mid-thirties, but her body was still in peak fighting trim.

    -Captain Acacia wore leather riding pants and a grey tunic with a golden rose stitched on the breast. Her cropped brown hair, shot through with silver, was mussed, as if she’d been running her fingers through it.


    Once I've given an initial impression of the character, I try to incorporate more descriptions with actions. For example, after the initial description of Acacia, I add something like this after a bit of dialogue:

    Acacia raised one brow, her faded blue eyes curious.
    Are these enough? Do you go more in depth? Do you describe every character as they enter the scene? I just brought in three new characters to a scene where we've already gotten at least a one-liner description of all the other characters present. Must I describe each of the newcomers if they won't be seen much in the rest of the story, or can I let the reader fill in the blanks?

    Most of my characters are women, so I feel like I'm describing people the same way each time. Hair color. Eye color. Height. I don't want to be repetitive.

    Got any tips on character descriptions? Am I at least somewhat on track?
     
  2. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    I only go into a ton of detail when I'm feeling particularly self-indulgent. Then, I decide I hate myself and delete most of what I've written. This is usually around the same time I start feverishly writing second-person narratives because I can totally pull it off...not.

    I work in cycles, it seems.

    And to address your questions: I think it largely depends on style and the POV through which the story-world is viewed. If you have different POV characters but your descriptions sound similar, you might run into an issue, but maybe not. It all depends.

    Personally, I don't care about descriptions. I'm not a very visual person, so even when long descriptions are fed to me, I don't necessarily envision it. I don't care what people are wearing. For example, if Captain Acacia is riding a horse, or frequently does, I assume he's wearing attire designed for riding. (Personal view: I don't care what it looks like.) Now, if his riding attire is brand new, never worn out, never broken in, then it says something about his character, right?

    I guess I always want my physical descriptions, whether clothes or otherwise, to do more than one thing.
     
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  3. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Worn face by her mid-thirties? I don't think so. Thirty-five year olds really aren't that old and I certainly don't know of any with worn faces. You make it should like a regular thing and you make yourself sound pretty young.

    I list of descriptions like this isn't going to tell anyone if these work or are appropriate for your story. When it comes to writing, it's all in the delivery. In a good story I think you forget to notice if descriptions like you're thinking are there or not. You've got to give the story what it needs, but trying too hard shows too. Go ahead and see if your descriptions fit in your story. Maybe they blend flawlessly, and I think that is what you want.
     
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  4. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    While it may depend on the genre, this sort of "add an adjective" description always bothers me. Unless there's a reason for the viewpoint character to notice those eyes at that moment, it advertises that it's a "sneak" description, and IMO that's more distracting than a straightforward dose of more description.

    Reason: Acacia raised one brow. Her faded blue eyes--so strange to see my sister's eyes in another woman--were curious.

    Straightforward dose: Acacia raised one brow. Her eyes were faded blue, and the scar on her chin was more prominent in the sunlight.

    I also agree that a "worn face" is likely to be a good deal older than mid-thirties.

    Using hair color as an identifying noun ("a blond", "a brunette", "a redhead") also bothers me a bit.

    I usually describe what the viewpoint character is likely to notice. One is strongly concerned with her physical safety, and very much afraid of certain categories of people, so new characters may be mentioned primarily in terms of their category and perceived threat. Another is concerned with class and rank, so that is likely to flavor the description of new characters that arrive when he's the viewpoint character.

    I don't think it's necessary to describe everyone, though if you've raised the expectation that the reader will have some visual for everyone, describing some and not others may feel jarring--and also signal who doesn't matter.

    One possible solution could be group descriptions, and then describing members as they become relevant:

    A gaggle of students entered, each one in variants of the school uniform, but only the girl hiding at the back was in full compliance with the regulations. She wasn't the leader, though--that was the small fierce one in the front, also a girl, a full head shorter than the others, with an illegal pixie cut, red lipstick, and hair dyed the color of cotton candy. Blue cotton candy.

    I surveyed them all. "I see that Mrs. Emmenthal is still sick."

    "No," said the small one. "She's much better. But her door is locked and no one can seem to find the key."

    They all smiled, all but the obedient one at the back.

    I generally prefer description as short as yours, but I do think that more variety may be called for. I also feel that eye color is pretty unimportant--I could only tell you the eye color of two people in my life.

    You could try to find some emotional/character aspect of each description. Stealing from these:

    -A trim woman with her blonde hair cut short emerged from the entrance hall.
    -She looked young, in her twenties, with her dark locks tied back from her heart-shaped face.


    A woman emerged from the entrance hall, also dressed in the shocking costume of trousers and riding jacket. She was trim, with blond hair cut short and a military posture.

    I could see Captain Jones hesitate. He had an unctuous brand of charm for women, and a hail-fellow-well-met manner for men; which one was appropriate here? Another woman followed, long dark hair pulled back, lacking that indefinable martial air. She also wore a skirt, and that decided him. He puffed his chest, put on his best smile, and caroled, "Ladies!"
     
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  5. Stormsong07

    Stormsong07 Contributor Contributor

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    Thank you @deadrats , I don't know what I was thinking with the worn face at mid thirties. Heck, I'm almost mid thirties, I should know better lol.

    @ChickenFreak Thanks for your breakdown too. I felt like my 'add an adjective' was a bit simplified, so thanks for showing me another example.

    Something else I remembered though, in the book Stein on Writing he talks about characterizing with actions. So I tried this:

    Her father, Edrick, stepped through the door just as she finished. The miller and the baker of their small town of Amberfield, he had a habit of folding his muscled arms across his chest to seem larger, as if a slender baker were an affront to the trade.

    Does that sound better?
     
  6. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Much. You've introduced a reason, so it's no longer a "sneak" description.
     
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  7. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This.

    Cersei Lannister enters a room where both Sansa and Arya Stark (early in the story) are already present. Sansa and Arya will not see the same dress, hair, shoes, jewelry that Cersei is wearing. Sansa will fawn and take in every detail hoping to later emulate Her Grace and present a glamorous visage that will be immortalized in a bard's song, which the smallfolk will sing with love and adoration. Arya is likely to sneer internally and pray she keeps a poker face, thinking the Queen looks a fool in motley because Arya hates girly-girl stuff. Same Cersei, two very different POV characters, two very different approaches to what I would write as regards what each takes in.
     
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  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Random comment: I used "past her first youth" somewhere. Though that was for a woman in her forties. I think.
     
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  9. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    Oh c'mon, there's more than one way to skin a cat. I sometimes take the Neil Gaiman approach to character description...


    “There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelery; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.” - Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere)
    ______________________________________________


    For a middle-aged man, Gael retained a tireless vitality. The man who managed animal acts at an opera house in decline — and at present, with a twelve-year-old girl in tow — resembled a disheveled lion that had an appetite for bourbon and brothels. A deep scar cut across his left cheek, a souvenir he had acquired on one of his travels; whether it was given him by a leopard or bear, one could not be certain, for the details, embellished always with wine, had a habit of changing from one telling to the next. Only the perpetrator herself — a jealous lover, a Negress from one of the southern islands — knew the full truth. - Me (from my WIP)
     
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  10. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    What do you want your readers to remember? The more details you give them, the less they're likely to remember. Too much and they'll start glossing.

    If you're introducing a number of characters, spend time on only the ones that matter. Again, too much and the readers will start to forget. It's usually good to give one or two defining details that you can use to ground the reader and later use as a reference point to remind the reader who this character is again.

    Description is also not limited to physical details. What about her presence? The way she speaks? How about the way she comes across to another person? I remember going to a poet's reading one time and he said, "The difference between a poet and a regular writer is, while the normal writer may say, 'He's 5ft10,' I'd rather say, 'He's got a five o'clock shadow.'"

    It's not in being specific that you help your readers visualise always, though it's certainly one way. You can play around a bit more with comparisons and character POVs etc.
     
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