1. The Syreth Clan

    The Syreth Clan New Member

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    Character Description Syndrome

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by The Syreth Clan, Jun 17, 2018.

    Few weeks ago while browsing through the catalog of a site that shall remain unnamed for now I came across this thread that kind of irked me, its topic being habits that are sign of a novel that can be dropped without regrets. And one of them was: describing everything about a character the moment they are introduced.

    Now... this fits me to a T. Not even joking. If you read my work, first thing you will notice (after them always being a recollection of someone) is that any time a new character comes up, sooner or later, but there is a large paragraph to dump appearance information about them. It usually follows the same pattern as well: hair, face, clothes, distinguishing features.

    The reason behind this is a bit of, how should I say, bad experience with a certain character named Scarlet Pimpernel. The story in question never really described what she looked like as she was more of an antagonist posh rich girl to cause trouble to the main character twins, so I imagined her as, well, 'Scarlet-y'. Red hair, red-gold clothing with rich patterns, all that. Up until one of the pictures in the book showed her in color, as a blonde lady in blue.

    Now my books don't have illustrations in it (yet) but I do want to make character artwork in the future and I'd hate to break people's illusions either like that. Not quite sure how to remedy this, though. Any ideas?
     
  2. ThunderAngel

    ThunderAngel Contributor Contributor

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    I usually don't buy into the "Avoid character descriptions" line of thinking myself. One can be just explanatory enough to describe the basics and let the reader do the rest in their imaginations, or they can be more in depth; I, personally, don't mind either way.

    My own approach is to avoid in depth descriptions unless the character/s in question have some really unique and interesting features: body-mods, subversive tattoos, birth-marks, non-human features etcetera, then I just go with it and not care what the unofficial rules dictate.

    What's deceptive about such rules anyway is that many or even most readers don't care how you describe a character, as long as you're telling an interesting story. :)
     
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  3. Lemie

    Lemie Contributor Contributor

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    I'm not saying all description is bad description, but having a paragraph to dump all that stuff in - and for every character - just feels like poor writing.

    Most things people would describe in a character doesn't even matter to the story and unless you your readers see a picture of them right away they still will have their own image of them.

    Right away I'd say skip the description-dump paragraphs. If you are going to add descriptions at least do it in a way so it incorporates with the story rather than pause everything tell everyone about the new character. That is never going to be a good read.
     
  4. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Here's how I see the matter:

    describe.png

    First, what POV is the story written in? We need to know (and you should be asking yourself) which eye is taking in the observation that is then passed to the reader. Are we in 3rd person omniscient, sees everything, knows everything? Are we in 1st person where we are privy to just one person's head? Are we in 3rd limited where maybe we can go to different heads, chapter by chapter? Everything hinges on first knowing the POV. Without this, all other answers of a higher order are meaningless, because we need to know what is at least plausible before we can continue.

    Second, once we know the POV, then we need to know how that POV engages his/her observations, and they won't be the same for every observation, unless you're in 3rd person omniscient where the disembodied narrator is free to wax rhapsodic (though this may not be to modern tastes as you are discovering). People, in general, are not good witnesses. They don't take a person's appearance in, tip to toe, in detail, upon first glance, unless there's a very good reason for this to happen, something compelling.

    Lastly I ask what this description does for/to the scene. A big paragraph dump at the beginning of a character's first appearance is like slamming the breaks onto a speeding car.
     
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  5. Solar

    Solar Banned Contributor

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    ^^ Good strategic thinking.
     
  6. EstherMayRose

    EstherMayRose Gay Souffle Contributor

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    First things first, I would recommend this article (and this website in general):

    http://springhole.net/writing/describing-your-characters-tips-and-advice.htm

    Of course, I haven't read any of your descriptions, so I don't know if you do go in for the whole "she had a tiny mole just to the left of her scarlet lips" thing.

    Honestly, my way of thinking about it is that it doesn't really matter what the character looks like (unless, of course, it's relevant to the plot). In a series of books I absolutely loved, one of the main characters was blonde, and was described as such many times (it was a long series), but I still pictured him dark-haired and nothing can change that. It didn't affect my enjoyment of the books. The thing about illustrations is that they can often vary from edition to edition, and that one may not have originally accompanied the book, so IMHO, they're nice, but you don't have to picture the characters exactly like the illustration. (And I realise that your red image probably came from automatic mental connection, but characters don't necessarily have to "fit" their names).

    I would also recommend cutting the descriptions. In one of my books, I have a paragraph describing each one of a set of sisters (including what they're wearing, God damn it!) and of course I found this very difficult since they all looked similar. That's getting cut as soon as I start the second draft - there's no point, and it just takes the reader out of the action. And this may just be a personal pet peeve (I do hold up that there are no universal rules for writing) but I hate clothing descriptions. I understand that clothes can send a message about a person, so it's OK to add in a couple of things (and this is touched on in the article), but, like Wreybies, I'd recommend adding perspective. What does the POV character think about the clothes? The best way to describe the message that is sent, IMHO, is to describe how it's received. I tend to describe the state of the clothes, which I think says more. Apart from that, I tend to just stick to the context the clothes would be worn in: "school uniform", "evening dress", things like that. Full laundry lists of "I was wearing black ripped-up leggings and a leather skirt..." a la My Immortal are, in my opinion, the worst you can get.
     
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  7. awkwarddragon

    awkwarddragon Member

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    It honestly boils down to whether a character's description is relevant to the plot/character arc or not; if it is, add it. If not, remove it.
     
  8. Kalisto

    Kalisto Senior Member

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    Descriptions are about the last thing I add in my story I think there's a lot of advantage to describing characters at the beginning. Maybe not everything about them, but at least some key, stand out features. I think people want to be able to picture this character right at the beginning. And why not? It's part of making the character human.

    That doesn't mean you hamper the start of your narrative with every single detail about the character. I would say the best idea is to stick with a few of the key features of your character. Things that a normal person walking down the street would notice most about them or what the character sees first in themselves. Obviously a character who is struggling with anorexia would explore the difference between how the character views themselves and how others view them.
     
  9. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Does solving your “that’s not how I pictured them” problem call for quite this much immediate description?

    In my WIP , if Male Protagonist were looking at Female Protagonist for the first time (well, almost first), I can imagine that my from-his-POV description might be:

    There she was again. Red-haired, bone-thin, and shabby enough to suggest that the lack of flesh was due to poverty, not constitution or choice. And short, even for a local.
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2018
  10. Nariac

    Nariac Contributor Contributor

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    I've really cut down on the amount of character description because generally it's not plot relevant.

    The benefit is that you don't shoehorn the reader into imagining a character in a way they don't want to. You save on word count, and the reader will imagine what they want to. This will likely please them, and you didn't have to work towards gaining those good feelings the reader now has for the character they imagined!
     
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  11. CAROLINE J. THIBEAUX

    CAROLINE J. THIBEAUX Member

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    A few of my characters are described in some detail as for the rest, I prefer to let their nature influence the reader. Aside from the basic, height, color of skin and eyes, I hope my dialogue and actions do a better job than a whole lengthy paragraph. A reader's imagination can be your best friend as everyone likes or hates differently.
    I think about a horror movie that falls flat when the monster is revealed.
    My protagonist is a teenaged boy and at that age, kids don't always know themselves or have a good fit, so I kept him quite bland but let his actions speak to the reader. It also gives him room to grow like a blank canvas.
     
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  12. BlitzGirl

    BlitzGirl Contributor Contributor

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    I've learned to keep my descriptions short and sweet. If my character is meeting another character for the first time, then I just quickly describe some very basic descriptors but keep it to a single sentence. Only reason why I even bother describing any characters' appearance is because I am a very visual person. I can't help it. I also feel the need to describe a little bit about the style of the clothes in my current story due to the fact that it's a fictional world and certain people in society wear certain types of clothes that are meant to set them apart.
     
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  13. Sieglinde

    Sieglinde Member

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    I generally establish some main traits when a character is introduced - complexion, build, hair colour if important, anything out of ordinary like a scar. More details can always be dropped here and there later.
     
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  14. The Syreth Clan

    The Syreth Clan New Member

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    Yeah, sort of the responses I was expecting. I'll check my work for any extreme descriptions. I know surely the main character and a few others have some. Thank you for your help.
     
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  15. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I like character descriptions. I can understand where some of the eyerolling comes from but I find it more about copycatting certain books and being a flaw of certain genres. Every since Bella Swan we've gotten a lot of dark haired, doesn't think she's beautiful, klutzes till the description no longer has any value.
    I try and create an impression (some action or background information) before the description comes up to help put that much needed slant on the details. And that's more what you want anyway an impression not just an image. It's like in a Francesca Lia Block book (I can't recall which, she's very poetic and I get them mixed up) she described a character as having blue eyes the color of perfectly faded denim -- giving the character a very laid back vibe. She utilizes her descriptions to tell a mini story not just a picture of what this character conveys.
     
  16. Privateer

    Privateer Senior Member

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    I generally stick to short, objective descriptions like 'a big, blond guy with a crew cut' or 'short dude with brown hair and glasses'.

    My protagonist never really describes himself directly, though he mentions things like being a little insecure about some scarring on his face and the fact that his facial hair is too light and too sparse to hide it.
     

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