1. NigellaStory88

    NigellaStory88 Banned

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    How much physical description should a character have

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by NigellaStory88, Dec 17, 2017.

    How much physical description should you give a character in terms of their general appearance (e.g. clothing, hair length, etc)?
     
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  2. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    It's a "how long is a piece of string" question.

    I generally give very little. Other writers give lots. There's no right answer.
     
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  3. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    There isn't a right answer, certainly, but I think there's a good argument to be made for having fairly minimal descriptions. Once the reader knows what the character looks like it's kinda dead words. Coming back to something you've already done and has already sunk in isn't a great idea. You shouldn't take the space to repeat yourself, it just gets in the way of other stuff.

    Even when there seems to be an excuse to describe more I would advise thinking about it as descriptive. When one character is mooning over another and thinking about them in lovey-dovey terms it's ok to bang on a bit about their big blue eyes and shining hair and so forth but that's for a different purpose than description; it's showing us how someone thinks and what attracts them.

    For me; I do hair, eyes, shape and size, and then anything that is important or characterful about their appearance. So Natalie, the girl I'm writing now has mousy hair, blue eyes, short and skinny but very athletic and wearing old, beaten up clothes. That's it. That's all she gets until her love interest shows up because that's enough to get a picture of her without belabouring the fact.
     
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  4. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    As much as the story needs and as little as you can get away with, is my rule of thumb. But it also depends what genre you are in and what your style is like
     
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  5. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

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    How important is it? Pare things down to what the reader needs to know. Is the character's excessive beauty important to the plot or the other characters? Maybe give them a lavish description to make it hit home. Do they wear expensive clothes that indicate their social standing? Maybe comment on that. I have a character whose diminutive stature is plot-relevant because it allows for them to be easily manhandled and prevents them from reaching things at critical junctures, so I describe them as being short. But their hair color, for instance? Totally unimportant.

    Beyond that, some people enjoy reading and writing descriptions and some don't. Like Bay says, there's no across-the-board right answer here. Personally, I try to avoid intrusive descriptions, where the action stops just so I can say "and she had brown hair as fine as silk and eyes as green-blue as the sea and ..." for a paragraph or two, but you can still sprinkle in some decent indicators of appearance without it interfering with the narrative.
     
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  6. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    I would argue that hair colour is important because it's something that's important to the readers image of the character. We remember hair colour, and when we describe to others we definitely include it because it's such an obvious thing to them. When I describe friends of mine I'd always say "dinky little brunette with freckles".

    I know others don't always agree on that point but I think it's something that at least deserves three words in a book. This one is raven haired, that one is mousy, that one is blonde, that one is a red head. It fixes the image of the character in a way that other things don't, ensures that the reader sees them as separate people.
     
  7. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

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    Sure, I more meant that hair color etc isn't relevant to the plot itself. It could be, if say the character has bright blue dyed hair and it makes them stick out in a crowd and that's how some baddies find them or something. By the same token a character's height doesn't have to be important, but it is for the one I mention, whereas their hair color isn't important. My point was to figure out what physical details are plot-relevant, include those for sure, and after that ... crapshoot. I probably could've made that a bit clearer.

    I'm one of those people who only ever has a vague image of the characters in books I read. Real people, sure, but character descriptions just don't leave much of an impact on me. But I do have strong mental images of my own characters, so I include some of the stuff that's not strictly 'needed' like hair color or whatever and just hope blindly that it'll mean something to people not like me.
     
  8. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I used to think I was a minimalist writer, only offering the bare bone descriptions if that even. But this was what was holding me back, especially when it came to character descriptions. I love a populated story so its important that the characters are easy to tell apart from each other. I would say it's not something that always comes easy for me. It's often not in the first draft and I have to go through it and find the right spots to add character descriptions. I've never regretted it. My writing and story have always come out better for it. But that's just me.
     
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  9. raine_d

    raine_d Active Member

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    I like a bit of description, especially where the writer can use adjectives or imagery to enhance characterisation, or just to entertain in its own right... but a lot is probably wasted these days, the reader will latch on a few vague details and fill in the rest from their own imagination/memories (how many readers. even before the films, pictured Hermione Granger with the bushy hair and prominent teeth canon gave her? not many, I would guess)
     
  10. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView

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    There's no "should." I prefer very little description, and laundry list descriptions always read very amateur to me. Other readers love to know every little detail.

    All I'd say is don't overestimate how much help readers need to picture a person or scene, and avoid cliché descriptors like emerald eyes, raven haired, flaming hair. Also avoid having a character stand in front of a mirror and describe their appearance - major cliché, major eye roll. People very rarely think about their appearance: when we brush our hair, we don't think about "Brushing my long, black hair." It sounds silly when authors give us description in that way.
     
  11. raine_d

    raine_d Active Member

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    Or even worse, try to 'improve' on them: I still shudder at the memory of a first-person description of "my chocolate orbs". Truly.
     
  12. crappycabbage

    crappycabbage Member

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    Character description is something that always came out so clunky for me, so I keep it pretty sparse. Weaving it in with some kind of action works best for me; character notices a popcorn entangled at the end of their brown over-the-shoulder braid, or they stand in a certain way to deflect from appearing too short or too tall, or spilling something on their favourite pink blouse with unicorn-print. Just a few specific things about their looks/style, and then the reader-brain does the rest(hopefully). Good luck with your descriptions. :)
     
  13. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Thinking of people I see almost every day (co-workers, etc.) I can only think of one whose eye colour I could identify with confidence. (Because she has gorgeous blue eyes and often wears clothes that really make them pop). I couldn't tell you about the angles of their faces or much else.

    Now, I'm a very non-visual person. I have a friend who notice tiny changes in my appearance that I've paid hardly any attention to myself and would never, ever notice on anyone else. So there's room for a large range here, I'd say.
     
  14. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    The two lines below appear in chapter five... thus far, it's the only mention of Rosemarie's appearance aside from a quick comment she makes in chapter two, "I'm flat as an ironing board..."
    So, she's flat-chested, as you would expect a 12 year old to be, and she has a long ponytail. I'll let the reader fill in the blanks.:)


    Gael looked up to see Rosemarie standing on the catwalk high above the stage. She leaned over the railing, her long ponytail hanging down like a bell rope, and smiled back at him.
     
  15. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    Yep, less is more, both in terms of physical settings and characters. The character the reader imagines in their mind is going to be far more real than the one you feed them via description. I described two characters' eye color, one who was otherwise totally Chinese in appearance, but her ancestor many generations removed was Roman, so she had blue eyes, something very unusual. And that village of Liqian still breeds people with that eye color and other European characteristics today, claiming descent from Roman soldiers.

    The other character was Xiongnu woman, though there is great debate as what Xiongnu ethnicity was 2000 years ago, Mongol, European, Siberian or Asiatic. Or possibly a confederation of tribes of all those languages and appearances, probably homogeneous within a single clan. I chose to describe the female Xiongnu as red-haired with green eyes, for surprise value to the reader expecting Asiatic people on the border with China, and very cat-like in appearance; her persona was the steppe-tiger. Though every time I think of her, having finished the story, I picture her with long black hair. Detail when it matters: the Xiongnu character Hina was a big, powerfully-muscled woman, because she was a fighter, competitive with men with swords and bows. Marcia/Si Huar was slight, perhaps 110 pounds, but still learned her fighting skills from Hina, big enough to defend herself credibly with training and the advantage of surprise, but not big enough to make it her life's work.
     
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  16. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Whatever works for your genre and story. In a lot of genres clothing & physical description is minimalist - it's enough to say your mc is wearing a chic, black cocktail gown and a mermaid braid and that's it. Something quick and accurate. Which can definitely be to your advantage - if you give the reader enough details without a lot of frills this allows you to concentrate on the plot and move swiftly. Great for pacey genre fiction. In something a little bulkier -- like historical fiction or one of those sexier beach reads the readers might be expecting more.

    The main use of description is to give an impression of your characters anyway, not an exact mental picture. The impression is more powerful than an image because certain factors won't sway an impression. It's like trying to describe the difference between Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Jude Law. All attractive blue eyed blond men. Yet if I were to describe them on those terms -- they're any blond haired blue eyed man -- I don't capture their uniqueness. Their individuality. The idea is to step it up a notch bring in Jude Law's Peter Pan imp-grin, Steve McQueen's faded cowboy complexion, Paul Newman's swoon-worthy stare. Some nugget of concrete impressions that is going to make your character unique and relatable. And a bonus of being so impression minded is that it will shorten your descriptions by cutting out the useless bits.

    Here's an interesting blog article on using different techniques to describe your characters.

    https://www.nownovel.com/blog/character-description-examples-famous-authors/
     
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  17. Aled James Taylor

    Aled James Taylor Contributor Contributor

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    When you introduce a character, any feature you don't describe may be imagined by the reader. This is fine so long as you don't describe it later. If halfway through your novel you say something like, 'her long blond hair flowed behind her as she rode,' this would be jarring if the reader imagined the character as a short haired brunette. It would be difficult to re-imagine the character at that point. It would also be difficult to continue to read while knowing you have the wrong mental image of the character. Generally, I'd include in a description features that would catch the eye if you were actually there looking at the person. Any feature that isn't notable, shouldn't be made a note of, unless it's mentioned later on.
     
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  18. Ellbell Schnieder

    Ellbell Schnieder New Member

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    I think it's great to bring in as much description as you want, so long as it is proportional to the story. If you're writing a short story, keep the descriptions to a minimum, but if you're writing a novel, go crazy! I personally love hearing descriptions of characters, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually too. It makes me fell like I know them on a personal level, drawing me into their lives. Just keep going long as you can keep the reader engaged. I'm not like a famous writer or anything, but I read a lot, and I've seen a lot of genres and personalities conveyed through writing. In the end, just do what feels right to you, because that's what's going to sound the best in your work. :bigwink:
     
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  19. EstherMayRose

    EstherMayRose Gay Souffle Contributor

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    There's a very good article about this on an awesome website.

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

    For my own thoughts, I think I'm on the springback from the "describe every last freckle" stage, brought on by twelve years of English teachers saying that's the thing to do. So I get really paranoid about describing too much and instead stick to the bare minimum. I've always had difficulty with first person descriptions. I find I form pictures in my head that sometimes contradict what's written about them - and, contrary to what Mr. Taylor said, that isn't a deal breaker for me. It's not all that much of a disaster if the reader's image of a character is different from the writer's, is it? But at the same time, a description can tell us something about the character, and help conjure mood.

    I blame the infamous My Immortal, but I've developed a complete aversion to clothing descriptions. (For the unaware, the above story describes the outfits of the entire - ever-increasing - cast of characters in minute detail every time they get changed, which is often. It makes you want to cry.) So, unless the clothing is important to the plot - such as in my time travel book - I don't describe it. Since all my stories are set in a time when there wasn't much room for personal style, especially for kids, the state of the clothing can tell us a lot more about the character. It doesn't matter what colour the skirt is, but if it's covered in mud and grass stains, one can deduce that the kid likes playing outside. (And that the parents aren't too strict about cleaning up.) Otherwise, you could take shortcuts by saying things like "She was still wearing her school clothes" or "She was dressed smartly".

    I ramble when I'm tired. Read the article, it's good.
     
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  20. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    The clothing descriptions you mention remind me of Mysteries of Winterthurn, by Joyce Carol Oates. In that story it's not endless descriptions of clothing, but endless scenes of people drinking tea. Either tea time is approaching, convening, or has just ended. And everyone is brooding over something, and drafty windows and then more tea!
     
  21. Gregory Bertrand

    Gregory Bertrand Member

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    I feel similar to how you feel. I'm never really comfortable with character description, so I let it play out in action as well.
     
  22. Gregory Bertrand

    Gregory Bertrand Member

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    My rule of thumb is to describe hair and eye color, and height right off the bat. Anything else comes later in the story as needed. For example, if a character had crooked teeth I might say; "Marion covered her mouth when she laughed to hide he crooked teeth." That way we get a bit of what the character looks like, as well as getting to know what sort of person they are.
     
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  23. crappycabbage

    crappycabbage Member

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    I think that's a really good idea; to show them in a few brush strokes early, just to give the reader enough for creating a picture of the character. Showing a bit of personality in the description, I'm all for that. I always feel I show my character descriptions a little too late, so I need to pinch your rule of thumb to go with some description right off the bat. :)
     
  24. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    Yeah, I'd definitely advise putting some description up front. I know that it doesn't always feel the most natural; it's such a book thing to introduce a character by describing them but at the same time if this person matters then it's important that the reader has a picture of them to work with. You don't have to get all poetic about how the curve of their cheekbones makes them so gorgeous, but I think the reader needs a sense of physicality in a character. A lot of the way we perceive people comes from these contextual cues; without them we don't even necessarily know if this is an adult.
     
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  25. crappycabbage

    crappycabbage Member

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    Yeah, that's something I really have to work at hard. Instead of writing something clunky I just don't write it, and that's as bad as the clunk! :D But you make a very good point that we need to see who we are meeting in the story, and I have to get that across earlier. :)
     

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