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Nell
06-09-2009, 01:08 PM
How do you work in character descriptions(looks) with out it sounding like planted almost forced info? Also how long should it be before you describe the characters looks in a story?

Thanks

Nell

bettielee
06-09-2009, 01:32 PM
Practice. I am sorry if that sounds flippant, but really, the more you write, the easier I think it gets. POV comes into this, of course, because if you are inside the characters head, its strange to describe the pretty girl with the big blue eyes, unless she looks in a mirror. Or have another character looking at them.

Then again, how incredibly important is it? Some will say you don't have to at all, but personally, when I read a book, I like having an idea what the characters look like, so as a writer, I like to sprinkle in things that give you an idea, like having a girl brush her long, red hair. I have one character that the only description I give of him is that he has sandy hair, and that is because where he lives, mostly everyone has black or dark brown hair. You don't need to go into super detail, just sprinkle in a few here and there. You never need to give a freckle by freckle rundown, even if you know all that.

Nell
06-09-2009, 01:36 PM
That is really helpful thanks!
nell

LuckyH
06-09-2009, 02:14 PM
The main characters need to be described, but not all at once, although it is sometimes necessary to focus on a part of the description needed for immediate impact, I'm struggling to think of an example: an enormously strong man, able to lift a car off a trapped accident victim. Sorry, if it's a tame example.

Some minor characters hardly need describing at all; the police officer issuing a parking ticket is just that, an anonymous man in a uniform, completing a boring task. It doesn't matter whether he has a big nose, or big feet, no one is interested.

But when your protagonist walks into a room and immediately attracts attention from all the men present, because she is a tall, willowy blonde, with dreamy eyes and long, tanned legs, then that needs the necessary description, either there and then, or when she gets dressed that morning.

An amount of quirkiness is always helpful (for main characters), such as a slight and engaging stammer of an otherwise tough world champion boxer. Or the tantalising backward glance of the blonde model, parading her best part for the camera.

(That's the trouble with using the word blonde, it leads to helpless word association).

jerry phoenix
06-09-2009, 03:00 PM
'as he took her hand in his she remebered how his big, strong hands had once seemed to offer protection, now they seemed clumsy and heavy and restricting.'

not the best thing ive writen today but i think i want to show how chr description can be used to show other aspects of a story.

Linda Adams
06-09-2009, 03:58 PM
Remember that you don't necessarily have to have the description immediately, upon first introduction of the character. It can be a little later. Nor does it have to be the traditional hair, eye color. Sometimes it's helpful to pick something that makes the character stand out and stop. Or, if the POV knows the other person, you can describe something that's changed (character chopped off their hair; looks like they're going to an interview, etc.).

Some effective methods of description I've observed in books:

Through dialogue: The most effective line of dialogue that described a character came from a simple line of dialogue in one of J.A. Konrath's books. In Vince Flynn's books, the hot tempered main character points to a scar on his face and explains how he got it.

Backstory: In one of the early Laurell K. Hamilton's books, there's a scene where two characters discuss the main character's looks. All of it ends up tied into the backstory of the MC's mother's death and growing up looking like she was adopted.

With a bit of humor: Sue Grafton sometimes does a quick one liner that has a wry, humorous point. Hers are interesting to look at because, though she hits all the usual areas, she often brings something different into them. Though I'd suggest the early books, not her most recent ones.

For some thriller authors, they give a mini-biography of the character in place of description. This works well in omniscient viewpoint, but would be problematic in other viewpoints.

Fuchsia Flower
06-09-2009, 04:24 PM
I sprinkle a bit of character description in through the story, though not too much. I think it's more important to focus on character personality than looks, anyone can imagine a face in their head with a little nudge.

If you are going to describe in detail I would do it sooner rather than later. I dislike having the image of a character shattered half way through a story.

Danthia
06-09-2009, 05:04 PM
If my POV Is describing other people, I'll just have her say what she sees and how she feels about it. "The cute boy with curly blond hair she'd kill for." If it's my POV being described, I try to blend it in with what's she doing or thinking. "The cute boy with curly blond hair that put her own boring brown mess to shame." (but hopefully better than those quick examples)

I think putting it in your POV's perspective makes it feel less like a list of details and more like someone noticing something and remarking on it.

john barnes on toast
06-09-2009, 06:20 PM
Remember that you don't necessarily have to have the description immediately, upon first introduction of the character. It can be a little later.

If you're talking about physical description I'd have to disagree.

I personally don't think that in-depth physical description is often necessary, but if you're going to have it, then have it on first meeting a character.
Readers will visualise a character as they want to see them, which is fine, preferable even, but if down the line you start telling them that the tall blonde protag of their imagination bangs his bald head on the corner of table, then you've got problems.

Bufty
06-09-2009, 06:30 PM
If having hair or not having hair ( or whatever the descriptive detail is) is important to the story then by all means mention it, otherwise -who cares - let him be bald or hairy as the reader chooses.

ETA- yes, I think I did misunderstand you, John. Posting altered.

If you're talking about physical description I'd have to disagree.

I personally don't think that in-depth physical description is often necessary, but if you're going to have it, then have it on first meeting a character.
Readers will visualise a character as they want to see them, which is fine, preferable even, but if down the line you start telling them that the tall blonde protag of their imagination bangs his bald head on the corner of table, then you've got problems.

kaitlin008
06-09-2009, 06:41 PM
If my POV Is describing other people, I'll just have her say what she sees and how she feels about it. "The cute boy with curly blond hair she'd kill for." If it's my POV being described, I try to blend it in with what's she doing or thinking. "The cute boy with curly blond hair that put her own boring brown mess to shame." (but hopefully better than those quick examples)

I think putting it in your POV's perspective makes it feel less like a list of details and more like someone noticing something and remarking on it.
This is what I do (or try to do). It works especially well if they're just meeting someone. When I did first person, I tried to sneak in descriptions of the MC in subtle ways, through things other people said to her, mainly. I would do a general overview of characters' appearences early on so the reader isn't making their own, incorrect visualization, but I don't think you need to describe them down to the last scar all in one place.

Phaeal
06-09-2009, 08:38 PM
Usually I wait to describe a character until another character currently acting as POV meets them for the first time. The primary MC of my current novel doesn't get described until Chapter 6, when a secondary MC meets him. The MC's father gets his first description in the same chapter, as that secondary MC compares him to his son.

A POV character who knows the describee will probably only bother to describe her if there's something unusual about her appearance. Unless, of course, the POV character is obsessed with the describee's appearance for some reason.

Genres differ. In chick lits, you can get away with describing everyone's clothes and hairstyles and makeup -- the POV character can even describe herself. It's part of the charm of the genre. SF and fantasy often employ outsider POV characters, who will have a good reason to describe all the weird things they observe in the new worlds around them.

Cyia
06-09-2009, 08:47 PM
Just be careful with 1st person POV.

I hate it when someone writes a line like "I twirled a piece of my chocolate brown hair around my finger." Who thinks of their hair like that in normal thought process?

Or even worse.

"My honey colored eyes fixed on some obscure thing in the distance I only mentioned so I could tell you my eye color." In 1st person, the POV character can't see their own eyes unless they're looking at a reflective surface, so mentioning the color that way is awkward.

Mirror descriptions are generally a no-go, too. They're boring. The only time I can remember using a mirror to give a physical description is for a character who was altering her appearance to match a photograph - she had to look in the mirror to do it. "The fate of the world rests on a pair of $0.99 sunglasses and a bad dye-job."

dirtsider
06-09-2009, 10:02 PM
I agree - there's no real need to throw in much description unless there's a call for it. Otherwise, sprinkle it in if you think it's necessary. At this point in my WIP, the only person who has any sort of description (other than the mandatory male/female) is one of the minor characters and all he's gotten so far is the fact that he has a bum knee. And this is only because it plays into the plot.

ccv707
06-10-2009, 04:02 AM
You don't necessarily have to describe every detail about the characters. Unless it's important to the story or the character's development for us to know that he wears red polo shirts all the time, it should not be in there. Jenny have a big nose? Only necessary if we absolutely have to know. Otherwise, it's just superfluous information.

john barnes on toast
06-10-2009, 01:53 PM
ETA- yes, I think I did misunderstand you,

story of my life

Linda Adams
06-10-2009, 03:55 PM
If you're talking about physical description I'd have to disagree.

I personally don't think that in-depth physical description is often necessary, but if you're going to have it, then have it on first meeting a character.
Readers will visualise a character as they want to see them, which is fine, preferable even, but if down the line you start telling them that the tall blonde protag of their imagination bangs his bald head on the corner of table, then you've got problems.

I have seen books where it does come a little later--if the author tried to put it in up front, it would have distracted or interrupted the scene. In one published book, it occurs in chapter 3, though the character does appear in chapter 1 (not chapter 2). And I agree with it because it would have interrupted what was happening in Chapter 1, not to mention being inappropriate in the middle of an action scene.

I've also critted pieces where the author tries to shoehorn it in right away, and the description clearly doesn't fit right there.

john barnes on toast
06-10-2009, 04:39 PM
I have seen books where it does come a little later--if the author tried to put it in up front, it would have distracted or interrupted the scene. In one published book, it occurs in chapter 3, though the character does appear in chapter 1 (not chapter 2). And I agree with it because it would have interrupted what was happening in Chapter 1, not to mention being inappropriate in the middle of an action scene.

I've also critted pieces where the author tries to shoehorn it in right away, and the description clearly doesn't fit right there.

I'm not saying it's the law.
But if you want to dictate to your reader what a character looks like, it's damn risky to do it after you've already given a reader the thinking space to formulate their own image. If you contradict that image it's likely to really disappoint the reader.

Where i'd say it is non-negotiable is where a character has a physical distinction that later becomes crucial to the plot.
eg. if your hero's 7ft tall, you better mention that up front, and not at the point where it's really really important that he can he reach that honey jar on the top shelf.

On another point, I wouldn't use the fact whether an idea or device has made it into print, as the barometer of whether it's 'good'.
Plenty of total crap makes it on to the printed page. We shouldn't take that as justification for lowering the bar.
Find things that are great, and aspire to them.

I appreciate this doesn't all relate to your point, but I'm talking generally.

ccarver30
06-10-2009, 11:40 PM
DO NOT HAVE THEM LOOK IN A MIRROR!!!!!!!!!

Roger J Carlson
06-11-2009, 12:11 AM
I'm not saying it's the law.
But if you want to dictate to your reader what a character looks like, it's damn risky to do it after you've already given a reader the thinking space to formulate their own image. If you contradict that image it's likely to really disappoint the reader.

Where i'd say it is non-negotiable is where a character has a physical distinction that later becomes crucial to the plot.
eg. if your hero's 7ft tall, you better mention that up front, and not at the point where it's really really important that he can he reach that honey jar on the top shelf.

On another point, I wouldn't use the fact whether an idea or device has made it into print, as the barometer of whether it's 'good'.
Plenty of total crap makes it on to the printed page. We shouldn't take that as justification for lowering the bar.
Find things that are great, and aspire to them.

I appreciate this doesn't all relate to your point, but I'm talking generally.In Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, the main character Mannie Davis (Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis) is a dark-skinned, bi-racial man. However, it is not revealed until much later. His race becomes an important plot element later in the story.

I'm certain Heinlein did it for a reason. To show, perhaps the reader's unconcious biases or to show how unimportant race would be in a future society on the Moon. However, I always find this jarring, and it's the one thing I don't like about the book.

But sometimes a good simile can give a general impression without a lot of description. The first line of Heinlein's The Menace From Earth:

"My name is Holly Jones and I'm fifteen. I'm very intelligent but it doesn't show, because I look like an underdone angel. Insipid."

That line pack a lot of information about the character in just two sentences.

efkelley
06-11-2009, 04:05 AM
DO NOT HAVE THEM LOOK IN A MIRROR!!!!!!!!!

I do agree in large part.

I think the mirror is acceptable (on occasion) if the character has an express purpose in doing so. And only if it puts some action into the scene. Preparing for a date. Putting on a disguise. Fretting over the effects of age/stress/recent plastic surgery.

The morning once-over just doesn't work. Even if it's post-hangover. Although waking up and discovering that someone has written something on your face (or that you have a new, inexplicable tattoo) would be acceptable.

Even these should be kept to a minimum though. Less is more for description, in my opinion. The Heinlein example is perfect. Letting the reader supply most of the details in their own preconceptions is my preference.

maestrowork
06-11-2009, 04:28 AM
Just remember, if you describe a character at all, do it as soon as that information is necessary, especially if it's not expected. Don't tell me the character is 5' tall and has red hair on page 168 when I've already decided the character is about my height and is a brunette.

Also, you can add details to how the character acts and how others react to him/her. If your character is obese, for example. You don't necessarily have to give us a detail medical exam.

The Lonely One
06-11-2009, 06:43 AM
DO NOT HAVE THEM LOOK IN A MIRROR!!!!!!!!!

I did this with my first published short story. I look back on that part and kick myself. (see the link below and laugh :))

The Lonely One
06-11-2009, 06:44 AM
Hey, Nell--important question: what's your favorite book? preferably one that you own or have access to.

Salis
06-11-2009, 08:51 AM
This is a pretty rough one. I've been struggling with it, I'm probably going to go back through what I'm writing later on and try and surgically add details. I question how important it is, though.

The personality of a person says a lot more than their appearance, a lot of the time. I can think of a lot of characters who are bigger-than-life but are never described or described very, very briefly (think Ford Prefect in HHGTTG).

I think it's very genre-specific, too. If your focus is on dialogue and plot, it really doesn't matter. If you're writing romance, on the other hand, it's pretty much obligatory to describe everyone so you can relate how sexy they are.

ORION
06-11-2009, 11:24 PM
Hey mirrors are not ALL bad lol!!!
In my current novel I wanted to reveal certain aspects of one of my characters and did it by having her scrutinize her hair in a mirror and obsess about needing her roots touched up.
Another book I'm working on that's in first person my character has internal dialogue about being convinced each person he meets is fixated on his facial disfigurement...
I think it's possible to spread descriptions out as they are needed.
All the posts here give really good ideas of how to do that.
And I agree with the poster who said sometimes detailed descriptions are not necessary.
I don't think I described Perry L Crandall until halfway through the book and he holds a photograph of his grandfather up next to him in front of a mirror to decide if they look like each other...

ccarver30
06-12-2009, 02:16 AM
PW - I think that is a little different than having someone look in a mirror and list out details! :)

gonovelgo
06-12-2009, 03:12 AM
For me, it all depends on how important your character's appearance is to the story. If it's vital that the reader know that a character is ugly or beautiful or has a weird birthmark or whatever, then you should obviously let them know about those attributes as early as possible.

On the other hand, if physical descriptions are just 'window dressing' in your story then you may not need to spend much time on them at all. I know I'm not the only one who almost never keeps a written description of a character in mind - if an author tells me that a character is red-haired, there's a good chance I'll imagine them being blonde regardless (or vice versa).

bettielee
06-12-2009, 05:55 AM
DO NOT HAVE THEM LOOK IN A MIRROR!!!!!!!!!

Rules?

There are no rules.

extortionist
06-12-2009, 06:46 AM
Rules?

There are no rules.
There are, however, cliches.

maestrowork
06-12-2009, 07:09 AM
I have had the characters looking into the mirror, but I seldom used it as a [cliched] way of describing the character. In fact, I almost rarely do descriptions (other than what the readers already know) using the mirror -- instead, the mirror thing reveals something else, usually emotional or psychological. The mirror is a metaphor for the character's "reflection."

The most important thing is, don't stop for the descriptions. Make them an integral part of the storytelling: character, plot, theme.

For example:

Standing over the washbasin, she looked into the mirror and, for the first time, saw the bruises and swollen lips. She took off the helmet and rested it on the brim of the basin. There was a small wound above her right eye. The boy gazing back at her looked as alien as any Japanese soldier, but under the layer of filth and smudges, she saw her father's daughter still.

Libbie
06-12-2009, 07:19 AM
How do you work in character descriptions(looks) with out it sounding like planted almost forced info? Also how long should it be before you describe the characters looks in a story?

Thanks

Nell

I was just discussing this with a friend today.

I'm assuming you mean the description of the POV character, right? To successfully describe him or her, recall that you're viewing the story from inside his or her head. Would he sit around and think about how good-looking he is, with his square-cut jaw and his steely eyes? Probably not. He might be inclined to notice these traits in other characters.

If you're in a character's POV, you're in their POV. Don't "notice" things that would be unlikely for him to notice. You can find subtle ways of describing your POV guy without turning on a big, blinking neon sign that says ATTENTION READER, I AM NOW DESCRIBING THE PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OF THE POV CHARACTER. The type of jacket he grabs from his coat rack will say a lot about him. If it's beat-up denim with grease stains, the reader is going to form a different visual from a character who grabs a pressed sport coat. The reader will get a specific picture of a character who slouches down the street as opposed to striding down the street.

How other characters react to your POV can also do a lot to describe him. If Molly says, "Jeeze, Jim. Did you dump a whole bottle of fake-n-bake on yourself this morning?" the reader is going to form a different visual of Jim than if Molly says, "Your hair looks messy today. What's wrong?"

More importantly than guarding the nice, subtle, artistic quality of your prose, being spare with main-character descriptions allows the reader to form their own perosnal visual of the character. If it's relevant to the story that your character has some specific physical trait, work it into the story. If it really doesn't matter worth a hill of beans what your character looks like, allow the reader to develop an appearance for your character.

Too many writers expect to have to spoon-feed description. I'm not sure it's necessary.

Cyia
06-12-2009, 07:35 AM
PW - I think that is a little different than having someone look in a mirror and list out details! :)

Right.

The "bad" mirror description is something like (or sometimes worse than):

Emmy woke up and walked into the bathroom and stood in front of her mirror like she did every morning. Her reflection showed off her curly black hair and cat green eyes and totally natural bee-stung lips just like Angie Jolie's.

See, Emmy has to look in the mirror because she's so 1 dimensional, there was no room in her head for a brain. If she doesn't look into a mirror at random intervals and see how she looks, she forgets. Then she spends the rest of the day thinking she's a trucker named Stu and wonders why people keep complimenting her totally natural pout. ;)

maestrowork
06-12-2009, 07:44 AM
I agree with what you said except for one thing:

The reader will get a specific picture of a character who slouches down the street as opposed to striding down the street.


Just as the POV character probably wouldn't be sitting around noting his curly blond hair or perfect tan, he probably wouldn't notice if he is slouching or striding either.

Sometimes it's this kind of subtle POV violations that stumps us. So be careful.

misa101
06-12-2009, 08:11 AM
I tell what my MC feels is important. If she is too lazy to brush her hair so just pulls it into a pony tail that hangs halfway down her back you know know she has longh hair without my having to launch into a description.

Say my MC meets an attractive member of the opposite sex. If it is mentioned that her attention is divided between his abs, impish smile and tousled hair that hangs in his eyes you throw together a pretty general image.

When you need more specifics (like a scar) it is important to IMO to work it into the story rather than just add it to a general description. If someone is staring at it then you can mention it without sounding like you are just throwing it in there because it may be important later.

mkcbunny
06-12-2009, 12:04 PM
I agree with the folks who said that earlier description is better, if you intend to describe your character at all.

I don't think that you have to describe any character any more than is relevant to the story. What's important to the reader? Does it matter whether the protagonist is short or tall? Brunette or blonde? Many of these things don't matter in and of themselves.

In general, I only describe the lead characters in ways that help to define their relationship to another character. I leave their descriptions open so that readers can employ their own vision to build a mental picture of those people.

On the other hand, for secondary or one-scene characters I provide more visual description because the reader has less time to absorb who that person might be and needs more info up front.