Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Sang Hee, Aug 7, 2010.
Elgaisma, is that story of yours a pro-work or just a fun thing?
lol dunno yet depends on whether it gets published Its in its second novel though and has so far had really good reviews from independent readers Several of my readers I know as well as I do you. First 13 lines of the first three chapers are in the review room, happy to send you more if you like. You can decide for yourself if it works.
Sure, I'm interested.
The reason why I'm still pondering over this topic is because sometimes I write about things that are not quite conventional and I want the readers to know that there is a difference between what they know and what is in my story.
For example, in my story I have elves but they are not the Lord of the Rings type, they are more traditional type of elves from the 'real' fairytales. Naturally, I can't write that in the story so I need to somehow implement a way of telling that. And in this manner I will need to describe some things so that the readers won't get a wrong idea.
When writing I'm often trying to think for a reader's point of view. This can bring many complications and perhaps could mean bringing in more into the text than necessary. Imagine writing a book about Star Wars, its worlds are sometimes quite bizzare and the same goes for the alien races. How would you handle description there? How would you keep it balanced so you that you don't 'overdescribe'?
mine is almost the opposite issue I have a very ordinary set of people in an extraordinary worlds
I am no fantasy writer or reader for that matter, but even if I was I think it'll be hard to tell when and how much to describe, it so much depends on the context of the particular story you are writing.... to learn to do so my advice will be to read as many good books in the genre you are writing as you can. Learn from those who have already mastered the art.
At the most basic level, the way I think of it is this:
If it's not important to the plot, or if it does not contribute to the character, leave it out.
Don't use character description to pad out the word count.
And don't use thinly veiled lists of a character's physical attributes (for example, as they look at themselves in the mirror).
Most people don't look in the mirror in the morning and ponder their "azure blue eyes" and "cupid pout lips" unless they are narcissists.
Think of this from a reader's standpoint. General age and gender are vital to understanding a character, but most authors have no problem slipping the reader this information without making them feel as if they are being force fed information. When I read a book with lengthy character descriptions, I either skim through it without paying attention or be itching for the author to move on with the story. In some cases, I cringe at the cheesiness of character descriptions, seeing as they are full of cliches. There are are only so many ways to describe eyes as blue as the sea. On the other hand, if I become attached to a character, I become curious about there looks and may go back and look at the description. The only things I need to create a clear picture in my head of a character is their hair and height. My advice is to wait until the audience is well introduced to your character before adding a quick, painless line about hair and height. For an example of what not to do, read The Maltese Falcon. You'll know what I mean after the first few pages.
I am, by far, a novice of writing so I hope everyone will forgive my 2 cents.
I think that how important a characters description is depends on the person writing the book. How important do you want it to be?
In my stories (and I use the term stories loosely) I have a very detailed idea of what my characters look like and I want everyone to know what they look like. But as also been said there are those that give very little importance to it.
In my inexperienced opinion, I think it's as important as you want it to be.
As I see it a description is a like a good piece of software, it stands between a person and a goal. With software the person is a user and the goal could be anything (writing a story for example). In writing the person is the reader and the goal is engagement with the text.
A good piece of software becomes almost invisible. When I write, the program I use should become almost invisible, because I am focused on my writing. Similarly, good description (which, being honest, is occasionally good and proper), should help the reader engage with the text without breaking the suspension of disbelief.
Wise man say: when juggling, forget about your hands.
Yeah, I guess that after making this topic I've changed my way. I'll be trying to find some excuse to put pieces of the characters' description in my stories so they wouldn't be like a fist in the eye.
In one of the stories I'm writing now I have a woman trying to seduce a guy but she finds out he like blondes and she's like "damn, he probably won't like me if I'm a redhead" (Is it ok to write damn here if I'm quoting? I don't know. Hopefully the mods will forgive). So for me the new way is to find some effective ways to sneak these things in without making it look like a 'description of my best friend' essay.
Not a problem.
The human mind is designed to fill in the gaps to its liking, so if you give too much details it will scare the readers away in my opinion. Give the essentials: sex, age, type of clothing etc. and the mind of the reader shall imagine the character they want to imagine.
If you want to add some details you should do something like this "James raised his head, revealing a deep scar on his left eye to the anticipating audience." Not perfect but I do not have time to think about a sentence.
Two things about The Maltese Falcon that I'd post in disagreement:
1) The cliches weren't cliches when Hammett wrote them in 1930. Pulp fiction created those cliches. We readers view them as cliches only because they have been so overused nowadays. Is it lazy writing? Yes and no, depending on how it's used, and I'd argue that Hammett uses it successfully. Pulp relies on a lot of similes and metaphors to get its meaning across: blood from gunshots blooms out like a flower; people are as vicious as snakes; the mysterious woman that hires out the private detective is as cool as ice. When Hammett was writing, this was a new style of description and thus not cliched, hackneyed, or lazy at the time.
2) The specific opener to The Maltese Falcon, where it describes Sam Spade as a 'grinning Satan' (quoting from memory--real description might be slightly different) is, to me, fairly unusual for a main character. You get a hint there that Spade is not your typical pretty boy, inoffensive, harmless lead. It sells the danger inherent in his character without overdoing it. I think it's well done, personally.
Now, if you want to talk about how the descriptions of Joel Cairo detail his sexuality in a way that seems bigoted and prejudiced to the modern reader, I'm all for it, since that is an issue I see with the book, as a modern reader.
Just my $0.02.
Don't try too hard to find a spot to place their appearance. If their "unusual characteristics" require that you mention them at some point, bring up the characteristics alone. You can sneak in bits of their appearance, but don't try to use cheap tricks.
What not to do: A lot of authors, for example, do stuff like make their characters notice their reflections in mirrors, then describe them through this. Don't do this. Any experienced reader will notice it too quickly. If you just have to describe them without introduction, do it openly.
And if you're writing in first person, don't make the POV character describe him/herself. It just sounds awkward. If I'm telling you a story, I'm not going to describe my facial features to you, unless it's crucial to the story. So if the character telling the first-person story is missing a leg, you can say that--if I'm telling you a story over the phone, I might mention that to you if it comes up--but, once again, just say it. Don't try to come up with tricks to put it in.
If you want to put in a longer description in third person, describe them when another character notices them, since you're using omniscient POV. Another character's POV is more natural for describing someone than their own. Otherwise, just keep the descriptions small.
Just a bit more about the mirror thing.
When you look in a mirror, you wouldn't notice green eyes with flecks of chocolate brown and golden hair. You'd notice a smudge of makeup, or a wrinkle in your clothes. So, if you have to make them look in a mirror for whatever reason, make it realistic. But, such actions can also be superfluous in the story, so use good judgement.
Well said, J. If it's something that you'd notice when looking into a mirror, then it's perfectly acceptable in literature.
being a hammett fan from way back, i have to agree with aconite's post above... in all but the last part, anyway...
again, keeping it in the context of the times when hammett was writing, what you see as those 'bigoted and prejudiced' parts was merely a reflection of the 'what is' of then... so can't really be judged by today's standards...
Hence why I emphasized 'to the modern reader.' I find it offensive, reading it, but it was most likely not intended to be so, and not perceived as such by people reading it in the earlier part of the twentieth century.
I think personality traits are so much more important than physical characteristics. If your character's personality jumps off the page then the reader has more than enough material to imagine a physical image.
Also, my pet peeve as a female reader is when male writers describe the "male gaze". They go into far too much detail about female 'attributes'. Anyway, there isn't too much of this in good writing so I needn't complain.
I agree, Peerie--on both subjects. The character's appearance really isn't that important relative to the story, but often the writer has a very clear mental image of his characters, and it makes things easier for the reader. It's good to have descriptions, but it is secondary to the character's personality traits.
And I find the "male gaze" annoying too (and this is coming from a guy). I mean, there's gotta be something more important about the character than her "attributes." But with some writers I'm not so sure.
But is the writer doing the "parts inventory" from a character's POV? If so, that gaze tells you something about the character that does not necessarily reflect the writer's nature.
I was referring to the times when it's not from a character's POV but the author's. When the author describes a character that way from an omniscient perspective, rather than through another character.
I think that there's also a decision between brief, informative descriptions, and overflowing romantic ones. In the case of your tall blond, I'd be fine with you just _saying_, "James was a tall man, blond, blue-eyed, and fair skinned, in contrast to his dark-haired, olive-skinned, and slightly-built relatives."
Or, in a different mood and different world, "James was the tall, blond, blue-eyed and imposing type, and he took female attention for granted. I usually tolerated this, but today was different..."
Even if a character is all but struck dumb with someone's beauty, I don't want all the details, I just want a summary. ("I'd never seen Jane wear a dress before. This one was black and strapless, and her hair was down, and I couldn't begin to think of what to say to her.")
Or something like that. My phrasing is far from engaging, but what I'm saying is that I don't want to see a long paragraph about James's shining cornsilk hair and azure orbs and rippling muscles and catlike prowling long-legged walk. Or Jane's rippling coffee-colored curls and ruby lips and swaying walk. Or even a long paragraph with the same description in dryer language. I just want the general impression, and why the story should care what James or Jane looks like.
(I'm not suggesting that _you_ would do the over-wrought descriptions, I'm just starting with the example that you gave.)
Do you even see a film adaptation of a book and think "that is not how I pictured him/her"? Most of the novels I read don't describe what that characters, especially the main ones, look like. After awhile I just get a vague image in my mind of what they are supposed to look like, and this image is often different from person to person. Personally, I like to know the hair color and physical build of a character, but details beyond that are unnecessary. I don't need to picture so and so's eye color as they slash through a dragon. Actions speak louder than words.
I agree that it was well written for Hammet's time but I wouldn't suggest writing like him nowadays. Also, what he actually was saying about how characters looked and how it applied to his characters wasn't the problem. I just thought the way he said it was written in a poor, monotonous way. A papragraph about what a character looks like came immediatly after almost every single one was introduced. It would have even been forgiveable if it was only Spade, but everyone, down to Rhea Gutman was introduced the same way.
Separate names with a comma.