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Thread: Describing characters....

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW RobertEvert's Avatar
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    Aug 2010
    Ivory Tower

    Describing characters....

    I'd like to hear your thoughts about how much we should describe how characters look.

    I prefer not to mention more than what gives the reader a general outline of what the character looks like...but I think I'm not giving enough detail.

  2. #2
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    May 2005
    Only describe or show a physical or particular attribute if it is peculiar to the story. Otherwise leave it to the reader to imagine his own preference.

    Remember - beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if your detailed description differs from my imagined one...

    Many popular book heroes or heroines are never actually described at all. Check back.
    Everything yields to treatment.

  3. #3
    I agree with Roxxsmom.
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    Too much detail leaves little to our imaginations. Give just enough to give us an impression then let us fill in the blanks.

    And while I hate driver's license descriptions, I also hate informing us with lines like:

    "He ran his fingers through his curly, blond hair."

    when those lines are obvious exposition.

    There's a subtle difference with a line like:

    "She wore her hair in a ponytail that danced as she ran."

    which to me seems fine.

  4. #4
    Your Pixie Queen Kerosene's Avatar
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    Apr 2012
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    I just give the general idea and the striking bits.

    And there's situational descriptions. Like if I want to highlight a character in a certain way.

    In all, the reader will create their own description in where there is too little. If there's too much, they pick at what strikes them and move on.
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  5. #5
    I don't give a damn! frankly my dear's Avatar
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    Jul 2012
    Unless the description is of importance, I describe general things like hair color. When I have characters that are of different age, such as an older person, maybe I'll describe age lines. With creatures that look human but aren't, I tend to put emphasis on the eyes.
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  6. #6
    living in the past ishtar'sgate's Avatar
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    Aug 2007
    I think it depends on the character. In 'Illegal Alien' by Robert J. Sawyer he gave a full description of the aliens. I don't like to 'imagine' what an alien looks like, I want to know. For normal humans I don't think a whole lot of description is necessary. I like it if they have little habits that personalize them but otherwise the sex of the individual and some limited description so I can fill in the blanks myself, works for me.

  7. #7
    Life isn't all beer and skittles. lemonhead's Avatar
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    Mar 2008
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    Reading this I realized I barely describe my MC (I think I used "pretty enough" and "blonde") and spent a lot more time describing the main antagonist. But his description says a lot about him and its really his history not a bolo description.
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  8. #8
    QWERTY!!! IAMWRITER's Avatar
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    Jul 2012
    In My Own Little World...
    In my WIP, I've only added little descriptions but I prefer for the reader to have their own picture of what my characters look like.

    The only major description I have is really pointing out the excessive amount of tattoos my MMC has.

  9. #9
    Soldier, Storyteller Linda Adams's Avatar
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    Oct 2005
    Metropolitan District of Washington
    I personally like having a bit more description then the basic stuff -- both as a reader and a writer. I don't care much for the vitals (blonde hair, blue eyes, etc.), nor as Guttersquid mentioned, do I care for writers trying to sneak it in as exposition. I'm not detail-oriented, so it's pretty much guaranteed that I will miss such exposition completely and then trip over it when it turns up later in the story. I should also note that when I read, I don't visualize or get movies, so if the writer doesn't provide much or anything, it does take away from the story for me.

    For the descriptions I write, I do pay attention to character weight. If he's the main character, he's going to get more description than a minor character who turns up in two scenes. I generally avoid using visual cues like hair and eye color and focus more on the impressions.
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  10. #10
    The colors! THE COLORS! leahzero's Avatar
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    May 2009
    This question comes up all the time. The answer is: however much you want.

    I prefer evocative rather than literal character descriptions. Tell me what something is like; don't try to describe it with photorealism. Give me an evocative sketch and let me fill in the details, except for a few interesting details that you pencil in.

    Expectations vary by genre. Romance is expected to have detailed physical descriptions of characters. Thrillers, OTOH, are often skimpy on character description.
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  11. #11
    Needs More Hands.... Fallen's Avatar
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    Jun 2009
    West Madlands UK
    It depends on the character with me.

    I have a main mc who works for MI5, so I deliberately don't describe him, just let his actions carry him through. But then I also have mechanic who's extremely OCD and hates grease to agressive ends, so when a touch of grease smears his cheek, it "added a touch of war paint beneath grey eyes that gave life the V then called it out for a fight if it dared answer back'. Then I have a financial consultant whose car has just broken down, and the man "with tousled brown hair, tie undone, sleeves rolled up: yeah, "Breakdown" was more than apt'.

    So it depends on the particular character with me just how much I describe

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  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW killdeer's Avatar
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    Oct 2012
    Recently I picked a book I like (The Grey Horse by R.A. MacAvoy) and paged through it to look at character introductions. The first character who we meet (Anrai) gets a pretty detailed description (including his profession and attitude, not merely appearance). His wife Aine gets no physical description, but within a few paragraphs of meeting her, we get a detailed description of her emotional life. Most minor characters and some major ones get a short and snappy physical description when they first enter the story.

    It was a fun exercise, and what I took from it is that one or two memorable details described vividly are enough. You don't need to tell the reader everything about how your character looks.

    Anrai's introduction:
    Anrai’s hair was thin on top, and the wind was doing its best to thin it further. It might have been that years of leaving his hat behind in places as far from home as Dublin and London had worked the damage, but the weathers of Connemara were cause enough for baldness by themselvs. He was a man of approximately seventy years and had never been noted for either grace of body or beauty of feature: not even in his coming-up years. His pride in those early days had always been the length of time passed once, five years, and another time, seven)since a horse unseated him. At this time in his life Anrai was wary of that subject, and it was his study to get the better of the animals that were his occupation without due risk. He always carried a rope halter concealed under his shirt, to save trips to the stable.
    Aine's introduction:
    Aine said the pig’s trotters were ruined. This was not true, of course, but it was the closest she could get to scolding Anrai for coming home wet and weary, when that had been no fault of his own.

  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    Jan 2012
    I think you'll find that appearance descriptions are all over the place. Some books don't give you any details. Some spell out every curve of the character's face. I think the best idea is finding a middle path. Give the reader a few distinguishing characteristics, but don't go overboard.

  14. #14
    Playing the waiting game MsLaylaCakes's Avatar
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    Nov 2012
    Places where there are APOs
    I think it's genre specific too. After reading a lot of romances, I concluded that hair and eye color, height and build are more or less the norm. Also - identifying marks.

    I hate writing descriptions, but I usually bite the bullet and try to get the driver's license description over with in the first 3 chapters ...
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  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW
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    In To Kill a Mockingbird, I don't think we get any indication of the physical appearance of Atticus Finch. Yes, I know, we all now think of Gregory Peck, but that's because of the movie, not the novel. In the novel, Atticus could be five-feet-four and weigh three hundred pounds and be bald.

    What matters, in the novel, is who he was and what he did, not what he looked like.

    That's not to say that some characters might not have physical characteristics that are important to the story. Cyrano de Bergerac had an unusually large nose, Quasimodo was a hunchback.

    But it has to matter to the story. Outside that condition, who cares if your character has blue eyes or brown? Is tall or short? Is right-handed or left-handed?

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  16. #16
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Aug 2007
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    I prefer to describe characters through action. It's easy to describe someone's height, weight, how they walk, or other physical attributes through what they do at any given moment. My characters don't look in mirrors or catch their reflections in store windows or puddles on the ground.

    I also think readers have their own mental picture of what characters look like anyway. I know I do.

  17. #17
    figuring it all out eyebee14's Avatar
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    Dec 2012
    Charlotte, NC
    I usually describe the striking features of the character and leave the rest to the reader's imagination. I also weave the description into dialogue verses a long winded sketch of that the character looks like.
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  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW srgalactica's Avatar
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    Nov 2012
    Near Los Angeles
    I don't describe much. I have a male character in his twenties with white hair. He's part of a magical race and I do mention the hair color because the FMC notices, but then again, there is a romantic subplot between them, so FMC *would* notice physical things about MMC.

  19. #19
    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Mar 2007
    you martyr and shine.
    Over time I've changed my opinion on this. Right now I think I prefer:

    1. Some character description, not too detailed (well, that depends on genre)
    2. Description given early (so the reader doesn't form a certain picture, then get disoriented when you provide a different one late in the game)
    3. Describe the character once. You want to point out the character has pale blue eyes? Great. Do so. But don't remind me of his pale blue eyes, his ice blue eyes, his sky blue eyes and his light blue eyes ever other page, or I will hunt you down and kill you.
    4. The above goes for hair as well. Describe it once, not four times in every freaking scene. Unless your character is Rapunzel and her hair is crucial to the plot, drop it. Hair is boring.

    Oh, and these days I'd rather you just said "She had curly brown hair" rather than "she reached up and swiftly tucked one of her thick brown curls behind her ear, thereby giving me, the author, the perfect opportunity to mention what her hair looks like in show, because everyone keeps telling me 'show don't tell.'"

    This show-don't-tell character description stuff is turning everything into a tedious game of charades.

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  20. #20
    all out of fucks to give quicklime's Avatar
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    Jul 2010
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    when it matters. I actually commit the sin of a mirror scene even, but I describe almost none of the character's attributes--it is a vehicle to establish his midlife crisis as he notes he's aging.

    On the flip side, I have an entire novel where the character's physicals are "slight" and "maybe a hundred and fifty, soaking wet." He's the MC, but I'm not convinced anyone gives a shit what his hair color, eye color, etc. is--his size is relevant because he is bullied and nearly beats the hell out of a bigger guy, and if it wasn't for that, his size might not have been mentioned either--only what serves the story.
    Three words that convey the meaning of six will always look better than twelve...

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  21. #21
    Pyrosama pyrosama's Avatar
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    Jul 2011
    Quote Originally Posted by RobertEvert View Post
    I'd like to hear your thoughts about how much we should describe how characters look.

    I prefer not to mention more than what gives the reader a general outline of what the character looks like...but I think I'm not giving enough detail.
    I prefer a general description like, large or bald with a tattoo sleeve. Or maybe pudgy with red curls and a missing front tooth.

    I like to read more about how a person acts. Their behaviors help me place them to people I already know, which to me is perfect.

  22. #22
    practical experience, FTW Coco82's Avatar
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    Feb 2005
    Olympia, WA
    As a reader and writer I like vivid descriptions. When I read it's like a movie going in my head so I like to know what the person looks like and if important if there voice is a particular way. That's just me. I like knowing if the person's height, body type, etc. I think it brings the character alive for a reader.
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  23. #23
    Hush, hush... Calliea's Avatar
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    Dec 2012
    I like to have general features described. Where it's fitting, of course, or smuggled into other descriptions. Hair, eyes, preferred clothing style (doesn't have to always mention this, of course, but I like when someone tells me that this guy likes leather while that girl usually dresses in yellow short skirts).

    Sure, imagination is great, but I like to close in on author's vision and share it, at least when it comes to these most visible features.

    What Coco82 said, pretty much. I hate descriptions of nature or rooms (unless there's something special to mention, otherwise it's enough for me to mention a table and a rug, don't need to hear about patterns in floor wood or on said carpet), but characters are another story.

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW srgalactica's Avatar
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    Nov 2012
    Near Los Angeles
    Another instance I like description is when a character is comparing him/herself with another. Example, my FMC is rather small chested and there's a point where another female character is flirting with the MMC (who is also the FMC's LI) and the FMC notices how the other female character has a more feminine shape and the FMC feels a bit of envy toward the other female and worries that the MMC might be more attracted to a more feminine figure.

  25. #25
    reaching for the sun Bushrat's Avatar
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    Aug 2009
    out in the bush
    Depends a bit on the genre. In a romance novel, quite detailed descriptions are generally called for. In a literary novel, you can pretty much leave it out.

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