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Author Topic: Describing characters
Grumpy old guy
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I am just wondering who describes their characters in their stories and who leaves it up to the readerís imagination; and why you make the choice you make. A second wondering is this: If you do describe your characters, which gender do you find the most difficult? I have a hunch that men find it more difficult to describe men and visa-versa for women.


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I used to think that leaving it up to the imagination of the readers was more artistic. After all, how important is the way characters look? It's how they think and act that matters, right?

Well... this is where experience trumps theory. I found that certain test readers complained that there wasn't any physical descriptions of any characters. Rather than explain to them why they were wrong, I went ahead and added a little description in the scenes where they complained. It nearly always improved the manuscript.

That's not because more description equals better; it's because a little variety in story elements equals better. That's why having diverse readers is so important. Readers whose preferences are skewed to the dialog-heavy way I naturally write can help me with dialog, but they can't help me with balance the way somebody who needs other story elements can.

I'm still a dialog-heavy writer, but now I'm not a *tediously* dialog-heavy writer.

Restraint is still called for. I still think going overboard with physical description is a far worse fault than not doing enough. And you don't have to describe every character or even every *main* character; sometimes it's descriptions of the minor, one-scene characters that add the most texture to a story. And there are certain cases where you might want to withhold description of a particular character.

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I usually don't go into a lot of details considering the appearance of characters. For my current WIP I just reveal a certain aspect that is specific for each character. Every character has eyes and legs and hands but not everyone walks with a cane and limps, not everyone has a pipe stuck in their teeth all the time, not everyone keeps a smile that is anything but pleasant.
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I find that a single, well placed detail goes a long way.
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Crystal Stevens
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Actions can describe a character sometimes in greater detail than an actual blow by blow. This is very true with ethnic backgrounds and the way certain cultures dictate how a person acts.

I also use dialog to describe a character like this:

"Hey Joe," Tom said. "Look at that gal over there."
"Where?" Joe looked in the indicated direction.
"The one in the high cut shorts and teal tank top. Can you believe anyone that fat would dress that way? What could she be thinking?"

You immediately get the picture of what this heavy woman looks like and an idea of her personality without doing a complete physical description.

The only time I did use a detailed description was of a single alien among humans that stuck out like a sore thumb. My main character (a human) was taking this alien in and every single detail of the alien's appearance.

I try not to describe characters any more than I have to. Just enough to keep the story going and no more. His/her actions and thoughts usually give the reader a better idea of what he/she looks like than spitting it out in detail.

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Member # 9381

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Beta readers have complained when I don't describe a character in longer works. But a brief description is best, leaving things both up to the reader's imagination while giving them some reference.

It amazes me how many times, even with a description, I've seen a character completely different that another.

I think it is a balance, like Crystal's example.

You aren't force-feeding a description, but your still providing something for the reader to reference.

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Robert Nowall
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I think a certain well-chosen non-cliche sentence would do wonders for a reader in finding out what somebody looked like. Now all I have to do is find that well-chosen non-cliche sentence...
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I see my characters fairly strongly, so that is why I choose to describe my characters.

But if I think about it, I only think of a certain snapshot. The gentleness of the face, the dark silhoutte. Some icnoic shot, what that tells me is that I need enough to see that. So I hit the wave tops. Like MartinV, I pick those characteristics that differentiate, the ones that pop out in my mind.

A description is a lot like anything else. You don't fill in every detail in dialogue (the uh's, the stutters, the misprononciations, the rabbit trails) unless they serve a purpose. Most things require a visit not a dwelling. It's the same reason a fight should be brief.

In real life you take in a person in a second, unless the person utterly fascinates you in some detail, you don't even realize that you are catagorizing them. What was Luke Skywalked wearing in each of the movies? What were his boots like? You don't know, but you do remember he wore white in the first movie, white to dingy gray in the middle, and black in the last.

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Horses for courses on this one. Sometimes it is critical to describe the characters - part of the story hinges on the imagination of the reader getting the details exactly so. Other times it is entirely irrelevant to the story, and so I don't (which can occasionally trip people up, but that is the calculated risk). I often describe non-POV characters, from the eyes of the POV character. POV characters can be tough, depending on how close the story is written, and I struggle to describe first person POV characters, because there is usually no reason for them to describe themselves. I hate the "look in the mirror" routine.
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Along an axis of narrative distance, describing characters' physical appearance is a matter of how close a narrative is from a character's perspective, and if close, then whether appearances matter to the character and the action. A slightly more open perspective would take in a narrator's perceptions and interests. A wider open perspective of a selectively omniscient narrator would take in yet more of a narrator's perceptions. The more open narrative distance is the more likely physical appearances might bear on the action, not to mention that less potentially they might slow down or stall the action.

Also, along a different axis of narrative distance, describing physical appeareances is a matter of intended reader identification and association with a central character. If a writer intends readers to associate closely with a central character, as close as feeling like they're in the flesh of a character, then leaving the central character's physical appearances up to readers' imaginations is a best practice. That way there's no awkward dissonances created by prominent differences. Like a blonde woman with weight issues might be too challenging for a dark-haired male without weight issues to feel that sense of closeness the writing might ask for. That is, close, close, danger close narrative distance might not have physical descriptions of a central character at all.

For example, Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" has no overt physical descriptions of the man or the girl's appearances, let alone names, which have a power to characterize their possesors. But narrative distance is comparatively open for that narrative. Narrative distance is much closer at times for The Old Man and the Sea from at times close psychic access to Santiago's thoughts. Santiago's physical appearance is described early on by the narrator before narrative distance closes in close and personal.

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Like most if not every previous poster I describe some characters more than others.

It depends on if it is a novel or short story or shorter story and the importance of the character. I usually like to leave something for the imagination of the readers to fill in. That is suppose to be a good technique. Again though it depends on what character. In one novel I pretty much totally describe my MC, but in her case the hair, height and clothing helps to show her personality. In another novel it doesn't matter much so I just give the basics.

In stories of less than a thousand words there isn't much place for a long description so I give a very short one. In one story there are only two characters. The bad gal is described almost completely but pretty much all you know of my MC is that he is male and probably not so young but not middle age.

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As mentioned above, it is more about perspective than description. The best description tells something about the person doing the observing.

"He flashed a smile that made me go weak in the knees"

"He had very white teeth, pink lips, and a wide mouth"

The first sounds better because it is giving us information about the point of view character and also the person they are describing.

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Grumpy old guy
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Interesting comments. I have a mojor character who is a shape-shifter, so I've described her 'normal' form in some detail and her human form twice. The first time my hero sees her shape-shift, I give a sparse description, as if he's in shock:

She was his height, young and skinny, with knobbly knees and sharp elbows. An unruly mop of black, tousled hair crowned her head, falling to her breasts and partly obscuring her face and eyes.

Later, when he's in a calmer frame of mind, I go into some detail describing how she isn't stunningly beautiful:

Her jaw line was a shade too firm, yet still feminine. Her lips were too thin, despite the small Cupids bow and her mouth too severe to be truly beautiful....


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This is from an old piece of mine (four years). I would definitely use different words today.

I was used of seeing muscular women in the Arena and she was clearly not one of those. But she was not a frail damsel either. There was balance in her walk, and elegance. Not something you pick up going through libraries and laboratories. Clearly, this one was a field operative. I could clearly picture her using this type of walk going through forests and hillsides. She was not bulky but she possessed a certain slender form of muscularity that I have only seen in first rate female archers.
She was beautiful, yes, but I was too old a man to be thinking of her that way.

In that last sentence, I was trying to evoke a sense of beauty that has nothing to do with sex-appeal. Not sure if I succeeded.
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Brent Silver
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I honestly don't mind a good deal of physical description of a character in a story. I feel that it can play a huge role in characterization, since after all, humans are visual creatures and we think about our looks a lot.

Easy example is Harry Potter. We are reminded time and again about Harry's appearance: skinny, green eyes, black hair, and a scar on his forehead. Each description does play some role in how others treat him and how he feels about himself. He's constantly told that he looks just like his dad except for having his mother's eyes (both of which help establish a connection to the parents he never knew) and the scar, while also being crucial to the overall plot, is also a device for how uncomfortable he feels and perceives how others treat him (how many times is it mentioned that somebody he meets flickers their eyes at his forehead and he gets irritated by it?)

And beyond physical characteristics being part of how a character feels about themselves, it can also establish a connection or disconnection to their society. Sticking with the Potter world, the Weasley's and the Malfoy's are readily recognizable just from their hair color and skin tones: all the Weasley's have red-hair and the Malfoy's are pale and blond.

But thinking of another example, Rand from the Wheel of Time series is easily distinguished from all other characters in the book for being the only tall redhead in his village. Nothing is made of it at first, but his physical description foreshadows that his father is not his father and towards the end of the first novel, it's hinted that he belongs to a dangerous society that will play a dramatic role as the series progresses.

Physical description can also represent class. Scott Westerfeld used this to huge advantage in his Uglies trilogy, where your body image determined where you belonged in their society.

Body image is not the only thing that matters in physical description, though. What you wear can speak volumes about where you fit in, what sort of things you do, how you feel about yourself and the like. What impressed me most about The Hunger Games was how fashion was used to enhance the drama, show how Katniss's mind worked, how she came to understand her own weaknesses and what needed to happen to overcome them.

But the question was how much I use... truth is, hadn't ever thought about it until now. I'll have to reread my older stuff but it's probably not a whole lot. I think I will be considering adding more than I currently do, though, to see what effect it will have on my storytelling. As I see it, physical description is simply another spice that can liven your tale.

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I let the details slip out, bit-by-bit. I mostly write teen girl protags in close 3rd or 1st person POV, so for them, the things that are important are things like their hair and what they are wearing (not that this is the only thing that matters to teen girls, in fact I really emphasize how important intelligence, being good with your hands, quick thinking, bold, brave, etc. are...but the reality is that teen girls will notice others' clothing, and will have their own features that they are annoyed by like freckles.)

But I try not to let it be all at once like a laundry list of features. Instead I may specify hair length early on, and then have the character braid her hair later, or choose to wear it down on purpose for some plot or character-specific reason. I view the physical features of my characters as additional levers I can manipulate in my writing to tell readers more about the characters. And my POV character's opinions about OTHER people in the book are often revealing in their own way.

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Originally posted by KayTi:
I let the details slip out, bit-by-bit. I mostly write teen girl protags in close 3rd or 1st person POV, so for them, the things that are important are things like their hair and what they are wearing

But I try not to let it be all at once like a laundry list of features.

The problem with the laundry list, especially in third person, is that it can be so *obvious*. Writing is like dancing lead with the reader; you want the reader to feel like he's moving spontaneously, not like he's being pushed around.

This gets down to narration style. When you are doing third person but close to the character's thoughts and perceptions, the description of non-POV characters should follow what the POV character would naturally observe. If he's a fashion designer he sizes up the clothing; if she's a warrior, she sizes up the threat. If the POV character is a Don Juan, he assesses the attractiveness of the women around him. If she is a Machiavelli, she tries to read the character behind the faces.

There are POV characters who tend to act like movie cameras panning over a scene. Unless the POV character is a detective or a criminal under threat, this kind of hyper-perceptive observation is unrealistic, but it's a convention.

In first person, there's another layer of intent to consider: why is the narrator telling you this? A first person narrator is not only idiosyncratic (like a third person POV character), he is unreliable. He has an agenda. So suppose he's a Don Juan type. If he thinks his audience will be impressed by his conquests he'll exaggerate their beauty. If he thinks his audience will disapprove, he'll dance around that, but maybe not be able to resist justifying his behavior.

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How much do you remember about people you meet in passing, or at first glance? I personally feel that narrative should try to emulate cognitive function, since we are trying to use words to substitute for the senses you are imagining.

When I first meet a person in real life, if I recall their single defining feature later on, I consider it a good memory. There are lots of people that I talk to during the day and I almost entirely forget what they look like.

The first time I met my wife was in a classroom in college and I only truly remember her HAT from that meeting... because it was unique. Later, as I met her again my memory of her began to grow.

I think writing should be like this. If you write: "She bumped in to a 6'2" man with brown hair, blue eyes, and carrying a harpoon." I'll bet -- if you don't repeat that description -- 5 pages later the only thing that the reader may remember is the harpoon.

Unless, of course, there are lots of people with harpoons and brown hair but orange eyes. Then they'll remember the blue eyes. Context does play a role.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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One thing I've noticed about first meetings with people I later get to know quite well is that they look different after I get to know them.

I think this may be in part because my first impression, as TempestDash has pointed out, is all surface (what they are wearing, how their hair is fixed, what they are carrying, how they sound, and so on).

As I get to know them, I begin to see inner qualities and personality traits. I can still see the surface things, but they are affected by what I know is beneath the surface.

People really do appear different after you get to know them, but you don't think about that so much. I don't think writers need to worry about showing that in their descriptions unless something happens to remind their point of view characters of how their perceptions of another character has changed.

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