Describing your Characters

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dios4vida
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Describing your Characters

Post by dios4vida » December 17th, 2010, 4:16 pm

One of my biggest problems with writing is with character description. I do mannerisms, voices, and all the important stuff okay, but I can't for the life of me incorporate a physical description of a character without it being a classic info-dump. This is taken from my first novel, which I'm currently doing a full rewrite on (this is unedited from the first writing so please excuse the superflulous adjectives and other noob mistakes):

"She grimaced at the sight of her disheveled hair. It never cooperated with her, so she usually allowed the long brown curls to cascade freely down her back. This morning she carelessly threw the unruly mass into a ponytail. Her petite frame made her look younger than her years, and the sparkling excitement in her green eyes gave the impression of youthful innocence. Her appearance had changed little as she entered adulthood - her womanly curves proved her maturity, but even now she was often described as “cute” rather than “beautiful.”

I'm really not happy with this. It's accurate for my mental image of this character, but it doesn't read well. I don't want to have to do this kind of description for each of my main characters, and I don't want to have my POV character (the woman described above) prattle on about her perceptions of her friends' appearances.

How you do approach character descriptions? Do you have any tricks for giving the reader an idea of their looks without having a classic "mirror" scene (which I'm ashamed to admit this was)? HELP!!
Brenda :)

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polymath
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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by polymath » December 17th, 2010, 5:02 pm

Everyone's entitled to writing a mirror scene once in a lifetime so the beast is gotten out of the system and it can be tamed.

"She grimaced at the sight . . ." she's seeing herself nonconsciously responding to a visual sensation she's seeing in a mirror and reflecting on it, dueling reflections propagating to infinity. If there's an overt or covert narrator bystander in the background, how does the narrator get between her and the mirror to see her grimace and see herself and her reflection and think about it and interpret its meaning, and inside her sensations and thoughts? Recast in first person isn't much of an improvement.

The suggestion I have is whether there's someone else who could possibly describe her appearance and judge the emotion of the moment, what it means, how it's a dynamic interaction. Self-centered, self-involved, reflected solitary interactions tend to lose me. Secondary characters can be foils for focal characters. Or focal characters' personalities can be developed by how they judge the appearances of others, what someone else looks like says about an observer.

Another character interacting and judging, giving meaning to appearances is one way to depict appearances.

On the other hand, how many narratives don't describe a focal viewpoint character's appearance at all? Reader rapport can be jeapordized when a character's description doesn't look like a reader. I can't picture myself as a blonde haired, purple eyed amazon attired in a leopard skin leotard and tutu wearing ballet shoes and think I'm pretty. I think narrative distance would be automatically at least one degree removed. However, if a neighbor saw me walk to the mailbox dressed like that and expressed commentary about it, I'd know the neighbor and me better.

Knowing a character in my estimation is more about personality traits and behaviors and attitudes than physical appearances.
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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by CharleeVale » December 17th, 2010, 5:16 pm

Except for tid-bits here and there, I generally try to avoid physical description beyond the basic. And there's a reason for that.

The books I have most enjoyed reading are the ones where the character has become my own and meant something to me. The easiest way to do that is to envision the character in your mind. So, beyond hair and eye color, and a few other things the other characters notice in passing, I avoid it.

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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by dios4vida » December 17th, 2010, 5:19 pm

polymath wrote:I can't picture myself as a blonde haired, purple eyed amazon attired in a leopard skin leotard and tutu wearing ballet shoes and think I'm pretty.
This was among the funniest things I've ever read in my life, polymath. Thanks.
polymath wrote:On the other hand, how many narratives don't describe a focal viewpoint character's appearance at all? Reader rapport can be jeapordized when a character's description doesn't look like a reader.
I've thought about not putting in any descriptions, but I worry that without at least something the reader won't be able to visualize the characters and therefore render the story just a retelling of something rather than an experience to live alongside the characters. I don't want to go into too many details, like height and weight and all that, but rather let the reader know that this character is shorter than the others and that her friend is a handsome woman (since there is a teeny tiny romantic element concerning that character) and those kind of things. I'd like to stick with the very basics of physical description - hair, eyes, and stature - but even that seems to stick out of the narrative like it doesn't belong. Am I just being too critical here?
Brenda :)

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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Watcher55 » December 17th, 2010, 5:22 pm

CharleeVale wrote:Except for tid-bits here and there, I generally try to avoid physical description beyond the basic. And there's a reason for that.

The books I have most enjoyed reading are the ones where the character has become my own and meant something to me. The easiest way to do that is to envision the character in your mind. So, beyond hair and eye color, and a few other things the other characters notice in passing, I avoid it.

CV
I have a similar practice. Generally, unless it's necessary, my characters get a sentence's worth of description at a time. Some get only one.

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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Nicole R » December 17th, 2010, 5:26 pm

Polymath offers some great suggestions. I think another key thing to avoid is dumping all physical description into one paragraph. It's not nearly as distracting to the reader if you dole it out in small, sentence-long chunks that let us visualize the character over time. With a bit of tweaking, you can make your example work:
dios4vida wrote:She grimaced at the sight of her disheveled hair. It never cooperated with her, so she usually allowed the long brown curls to cascade freely down her back. This morning she carelessly threw the unruly mass into a ponytail.
Consolidate into something like "She threw her unruly curls into a ponytail." The emphasis is on her action, but you also include a bit of description that covers the fact that 1.) she has curls, 2.) her hair doesn't cooperate (is unruly) and 3.) that she sometimes wears her hair down, because we see her making a conscious decision to put it up. You can get all that across without making it seem like boring description.
dios4vida wrote:Her petite frame made her look younger than her years
Show another character making this mistake and demonstrate your MC's reaction.
dios4vida wrote:the sparkling excitement in her green eyes gave the impression of youthful innocence
You can get this across by describing the character's feelings or thoughts instead of her physical appearance. Or better yet, showing her reactions to the world around her in a way that conveys excitement and youthful innocence. The reader will automatically envision the physical traits that support those feelings.

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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Down the well » December 17th, 2010, 5:42 pm

Count me among those who go for the minimalist approach to character description. I try to find the one physical trait about a character that makes them different from everyone else and highlight it. Other than that, I think the reader automatically fills in the incomplete description with their imagination. There's a term for the mind filling in the blanks, but I can't remember what it's called right now (obviously my mind isn't filing in the blank).

Your character's unruly hair should be enough to give most people something to go on.


*Edit: Gestalt! That's the word I was looking for. It pertains to visual references and the idea that the mind will fill in the missing parts of an incomplete image, but I think the same concept applies to readers when visualizing characters.
Last edited by Down the well on December 17th, 2010, 6:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by polymath » December 17th, 2010, 5:52 pm

dios4vida wrote:I've thought about not putting in any descriptions, but I worry that without at least something the reader won't be able to visualize the characters and therefore render the story just a retelling of something rather than an experience to live alongside the characters. I don't want to go into too many details, like height and weight and all that, but rather let the reader know that this character is shorter than the others and that her friend is a handsome woman (since there is a teeny tiny romantic element concerning that character) and those kind of things. I'd like to stick with the very basics of physical description - hair, eyes, and stature - but even that seems to stick out of the narrative like it doesn't belong. Am I just being too critical here?
Maybe just responding to an aesthetic hunch descriptions can stall plot movement when they take a sideline moment to get them in and done and out of the way too fast.

Contentious comparison and contrast used to describe another character and also the self of a viewpoint character and developing characterization and still moving the plot.
From Brad Land's Goat, 2004, Random House, page 7, first person, memoir;
Brett's only thirteen months younger than me but bigger and everyone we meet thinks he's older and I have to say nah it's me thirteen months and two days.
Me.
Point at my chest.

That's how it always goes. Me measuring up to my brother. He's good-looking and all the girls swoon when they see him. Six-one. Dark skin. Brown hair. Broad shoulders. This chiseled face. My mom and dad say I'm good-looking but it's not the same as when a girl says it.
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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Margo » December 17th, 2010, 5:59 pm

The argument for minimal description of the main character is the idea that someone brought up earlier. The less specific the detail, the more the reader can step into the character's point of view.

dios, other than the part of the description about the sparkling excitement in the eyes (because we don't say that in our heads about ourselves, right?), I don't see a problem with the details. I'd just suggest slipping them in one at a time as they come up instead of putting them in a single paragraph. For instance, I just did a short story where I included on page 2 the wind blowing the character's long hair across her face. One page 3 or 4, the charcter is thinking that she could be mistaken for a burglar, standing outside someone's house at night in a dark running suit. On page 6 or so, she's thinking about how it's going to be to blend into a blighted neighborhood in designer clothing and with an overpriced haircut, which also gave me the opportunity to mention her haircolor, all in a single sentence. With the exception of the first detail, they all came up as part of what was going on right then, in context.
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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Louise Curtis » December 17th, 2010, 6:14 pm

I suck at this, and I know it.

I try to show visuals, character, and movement all at once, eg showing someone towering over another person - it shows they're both tall and unpleasant, and it's an action.

I do tend to name hair and eye colour a lot, but I try to vary it with distinctive mannerisms, eg a person clutches her hands together (which of course also shows a nervous character).

I try to never let a character look in a mirror :) but I'm okay with a scene of them getting dressed (again, it can show an unexpected side of their character, eg a very powerful army general relaxing in the bath). It can show their priorities in what they wear - I know a girl who checks to make sure something is WRONG with her appearance (bad hair, rumpled shirt, or covered in cat hair) before leaving the house. She's now my brother's ex-wife (and doesn't she sound like an interesting person? is that enough detail to picture her, without knowing anything concrete - or do you need more?)

And I try to stay away from adjectives unless I'm desperate.

When someone's a minor character but going to show up later, I give them something very unusual and memorable, like a facial scar.
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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Sommer Leigh » December 17th, 2010, 6:23 pm

I hate doing this part. I keep it simple and stark and let the personality traits describe more about them than my adjectives ever could. My one exception is the MC in my current dystopian where the way she looks gets incorporated into the description of their limited shower facilities and clothing options. It was more about the city and the state of things than the character, but it was a good place to drop in a little of what she looked like as a result of the lack of options. The other characters you have to imagine the way they look from their behavior, their actions, that sort of thing. Aside from one character's eye color, I'm not even sure the other characters get "colors" to attribute to their various physical traits.
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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Sommer Leigh » December 17th, 2010, 6:26 pm

Oh, the way I keep it simple is that I don't put in physical descriptions until I'm on draft 2. If what I've written about them the first time around didn't give a thorough enough picture, then I might add a little description here or there. Just enough to make up for whatever I haven't done enough of. I find this is a good way to make sure my secondary characters are three dimensional - not just a pair of colored eyes and longish, straightish, darkish hair.
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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by bcomet » December 17th, 2010, 8:17 pm

I'm partial to red hair. But, um, can't all my characters have red hair?

I focus more on how the character feels and thinks and responds or acts, what motivates them, what catches their attention and how and why.

But yes, eyes, skin, hair color, even bone structure and ways of moving, but a good amount of weaving mist so that the reader can step in themselves or color the character the way they see them in their imaginations.

It would be fun to ask different illustrators to draw the characters and see what they came up with. I never would have cast Hermione so pretty and feminine. I saw her as more shrew-looking and bookish. And, you should see my John Galt!

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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by J. T. SHEA » December 17th, 2010, 9:16 pm

Yes, Dios4vida, I think you are just being too critical. I rarely describe my characters in detail, apart from gender, occupation and age, if relevant. I am not alone in that. The story is all for me, and I describe only what is necessary or useful to tell it. Your description sounds fine to me, and is more than I have ever written about a character's physical appearance.

Polymath and CharleeVale and Margo rightly point out detailed description can reduce reader identification with a character. Although I would be interested in reading the adventures of a pretty blonde haired, purple eyed Amazon attired in a leopard skin leotard and tutu, and wearing ballet shoes. But I'm weird...

Each to his own, though. All my writing is action/adventure/fantasy genre. A more discursive or contemplative, literary or slice-of-life story might benefit from more description of characters' appearance, as well as their actions. Or maybe not.

Bcomet, OF COURSE all your characters can have red hair! Like J. K. Rowling's THE ADVENTURES OF THE WEASLEYS. Her editor changed most of the hair colors and renamed the book after Harry something...

As for Hermione, there's already a generation of little girls growing up wondering why their parents gave them a name nobody can pronounce. But it'll be good material for their therapists in years to come.

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Re: Describing your Characters

Post by Fenris » December 17th, 2010, 10:06 pm

Louise Curtis wrote:When someone's a minor character but going to show up later, I give them something very unusual and memorable, like a facial scar.
Try not to use this too much, because a lot of time people can pick up on this and go "oh, he's different, he must be important." It's like in movies, where scars usually signify a relevant character (doesn't matter what kind. It can go from the retired cop to the guy on the wrong end of Avada Kedavra), or in games, where anyone who doesn't just have a uniform sprite can be almost guaranteed to have some importance.
bcomet wrote:I never would have cast Hermione so pretty and feminine. I saw her as more shrew-looking and bookish.
And now no one will ever see her otherwise. Nothing against Ms. Watson, but this is how movies can ruin a character. At least she's a good actress, albeit displaying the wrong qualities sometimes.

Now, I honestly thought I was going to be different than most here, given the amount of times I've been advised to just get character description out of the way as soon as the character's introduced rather than scattering it throughout the book like I do, sparingly and as needed, but I guess it just goes to show that opinions differ...one more example on an ever-growing list.
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