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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Physical Description -- Do we care?

   
Author Topic: Physical Description -- Do we care?
Varishta
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I know that when describing characters, some writers like to list physical traits in great detail, while others don't give any whatsoever.

I usually fall somewhere toward the minimalist camp, but now that I'm making a foray into fantasy, I wonder if I need to put in more than, "He had dark hair and wore an even darker cloak."

So taking off your writer's hat for a moment, think about this: when you read a sci-fi/fantasy story for enjoyment, do you need lots of concrete physical detail, owing to the unfamiliarity of the environment? (I.e., clothing, hair, etc.) Or are you content to fill in most of the gaps yourself, as you would with non-speculative fiction?

I don't mind a few well-placed hints, but it's interesting how some fantasy authors seem to relish telling EVERYTHING, down to what kind of dwarven alloy is in the hero's hauberk, or how the humidity of the tropical latitudes curls the heroine's red-gold hair just so.


Is this level of description simply a matter of style, or is it necessary to the genre?



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Beth
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Show what's important and interesting and relevant; skip the rest. Sometimes a lot of description is important and interesting and relevant; sometimes it's not.


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Miriel
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Description of hair and eye colors are boring to me, especially if it's all lumped together. To use a famous example...one of the things I think Rowling does best is describe people. I can picture them in my head, from the garden gnomes with heads that look just like potatoes to Rita Skeeter's nails. Examining this description, I realize that Rowling doesn't just throw any details out: she carefully picks one or two telling details about her characters, and presents them in vivid similie or metaphor. This kind of description I like. It helps me pictures things. There's a book called "Description" by Monica Wood, and in it, she says something like: "Use details that call to mind something and someone, not anything or anyone."

I think that's good advice. If all you have to say about the character is that they're a 6'2" male with brown hair, blue eyes, who weighs 185...well, it's like reading police descriptions. I'll pass. But, if he has a pinstriped cloak, or she has front teeth that are slightly too large, or if he has a toothless grin and a head exactly like a coconut...well, this quickly becomes one of the most delightful parts of the story.


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dee_boncci
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As a reader I prefer descriptions of character's appearance to be minimal, as a rule. It gets almost to the point of a pet peeve when lengthy wardrobe descriptions are presented. I find it easier to immerse myself in a story, even feel like more of a participant, when I'm free to conjure up my own mental images of the players.

Of course, I carry this preference into my own writing attempts. And as often as not I draw adverse reactions from critiquers in this regard; so I suppose that like everything else, there is a balance waiting to be struck. Unfortunately, artistic judgement is a very elusive skill for me.


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BuffySquirrel
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There's a curious duality here. If description is entirely absent, readers miss it; when it's present, they make up their own idea of what the character looks like anyway.

For example, Thomas Hardy describes Tess as having large breasts, a full figure and a very red mouth. When Polanski saw the waif-like, pale and ethereal Nastassia Kinski, he immediately said "that's Tess!". Go figure.

For me, description works best if it's worked into the narrative rather than given all in a lump, and it's especially interesting if you get differing descriptions of the same person from different viewpoint characters. But then I'm not a very visual reader; I just like the flow of words.


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tchernabyelo
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Generally speaking, if you don't tell the reader something, they will make assumptions.

Your choice is about whether you are happy to let them make assumptions, or whether you want to set some ground rules, or key them in about certain things. Certainly, if elements of appearance are important to the plot, you HAVE to slip them in somewhere (e.g. if two characters have the same size/build/hair colour so that one could pass for the other in the dark).

In general, I don't go for long physical descriptions, because it comes across as infodump, and can, frankly, be boring. I agree about concentrating on particular notable features - a beard, unusual height, some cultural costume that makes someone stand out. I have a very clear picture in my head of how certain characters look, but ultimately it probably doesn't matter THAT much if other people see my characters a bit fdifferently.

Though I very much hope to have some kind of input to any cover painting depictions of my characters - as I write mostly about female protagonists, I have a recurring nightmare about them being depicted for, ah, an adolescent male market, shall we say...?


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wbriggs
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My friend and critiquer Mariza keeps telling me to put more in. Maybe I take it to an extreme. But all I want to tell you is enough to give a role. Sex, approximate age, nationality, and if it's crucial, something like "she's beautiful" or "he's wearing overalls."

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited August 23, 2005).]


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Monolith
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Would it be acceptable to tighten the description of the characters (I mean the major ones) when I get to the point of doing a final draft or just get into the habit of doing it from the get go?

Just some musing that I've been doing.

I've got the basic for a couple of them. Long dark hair, the other one has long brown hair, but I haven't said the type of clothing that they wear or anything like that.

Could you guys give some advice on that?

Once again, you guys are the greatest.

-Monolith-


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Christine
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Monolith, I really don't think you should wait until the final edit to put in relevant description. I've read about techniques that propose adding details later and in general, I don't like them. If you didn't think it was important the first time through then it probably wasn't important.

Then again, you could completely fail to describe a character to me and I probably wouldn't notice. The only way I would notice would be if somehow I felt that some aspect of their physical appearance was important. If there is romance in a story, for example, even as a subplot, I'd like to know whether the two involved in that are attractive.That's not to say you have to go into lingering detail. There are no parts of a person's body -- man or woman -- that is essential to draw out. Eye color is common, but that's kind of strange because eye color is really the least meaningful feature of most people -- it's small and subtle. Breast size becomes important if the POV character cares or if there is something really out of place there.

I think almost every takes physical description too far. We think about it too much and put it in our books because we think about it. But from a reader's point of view, I almost never notice it's missing if it's not and I almost always get bored with it if it's there, especially if it's just there and not forany meaningful reason.


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NewsBys
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I've always enjoyed description in these areas:
- Picnic items and banquet items, especially if the food is unusual in some way.

- Adventure gear, I like to know what the character is taking with them on the adventure.

- Cataloging salvage after a plane crash or shipwreck. It gets me to thinking about how the items can be used by the character. Thus, I get "active" in the story.

- Describing interesting places. But normally, I want to read these descriptions after meeting the POV character, and through the POV character's eyes.

- What a hero or heroine is wearing to an important event. But only describe the vivid, easy to grasp images. Like - She wore a simple white satin dress with a blue silk sash. Her only other adornment was fresh flowers crowning her head.
Don't say something like - Her shoes were a size six, and covered in white beads. Her hair was back in a French twist with roses, babies breath and white lilies creating a complex crown of pure white. Her dress was made of satin, imported from Asia, and tailored by the fine ladies at Huffinstuff, Inc. - This does not appeal to me because I want to get on with the action of the story.

As Miriel said:

quote:
If all you have to say about the character is that they're a 6'2" male with brown hair, blue eyes, who weighs 185...well, it's like reading police descriptions. I'll pass.

EXACTLY!!

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Isaiah13
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I prefer minimal description as well, and I like it to come early in the story. I hate getting to page twenty only to discover that the character isn't at all how I had pictured him or her to be.
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Doc Brown
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The description usually isn't interesting to me, unless the story is some type of mystery and I am paying attention for any possible clue.

Much more interesting that a character's description is the way other characters react to them. If men swoon over a woman you don't need to describe her figure, I get the picture. Ditto if children cringe in fear at the sight of an old man.

Give me reaction and I need little description.


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djvdakota
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Varishta asked if heavy description is a matter of style or necessary to the genre.

Complex question, actually.

Much of it is style. As you're seeing from your responses so far, there aren't many readers around here who go for that kind of descriptive character detail. However, there are a lot of readers who LOVE it to DEATH!! Which is why writers who write in that style CAN find success in the industry. I mean, these books are getting published aren't they?

Also, spec-fic is, by definition, about things that are unfamiliar to 20th Century, earth-bound humans. Therefore, the writer often (I say often, not always) carries the burden of needing to give adequate description to enlighten the reader on the mechanics and physical details of the writer's spec-fic world. The difference between 'adequate' and 'overdone' are often matters of style and reader taste, but 'overdone' often displays that the writer is an amateur.

However, spec-fic covers an awful lot of sub-genres--including urban fantasy in which the fantasy takes place in contemporary surroundings, in which case greatly detailed physical descriptions of mostly-normal human beings are merely tedious.

I think the thing that bothers me most about detailed descriptions is not necessarily that they exist, but they're often stuck into the narrative right in the middle of something interesting happening. SCREEEEECH!! Let's put the brakes on the story to tell you about the gold flecks in the heroine's green eyes, her full red lips, her auburn hair streaked with gold, her tiny ankles, her....! UGH!!

[This message has been edited by djvdakota (edited August 24, 2005).]


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franc li
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quote:
a head exactly like a coconut

I guess using "exactly" in any kind of simile is dangerous.

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rjzeller
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I think it all depends on the relevance to the story.

Bean is described as being very small, and this is relevant to the plot. Many of the other characters get very little physical description.

Except Achilles, who again has relevance in terms of description.

Tolkein describes hobbits in detail, but not necessarily Frodo specifically, or Sam or anyone else.

But much can be implied. If every young man in the village is just DYING to hook up with the local maiden, we can assume she's pretty good looking. I don't have to have the author actually say "she's a babe!"

But it's really all up to you and what you want to portray.

A man who meets a lovely young woman might notice a LOT more about her appearance than a little girl who just met the same woman. If a character notices features and comments on them (even if in internal POV voice), then I'm okay with it. If the narrator is just "telling" me everything about this character, I get bored fast....


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JRune
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It honestly depends on how derivative from traditional costume your stories are. If it's just a little tweak in design here and there, it's enough to mention that. But if it's a wild departure from ethnicities and clothing styles, you might want to give it more explanation.

In one of my stories where an alternate time-line occurs when the British and Romans banded together to form a single empire (you'd have to read to find out how this happened), I give the officers in the military what I believe the Roman toga might have evolved into for practical military use in the north. This could be very detailedly explained, but there's no real purpose in going beyond a few sentences of description.

Take for example my character Brand. He's a tallish sort of man that wears his curly, coarse black hair very short. His face is broad with many asian features, although his face has an anglo structure. His eyes are sad and he always looks tired because, in fact, he never sleeps for any reason. For the same reasons he never sleeps, he rarely blinks.

Beyond this, there's nothing much to describe. Medium build, carries himself like soldiers have all throughout history, although perhaps his gait is a little more rolling than stiff. Beyond this, the only thing of interest to note is his clothes.

His outfit is very obviously a toga that was adapated for the northern climes. It's basically a once-piece outfit that covers from neck to ankle, down to the wrists. It has straight sleeves, buttons at the left shoulder and belts at the waist using a wrap-over belt. If I cared to include it, I'd mention that it's made of thick grey wool and he wears leather boots with fleece lining and wooden soles. The lack of buttoning anywhere but the shoulder allows him to access with his left hand two inner pockets that contain his cigars and any papers he happens to need to carry.

That's about the only description I need of Brand. It should tell you right-off that he's not from our time-period. Other details, such as the fact that he carries cigars on him at all times but never any matches can be inserted later into the story.

But other stories, such as the one I was writing earlier tonight that is set entirely in the modern world, I need no description beyond "Berry was a late teens youth with short red hair he kept swept back from his face. He preferred plain t-shirts and polo shirts, but today he wore his Green Day t-shirt. He wore black denim jeans, beat up old Keds and ankle socks because they were comfortable, and that happened to be just about all he owned."

No need to mention beyond that, and even that is a little too much description in some cases.

In general: It's up to you. Lengthy descriptions rarely do anyone any good.


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wbriggs
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I got a suggestion for my WIP that I should add physical description simply to make some of my characters more distinguishable. Among the Indians, I had Big Scary Guy, very distinguishable, because of face paint. His friends were just guys. But, then -- wouldn't they be?

Maybe I could add a little: this is the big one, this is the one with the turned-up nose, or something. But this is hard to do when the POV character is one of them and has known his friends for years. I don't see one of my long-time friends and think, she has long black hair, doesn't she?


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JmariC
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One form (and I'm not going to go much beyond it in this post) of distinguishing characters of the same general apperance is to take note of what makes them unique. Does anyone have a scar? Shorter hair due to shame? Less height? Characteristics of a different tribe? 'crazy eyes'? Small hands? Beady eyes? A broken nose?

Just a simple something that adds a physical attribute not unlike thier personality? Thin lips that are not prone to smiling?
This can help seperate characters in the readers mind as much as a name can.


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Valtam
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I sometimes struggle with this in my writing. I enjoy going into the technical details of my sci-fi or fantasy worlds, like descriptions of the modes of transportation, the police and military uniforms and armor, the weapons. In the fantasy world that I've created over the years, the sword, armor, and clothing styles are unique between the different cultures. The terrain is different from place to place, even the architecture is. I want to provide an infodump simply because I have all this information that I want the reader to know. Heck, I've even drawn out maps. I have seven pages in MS Word simply describing a specific race I created for the world in incredible detail. How do I provide the reader with enough of this information so that they can fully understand the world? I'm tempted just to try and add an appendix like Tolkien.

Also, another problem I have is character description. The characters I generally use are ones that I've had in my head for years, either from past stories or other things. I have a very definite image of them, and I kinda want the reader to see the same image. I also want to show their nationality, or their tendancy to wander, in their clothing. However, I understand that precise lumps of description are rather boring. How do I break myself of this temptation?


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Miriel
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Valtam -- the trick is just to realize that all of your notes can't go into the story. Just let bits of them crop out as are relevant. To use the Tolkien example...true, there are appendicies, but without those, you can still understand the story. Dwarves are first introduced at the party because they made the fine toys far away in the Lonely Mountain. So we know dwarves make wonderful things and live in mountains. Elves crop up because Sam is fascinated with them. But we don't get a long lecture on Elven history; that's what the Silmarillion's for. We just know that they're rare and beautiful and awe-inspiring. So just let details slip out as the story goes along, as they're relevant. In Tolkien, we learn more about elves and dwarves as we go, about how they fight with each other, about their customs (especially in Lothlorien), and so on, but the whole picture wasn't present at first.
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franc li
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When I think of physical description I think of Atlas Shrugged. I can't imagine her other books are different. The annoying thing was all her characters sounded kind of the same. They were all lean and strong looking and somewhat angular except Hank had the mysterious blue/green eyes, and the other guy was a latin lover type and Dagnee was a woman, and John was the all around perfect man.

I do have to say that it is annoying to get too far into a book having one idea of what a person looks like and then some detail letting you know otherwise. But that can happen with other things besides looks. Like I read this story once and only found out very near the end that the MC had no distinguishable feelings on religion. I kind of felt like that should have been brought up much sooner in the story since it was a personal journey of growth through parents' divorce kind of story.


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maria102182
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I havent read the other replies, so I don't know if they already said this, but I would like to. When I read I do like to know what the characters look like, but, if you go into to much detail, It is off putting. I personally like the idea that a mysterious character should not have as much detail, at least at first. Unfolding the characters description over time is perfectly legitimate, we don't have to know everything up front. At the same time, dragging it out to much can get pretty boring. So I'm going to sum this up with the pat answer, go with your gut.
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