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Author Topic: How Important is Physically Describing Your Characters?
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I was just receiving some critique on a short story I wrote, and I was told by my reader that he was taken out of the story because I never physically described my characters. My thought is: it's not important, especially in a piece with a submission requirement under 5,000 words. You have to pick and choose your battles.

Are those descriptions important in a short story if it doesn't impact the development of the character or plot? Is that something that a professional editor would ding me over?

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Not sure about the pro editor, but probably because they're all different. As different as critters.

If I were your reader, I probably wouldn't have pointed that out. Come to think of it, I'm reading a story now that has no character description, but I have an image of the character.

OSC says people fill in themselves, or what they want to see/imagine.

I'm with him. But I've been dinged by readers for NOT describing my characters, so...

My solution was to go BRIEF.

I once described a character as bald. That was it. I got zero complaints.


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When I began to write again, I would take a moment and fully described my characters for their appearance was so clear to me--and this was one of the most frequent complaints about my writing.

Since then I've learned that most readers prefer to trust their own imagination with just a hint from the author of a distingtuishing feature or two. I've come to agree.

Some people feel the same about describing settings, though in fantasy (think Tolkiens' Minas Tirith and Orthanc; and Donaldson's Kevin's Watch and Revelstone) I delight in the author's description.


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I'm in the depends camp on physical descriptions. Physicality orients readers to persons, times, places, situations, and events. To what degree depends on audience and intent. Sophisticated audiences, contrarily, prefer stronger physical details. Less discerning audiences prefer a detail here or there. That divide in preference is from the degree of imagination any given reader brings to reading.

I project my creative vision onto a writers' when details given are limited, partly from engaging so deeply in a participation mystique I'm writing myself into a story onto a writer's creative vision. Sophisticated readers, though, in my experience, and this is where the contrary part comes in, don't want to strenuously exercise their imaginations. They, in general, want a writer to do most of the creating so that intent and meaning are accessible, facilitating reading and comprehension ease. I think of myself, though, as both a sophisticated and imaginative reader, sort of shapeshifting between extremes.

Another depends is whether readers are meant to self-identify with a central character. If a brunette reader is asked to self-identify with a blonde character, that might be too much difference to accept, or a man reader self-identifying with a girl character, for examples. Alternatively, if a central character is meant to be more vicariously experienced than in personal intimacy, then physical detail is generally welcome.

Description doesn't take much; leavened in here and there, as axeminster points out, is effective. One less than ideally artful way to provide character description is in exposition blocks given in narrator voice (tell) and not by leavened character voice, opening narrative distance.

So-and-so had straight, long, dark hair. She was heavyset and lazy. Her everyday attire consisted of mu-mus and leisure suits. No one liked her. Bland. Static. Weak.

Description mode works artfully best when incorporated with sensation, action, introspection, and emotion writing modes. Meaning, show character appearances, personalities, behaviors, and traits through other characters' lenses, closing narrative distance.

[ May 10, 2012, 03:03 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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I once had a theater professor suggest that when writing scripts you have to give the actor enough to go on but also room to bring something of his own to the table. I have always thought that good advice for writing in general.
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I think it depends on the character.

What does the POV character notices about others, and what attitude do they use to describe them?

Describing can be a great place to show attitude, class difference, romantic tension, etc.

Also, some characters (and real life people) constantly think about themselves; what they are wearing, what their butt looks like, how their hair looks. Other characters (and people) could be wearing mix matched shoes all day, and not notice until they come home.

If the character would think it, then write it. If not, then why bother?

In all things, character first, description later.


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I think I am repeating what some have said already but I think for a story a very basic description is good. You should let the reader fill in most of it. The same for cars and other things.

I'm not sure how much of a description I always put in, it seems to depend on the story but I usually have an idea of what my MC looks like and I don't want the reader to picture the opposite. One current guy is on the tall side even though come to think of it I'm not sure if that comes across. No one has mentioned that though so I guess it doesn't matter. But the fact that he wears a full length leather coat may get that across.

In one story my MC was short and somewhat over weight so I made sure I described him enough to get that across.

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I agree with shimiqua that it depends on the character. It also might depend on the genre. People who primarily read in the Fantasy and Romance genres seem to expect physical descriptions of all major characters, while Science Fiction readers won't tolerate distractions from the primary ideas and events of the story.

I personally don't care about physical description unless it shows something about the culture or characters. Preferably, it does that while advancing the plot.

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I like a little description, setting and people. It helps anchor the reader. You don't need much just a few vivid details, and the reader will fill in the rest.

I agree with Sheena in that everything should be described through the eyes of the POV character. I think it makes the descriptions more interesting and also develops the character at the same time. But I do want some sort of physical description even if it is only a tall brunette or short blonde. It would drive me nuts if there was no physical description of a character at all. But that is just my opinion. I'm sure it will work for just fine for others.

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In my current WIP, the only feature of a certain character's appearance I revealed were his teeth. This character likes to smile for all sorts of reasons, so I concentrate on how he does it. I think this shows all the reader needs to know; the rest of his appearance isn't important.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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One thing you could consider doing is to write out a full description for yourself, so you are sure you know what is needed about the character.

Then, when you write the story, use only as much as is necessary to get the idea across. If you have the character clear in your mind, things will seep through in your writing whether you include them consciously or not.

Also, I am completely in agreement with shimiqua's recommendation. What your POV character notices and the attitude about it can be very helpful in getting description to do double duty as characterization. And in a short story, the more you can do that, the more efficient and elegant your words can be.

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I prefer the Hills like White Elephants approach - describe everything in great detail EXCEPT the main characters.
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Whether and how much to describe varies. Sometimes you need it to provide variety to a largely description-free manuscript. People tend to do early drafts that are tilted toward one narrative aspect (action, dialog, inner monologue etc.). If you have a manuscript totally free of physical description, chances are *more* would be a good thing. However if physical description is the first thing that comes out for you, you may want to trim some of it.

There are also narrative and thematic reasons to describe or not to describe. In one of my story the heroine's best friend is the most beautiful girl in the world. What that would look like is different to different people, so what I do have other characters look at the girl and react to what they see, letting the reader fill in the blanks. If a character's reaction is that the girl's hair is "glorious", many will automatically picture that as blond although for me chestnut colored hair is more likely to be glorious. The object is to make the reader feel like the girl is described without actually doing so.

*The Keystone*, my current WIP, is a romance satire, so I feel that I have to describe the principle characters. Since I tell the story through Kate's eyes I give a fairly minute description of Archie right away. I use some of the same not-quite-telling trick with Kate; her self-reports of her appearance are unreliable and so we have to guess through the reactions of the people around her. Through the story her self-awareness increases and we get a clearer picture of her appearance. I even researched cosmetology and fashion (Kate is a "spring" and looks best in primary or pale soft colors).

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An intriguing feature from characters portraying other characters from their perspectives is doing so characterizes both.

Does Shakespeare characterize the narrator by the narrator describing his lover in Sonnet Number 130?

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

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Here's the thing with description. Everyone has a different opinion and a different preference on what they want to do when talking about characters. I vary with every story I write. If I'm writing something in first person I usually don't describe my character or people the character knows at the beginning of the story like friends and family. While if I'm writing in third person I might describe my characters or I might not. Depends on the feel of the story.
Also if the character stands out because of his or her appearance I will describe what makes them different. Sometimes appearance is important, but not always.

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Like Forlorn Shadow, I describe exactly one character in my story well, and she only shows up in one scene. I describe her because her appearance startles my main character--she has a tattoo, she wears vivid clothing, she has makeup on, her feet are bare. My hope--and I think I pulled it off--was to show that most people in this world aren't used to seeing women wearing makeup with all the other things that implies about the culture.

I've tried and tried to add some character description to my book, but it doesn't fit my characters personality, so I've given it up. Every now and then I find a place where I can tuck a bit in, but after the first chapter or two, it seems like its too late.

I agree with Kathleen though. It's important that we know what our characters look like, even if no one else does. As I'm finishing my editing, I noticed that in one chapter, I describe a character as "light complexioned" and about 100 pages later I compare him to another character and call him dark. While I suppose this is possible, it is probably unlikely, unless the second character was an albino (which he was not).

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Well, I think it's important to remember that different readers have different needs. Some just seem to need physical descriptions, others seem to get along fine without.

What I've discovered in responding to people who need physical description is that my manuscript usually improves if I oblige them. I think that's because I don't tend to produce any character physical description in early drafts. Having more probably helps a lot of readers, and it's unlikely to hurt because I'm in no danger of overdoing that particular story element.

I'd guess most adults take about five to seven hours to get through a medium length novel; over the course of that much time a little variety is bound to be welcome. And while you can't please every reader, it doesn't hurt to help as many get through your story as you can.

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On the perspective of the main character - it's often hard to work in a description of him or herself in those situations and have it feel natural. How have you guys gotten around that?
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On the perspective of the main character - it's often hard to work in a description of him or herself in those situations and have it feel natural. How have you guys gotten around that?
Well, the time-honored and cheesy method would be for the character to see himself in a mirror. Despite this being the Velveeta[tm] of narrative techniques, I actually used this satirically in *The Keystone*. In that case what the protagonist *fails* to see when she looks in the mirror is the most important point: that her ex-husband's new fiancee bears a striking resemblance to her.

I'd caution against using the mirror trick straight up. Use it when the POV character has a good reason to obsess about his appearance (e.g. he thinks he's a hideous monster).

Precise description of the POV character isn't really necessary because not describing him or her doesn't get in the way of the reader putting himself in the POV character's shoes. If there is some physical characteristic you want to point out you can work it into the action. A very tall person might have to duck to get through doorways; a very fat person may not fit into his old clothes. Eye color, hair and complexion can be mentioned in the choice of clothing colors a character selects. We tend to assume only women do this, but men can as well.

One trick I've seen female authors use with female protagonists is to have the protagonist compare her own features unfavorably to those of another woman.

Often the best way to describe the POV character is the reaction of other characters, particularly strangers. If they recoil in horror from her, we can take it she's monstrously hideous. If strange men keep introducing themselves to her we can assume she's attractive.

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It depends on why the character needs a description I think.

I'm writing an alternate world where there are three separate human phenotypes, none of which correspond exactly to Earth. A man from our world comes here and notices the differences. So I include enough description for the reader to get an idea of what each race looks like. For instance, when I say that so-and-so is a ****, they know that the person is tall, with dark brown skin and wavy hair.

Through the story progression they also learn that this race has low tech, so they are generally dirty, short lived, poorly educated, with bad teeth. These bits get fitted into the picture as the story goes along.

On the other hand, individuals should be sketched, IMO. Let the reader fill in the small details. Like this description of a baron's personal guardsmen:

[His grizzled hair and beard spoke of experience, and the scars on his face and arms spoke to the kind of experience it had been. The four men with him looked like they had all been hammered in the forge of that dead god they worshiped.]

From previous chapters the reader knows something about the character's race, culture, and technology. So as the story continues, the bits and pieces gradually work together to fill in the gaps - and the characters become progressively more three dimensional. I hope.

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I disagree that the expectation has anything to do with the sophistication of the audience - it is more an expectation of the genre. Many sophisticated and educated people read the literary genre, which is probably the source of the observation above. But many sophisticated and educated people read science fiction, which has the opposite expectation (and a whole realm of its own expectations).

In addition, I suspect that description is more readily expected by a sensate personality type, and an intuitive personality type wouldn't expect it. Thus, even within a genre, there may be different individual expectations. Counterbalancing this is the potential for readers to gravitate towards the genre that writes fiction in a manner closest to their personality type.

If you do want to add description, do it early. There are few things worse than getting two chapters into a story, and then there is a piece of self description that totally changes the imagination of the reader. I typically feel like I am fighting with the writer at that point, or that he is being unfair to make me change my view.

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Robert Nowall
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I'm thinking that I want to give some detail about how my characters look, but not too much---but I also don't want anyone to get something wrong about my character's appearance. So a little bit every so often seems warranted.


On the notion of "wrong" in appearance...I have been informed that the main character in Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky is black...I haven't reread the books since that bit of information passed my eyes, but I cast my memory back for how I perceived the book way long ago...it seems to me that the character, in my mind's eye, looked somewhat dark, but I can't say I got that he was black, or at least not in the sense that I, an American, would think that.

But I don't know what it is, in the book, that made me think what I thought then. I await a reprinting---my paperbacks are aging and inaccessible---for further thought...

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