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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Visualization... How much?

   
Author Topic: Visualization... How much?
Crystal Stevens
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I've been told a couple of times that I don't put enough description in my stories, but there's a reason for this. I feel that it shouldn't be neccesary unless it's important to the story. I know when I'm reading a book and the author goes into a lot of detail on describing the MC's surroundings or how a person looks that my eyes tend to glaze over and I'm tempted to skip over it to get on with the story.

So just how much visualization should be done either in a short story or a novel to get the story across and how much should be left to the reader's imagination? Does it have to be a long description or are there ways to do it with a few simple words?

I guess I should add that I have an animalistic (but highly intelligent) character in one of my novels that I spent time describing in detail but mainly because he is so unlike the more human-type characters in the same story.


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Zero
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I think like you do and I find a lot of description is arbitrarily tossed in and slows the pacing too much. However, we need some description in order to have clarity about where we are and what's going on.

My general rule is ... 1. Is this information important, does it tell something necessary about the character's environment or personality, etc? 2. Is it interesting?

Passing either of these checks I'll include the detail. usually, I find, that check two really is just a subset of check one.


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Symphonyofnames
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I'm the same way. Different writers have different styles, I don't think it's bad to give the necessary description and let the readers' imaginations fill in the rest. Depends what kind of story you're writing also. A story like the Lord of the Rings is an exploration of the world of the Middle-Earth, so a lot of description is necessary and that's what people want. Other stories more centered around events don't require as much. But really, if it's unusual or necessary I'd put it in. Hope that helps.
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steffenwolf
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I have always had trouble with this too, so I"m no expert. But I definitely think there is such a thing as too much description. I had trouble getting through the Lord of the Rings because, IMO, too much time was spent on description. By the time he'd finished describing a scene, pages and pages later, I was zoned out.

Scene description, like so many things, can be used to characterize the protagonist, both his attitude and his familiarity with a situation. I like to think of narration as looking through the eyes of the character using the filter of the words. If he's in his own house, he probably won't describe much because he doesn't think about his house. But if he's a pauper going to a prince's ball, he'll describe many details in wonder. If a warrior walks into an unfamiliar place, he could notice many details, such as what places could conceal an attacker, how many exits there are, etc... If an architect walked into the same room he might notice the beautiful arched doorways and the composition of the floor. Others might scrutinize the people more closely and ignore the location to some extent.


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rich
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What everyone else said. Story should take precedence, though. I think. And I'm always right, even when I'm wrong.

By the way, American Psycho is a novel that drowns the reader in description and detail, but it's absolutely necessary for what Ellis was trying to say (though I have no idea what he was trying to say).


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philocinemas
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I am the odd bird; I actually enjoy the description. I am a very visual reader in that it helps me to have a visual picture of the world within the story as I am reading it. I often have to curtail this preference in my writing. I do, however, have my limits as well. The Silmarillion is my stumbling block.
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annepin
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In large part my tolerance for description has to do with how it's presented, less than with the actual content.
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rich
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The Silmarillion was everyone's stumbling block. Thousands died. It wasn't pretty.
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extrinsic
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Visual description is a sensation, like other sensations, it can involve a reader deeper in a story or throw one right out. I encountered an article that spoke to how a too explicit appearance or other description of a character, object, or setting can create distance for a reader's self-involvement, especially in whoever the anchoring character is. The cause of it being the description is so specific that a reader will not be able to invest intimately with the character. On the other hand, too little detail, and the same result might occur.

Idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes are sometimes good for concisely distinguishing characters, objects, or settings, but they can be so peculiar that the same loss of reader intimacy will occur. Better if more universal than too peculiar. Another article from long ago that I also can't remember where I saw it said that the strength of fiction is perceiving the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar.


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Gan
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I don't care for description based stories myself. But, for a story like The Lord of the Rings, it is simply necessary. These types of stories are not about the characters, but rather, about the worlds. (I think I got this from some of Orson Scott Cards writing advice, but it might be someone else...)

Either way, we need a bit of description to know whats going on. Remember that it sometimes doesn't have to add to the story, but rather, to the clarity of what is happening.


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InarticulateBabbler
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How many people (most or few) have told you that your descriptions lack?

Take that into account.

Then, after it cools, read through it and see if you agree that it lacks clarification.


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Robert Nowall
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I like to know what the area around my characters looks like (and what my characters look like, too), and generally I have a pretty good idea of it, but I then have trouble expressing even the minimum amount needed to let the readers know what the scene (or character) looks like.
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Robert Nowall
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Or at least it seems so to me. I can't recall anybody ever mentioning it.
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Crystal Stevens
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Robert; You got me thinking about something I read in one of my writing reference books. Something was said about the character's mannerisms, voice, and attitude will almost automatically bring up a picture in the reader's mind of what that particular character should look like without a play-by-play description. Mainly, because of how most people will catagorize specific types through gender, age, status in life, race, etc.

I remember reading a story one time where the character's age wasn't evident right away. I thought I was reading about a young man and then found out he was much older. I had to go back and re-read it to get the picture of the character as a youth out of my mind. It wasn't easy and continued to plague me for the majority of the book.


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extrinsic
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Speaking to character mannerisms, in 1975, Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman's Place, Harper & Row, identified ten features of language that women use, as distinguished from men's distinctive features, primarily assertiveness. It's been a few decades since then, and even then there was no consensus agreement, but I've encountered these in writing by women endeavoring to portray male characters. I had difficulty keeping the male characters separate from female ones as a result. Also, I'm sure youths who have close maternal relationships mimic their mothers' language mannerisms.

-Hedging
-Politeness
-Tag questions
-Emotional emphasis
-Empty adjectives
-Proper grammar and pronunciation
-Lack of humor
-Direct quotations
-Extended vocabulary
-Declarations with interrogative intonation

from http://changingminds.org/explanations/gender/womens_language.htm


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dee_boncci
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I believe the main things have been touched upon. Description filtered through a character's POV is a good tool for revealing character, establishing a setting, and creating mood. Experts will advise going beyond the visual to include all of the senses. Beyond that, most of the time it quickly grows tedious.

I'm a reader who is proactive is creating my own mental pictures, so there is a point where it gets to be too much for me.

I'd rather read:

"A sharp-dressed businesswoman who appeared to spend as much time at the gym and on the beach as in the office."

Than a 10-line paragraph describing her outfit, jewelry, accesories, muscle tone, cosmetics, skin tone, eye color, hair color, hairstyle, shoes, etc.

But then again, one of the harshest critiques I've ever received was from a reader who got put off because I did not specify a character's eye and hair colors (she was the POV character) in the opening chapter of a novel. So who knows, maybe I'm in the minority?


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satate
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While listening to the radio today an author was quoted about using description. I remember the quote well, but I forget what the author's name was. It made me think of this discussion.

They said he once got after a writing student for using too much description. He said that as a writing you make a tacet agreement with the reading. It is as if the reader is taking a hike into the mountains and you are specifying what he needs to bring. If you make him carry a yello volkswagon and he gets to the top and there wasn't a purpose to it he's going to be angry he had to lug it up there.


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MartinV
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People had told me countless times I don't describe enough setting or scenery. But then, these people like to read LOTR (which does not appeal to me at all because it describes WAY too much). So to ease my conscience I write fan fiction now; the setting is already written so I can concetrate on the characters and story - just the way I like it. I wont be able to publish it though (a sad emoticon would be in order here).
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weekes15
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How much description is too much? IMO that depends on what kind of a story are you writing. What is the most important point of your story? Is the story about a strange world that you are inviting the reader to explore? Are you really interested in writing about a character, or is it an idea, or an event that you're focusing on? (See OSC's MICE quotient)

The type of story your writing in large measure determines how much description you should attempt to include. A story about characters in our time in a suburb in the United States, really requires very little description of surroundings since your audience (assuming that your writing in English to be published in America) already knows what an average suburban American neighborhood is like. Now, if the character is ridiculously wealthy and lives the life of the ultra-privileged, you would want to describe more deeply to your readers the elegance of his surroundings since the 'average American' only guesses at what a life in the lap of luxury would be like.

So, at least for me, the real question is, what kind of story you writing? When you know what type of story you're writing it's easier to determine how much detail is warranted.


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Robert Nowall
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A sort-of sidebar thought: how do you introduce info about a character's color of skin without looking like some kind of bigot? (I've read books where some character or other was of a certain variety of skin color...but I missed it altogether and only found out later in a review or commentary.)
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dee_boncci
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I'm guessing Robert that you're asking more about how to convey a character's race in general.

There's lot's of ways, I'd think. It would be a function of the POV, and what importance, if any, the character's race has to the story and/or the POV character.

If it's a minor character seen through a POV that isn't overly concerned with race, you could just say, "a middle-aged polynesian man," (or asian, or black, or hispanic, or white, or indian, or whatever). If the POV character is very politically correct you could substitute the "-american" equivalents.

If you're writing, for example, something about the South in the 1950's where racial differences affect the characters to a large degree, it becomes a much bigger issue in how people view each other and themselves.

If you desire to describe the literal flesh tone of an individual, just find a good, non-generic/cliche color description (you'd have a hard time finding someone whose skin is literally black or white or red or yellow, etc.).


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Robert Nowall
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Well, given the dearth of ethnic stereotyping in the last, oh, forty years, just citing the name of an ethnic group isn't good enough anymore. I recall one movie (some time ago), where, for one part, somebody wanted someone who was "Black Irish." I gather the director had to look at several people who were of an entirely different ethnic type, one that is "black" but isn't "Irish," before he enlightened his casting director...

And, since I usually deal with the future in some way, usually on far-flung planets, I might be dealing with characters who've never heard of "Polynesia," much less "Polynesians" or "Polynesian-Americans"...and since I intend my stuff to be read by the people who are here-and-now, I can't define an ethnic group on future terms without in some way describing them for the present day...


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aspirit
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quote:
A sort-of sidebar thought: how do you introduce info about a character's color of skin without looking like some kind of bigot?

Like with other types of descriptions, first consider why skin color matters in your story. In the future on a far-flung planet, characters' skin colors won't mean the same thing as if they're on present-day Earth. If color defines groups, then look for situations in which the two groups interact, or when a member of one group considers issues between the groups.

Is one character surprised at another's skin color? Are jokes about skin color common? Does a character remark about how garment color contrasts or compliment skin color? Do you have a love scene between people of dramatically different colors? Fight scene, where there's time to describe blood sliding down skin?

If you introduce the info when it matters, as characters notice color of skin, then most readers won't judge you for it.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, unless the characters are blind, they'll know what any particular character's skin color happens to be at a glance. One also says "tall" or "short" or "fat" or "thin"---but "black" or "white" gets more people on edge than just about anything else.
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aspirit
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Do you really note the skin color of every person you see?

That man crossing the street is black--dark chocolate brown. The woman with the poodle is white with an Irish flush. Is that girl with the Hispanic boy--no, wait, deep russet, I'll think about him later--Indonesian? Light sepia.

What else could fit in fore-thoughts with this going on? Someone researching a story or deeply biased might fixate on skin colors. Otherwise, getting to work on time, not slipping in the slush, what the spouse said last night, etcetera takes over.

So... "Black" and "white" irritates readers when those descriptions seem to reflect more of a writer's biases/insecurities than what's relevant to the story. Compare excerpts from fictional news reports.

One: "Police identified 20-year-old Matthew Filliger as the thief behind 13 home break-ins last month. Neighbors caught the black man carrying stolen goods..."

Two: "Witnesses report that Terry, a white woman in her thirties, beat the black teenager with a metal trash can lid as she screamed racial slurs."

Do you see the difference?

Anyway, use whatever terminology is appropriate to your story when needed to convey character or plot. "Black" and "white" might not fit. The good news is that if the terminology you use doesn’t make sense, then your test readers will notice.


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Robert Nowall
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quote:
Do you really note the skin color of every person you see?

Yes.

As for the fictitious news reports...there are places in the USA that don't include skin color in such reports...which in a "police are searching for..." story, can be quite crippling in locating the person.

And take Fictional News Report Number Two: Reverse the descriptions of skin color: "Witnesses report that Terry, a black woman in her thirties, beat the white teenager with a metal trash can lid as she screamed racial slurs." Is this a different story? And why so? If one of us were writing the story behind the tag line, we would be obliged to explain the why of it.

I'm inclined to include skin color as part of description, come what may.


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aspirit
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quote:
Yes.

That explains why you want to know every fictional character's skin color. Write what you want to read.

quote:
As for the fictitious news reports...there are places in the USA that don't include skin color in such reports...which in a "police are searching for..." story, can be quite crippling in locating the person.

A police description for the purpose of locating a subject is different than reporting on a recent incident, though both may occur in an article.

quote:
And take Fictional News Report Number Two: Reverse the descriptions of skin color: "Witnesses report that Terry, a black woman in her thirties, beat the white teenager with a metal trash can lid as she screamed racial slurs." Is this a different story? And why so? If one of us were writing the story behind the tag line, we would be obliged to explain the why of it.

In #2, "black" and "white" combined with mention of racial slurs indicate how the woman will be charged. If she had attacked someone of her own color and screamed insults about race, then that's a different story. Readers would ask different questions.

quote:
I'm inclined to include skin color as part of description, come what may.

We all take risks when writing. That's why I write what is important to me. If I were to publish... sorry, when I publish, I'll care more about if the story was clear than whether or not readers agree with my values.


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philocinemas
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I do not think that skin color is an issue in writing a story, unless the story is specifally addressing racial issues. There could be tension between the two police officers (one white and one black) working in neighborhoods predominantly of one race (white or black or other). There could be a social message embedded in the story about a robot that is being falsely or accurately accused. Our recent thread about aliens addressed how aliens are often metaphors for people of other races or nationalities. There would be many instances where problems associated with race could be addressed in science fiction.

However, I have worked both alongside and in a helping capacity with people of many different races and found that for the most part people are divided more along the lines of socio-economic differences than differences in race.

What I mean by this is that I have worked as a mentor/counselor with families that were very low in economic status and they are all very similar in their behavior and their order of priorities. Now I say this with a condition - the people I've worked with in this way have had similar needs. Almost all of them have eagerly received government assistance and have had limited education.

I, myself, have been poor on occasion in my life and had neither of these hinderances (and yes goverment dependency is a hinderance). The difference was a belief in rising above poverty and a confidence in doing what must be done to accomplish this.

On the other hand, I've had coworkers of other races and found that, except for a few cultural differences, our basic belief systems and principles were very similar. Our goals are very similar - family, religion, career, etc.

I think I understand what Robert is saying - that often what people see first is skin color. It is many times inescapable, but I would challenge people to consider is the white teenager with his pants-waist down to his knees treated any more trustingly than the black teenager dressed the same? Is the white man in the shirt and tie treated any more trustingly than the black man dressed the same? For many, the answer is "yes", and that is unfortunate.

I am somewhat conditioned to have various degrees of reservation based largely on how people are dressed. that's not to say that people dressed in lowriders are always thieves or that people in ties are always honest. But I am conditioned to have various degrees of concern when encountering people based on this. I suppose demeanor also plays a large part in my perceptions.

Let me end this rambling by stating that much of this is a result of environment. If someone socializes in a group predominantly of one race, I think that person will be more aware of other races when encountering them. I changed positions within my organization about four months ago. I had been working there for about a month and a half when one day I looked around and realized that I was the only caucasion our of about 10 people working in the building. I just hadn't noticed that I was a minority.


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philocinemas
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My point in the above rant was that when we write about a person, whether the educated or uneducated poor, the educated or uneducated middle-class, or the wealthy, we can easily present them in a way that it doesn't really matter what their skin color is. In a sense, this is more beneficial to us as writers - it allows us to reach a larger audience and strive to be all things to all people. This way the reader can more easily identify with the character and not feel alienated.

In writing, race has its place, but it is not always necessary to point it out.


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extrinsic
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Authorial license almost demands vilifying select groups of people. The hazzard comes when it's done with stock stereotypes. In Stephen Crane's "Blue Hotel," he sets dime-store Westerns' standard stereotypes on edge. Mickey Spillane's characteristic androcentric anti-intellectualisms were a stock in trade because his audience liked that. I recently read a bestselling novel that vilified home-wrecking females, errant husbands, commitment phobic men, and spoiled-rotten rich young people, among others.

Names themselves are powerful. Loquacia Robinson in tandem with an uncoventional dialect could show an ethnic person without needing to describe her appearance.

The challenge is to make villains or nemeses unique from their biological predestinations. Giving a reader subliminal cues from a few identifying characteristics is effective as long as decorum is maintained and stock stereotypes don't rise to caricatures of reality. Authenticity is what matters as does tone. Distinguishing racial features if characterized by respectful attitudes doesn't become insensitive observation. One guiding principle I rely on is that no matter who's the villain and who's the hero, in each's mind and comportment, they believe they're noble and distinguished.


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dee_boncci
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Humans gather an immense amount of information from their eyes, even with just a glance. In general for a writer, it's at best impractical to convey all of that information in fictional prose. Our brains filter out most of that information by assigning it to patterns and we are then able to focus on what is important to us at the time. I believe a writer's job is similar.

When we look at a person, there is a lot of raw information we take in, including the color of their skin and other features indicative of ethnicity. Like so many other visual details, it's importance to a story should dictate whether and to what degree it gets put on the page. A meticulous cataloging of the skin color of every character will tell a reader that skin color is of great importance. If that doesn't have apparent meaning within the story itself, it will reflect on the outlook of the author, and at best be an annoyance to the reader.

It's a judgement call on the part of the writer. If it's a necessary detail, then do it and don't worry about it.


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TaleSpinner
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I think that, if detail is included, it's often a good idea to use telling detail -- detail that goes beyond the surface and gives insight into character or place.

For example, three different characters:

He wore a grey Armani suit, a crisp white shirt and a blue silk tie, perfectly knotted.

He wore a crumpled Armani suit, a blue shirt, and a tie stained with engine oil.

He wore a grey Armani suit, an open-necked blue silk shirt, and a big smile.

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited January 26, 2009).]


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Robert Nowall
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Well, at this point in my literary career, if any editor is inclined to reject a piece of mine because I mentioned skin color in describing a character...well, they know what they can do with their publication.

I'm inclined to agree with dee_boncci's statement---we humans do gather a great deal of information at a glance. Digging deeper, to find, say, the person behind this immediately-available info, would come later---in real life and in writing, too.


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rich
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Some of my best friends are stereotypes.

[This message has been edited by rich (edited January 27, 2009).]


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annepin
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I'm with dee-boncci on this one. It would take paragraphs to describe what we can perceive in an instant. A writer doesn't simply record what's seen; rather, the writer must filter possible details by providing the correct lens for the story. That might include skin color, it might not. It might include nose hairs, it might not. It might include breasts, it might not. It's a combo of the POV character and the writer presenting details that are interesting to the reader, and salient to the story.
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steffenwolf
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I've said this before, but to repeat: I like to think of narration as looking through the eyes of the character using the filter of the words.

As regarding skin color, how important is skin color to the character? If the story takes place in the US during the time of slavery, or during the time of segregation, obviously skin color is of vital importance to the character.

If it takes place during present day, many times it wouldn't really matter. A character might be interested, might not be. If you get in the character's head, you can think about what they'd notice. If a character from a small town in the Midwest goes to the big city and sees a multiracial populace, he might find it hard not to stare at people with darker skin. Even assuming he's not racist, darker skin tones are just an unusual sight if you're normally surrounded by fair-skinned folk of European descent. But if the character started out in the big city, he might not even think about it (and therefore it should not be in the narration in my view).


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