New writer seeking character descriptions advise.

CylonScream

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I am writing my first novel of a story I've had in my head for years. I've read through some post here and feel way out of my league. I dont consider myself a writer, yet. Here's a little of my history and why I've finally got the courage to write this story I've worked on for so long. I've always been a huge sci-fi fan but never had the time to read or watch tv much due to long work hours as an auto and fork lift mechanic. Well several years ago I hurt my back and cannot work anymore. Boredom set in not being able to leave the house and I was used to being very active. So I began catching up on all the sci-fi TV shows and movies I could. It keep my mind off the constant pain and helped me get through the day. After burning through every episode of every sci-fi TV series and movie, I became restless again. So I revisited a old love of reading that I hadn't been able to enjoy since a child. Old mans war series rekindled that love and after reading a few more series I decided to take a chance at writing a story I've been working on in my head since as long as I can remember. I would run through it in my head at work while repairing cars/forklift. Now my wife has encouraged me to get it on paper. So here I am. Now to my question and sorry for the long rant. I dont get out much :)
I have a scene that has three new characters at a table and I feel adding three new descriptions to close together feel wrong. I keep rewriting it over and over and no matter what it just seems like to much. I need tips on how to deal with my beginners problem. I cant really introduce the characters at different times due to the story line. Ive thought about being as vague as possible and detailing them out more later. But it stills reads to busy to me.
 

Cory Swanson

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I've found it best to describe only what is needed to advance the story, and only at the moment when it is relevant. I've always hated flowery descriptions as a reader, and I would agree that too much all at once will tank your ability to advance the plot.

Another joy I've found with writing is when readers fill in the blanks for themselves. I have had characters turn into different things for different readers. There is a beauty to not dictating the absolute truth to your readers.
 

TheDustyZebra

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You've read a great deal, from the sounds of it. Go back and look at how some of your favorite books handle things like this. Read bits with the intent of figuring out how they work, instead of just for enjoyment as you normally do. You might even try copying passages -- just transcribe it right off the page, to give you a feel for how it was put together (I know at least one other weirdo around here who does this, so it's not just me).

And hang around here. Go take a look in Critiques, see if you can give anyone any advice, even if it's only an opinion (read the rules first), and read the critiques that others give them. When you've participated enough in discussions to have 30 posts, you can put a piece of something up here and get critiques yourself, if you like. It's a good way to find out what works for other people and what doesn't, and what to do about it. Don't believe everything that everyone says, because you'll run around in circles that way -- but if there's an overwhelming lean to the advice on a particular thing, you know there's something there to work on. And you'll get a feel for whose advice will be most useful for you, along the way.
 

RX-79G

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+1 to Cory. I would take it a step further and say that leaving your characters' physical descriptions - especially things like race or hair color - is a way to completely avoid the pitfalls of cultural criticism and open up the possibilities for casting in a film adaptation.

Okay, you want to distinguish your characters without it looking like it. The descriptors can be very different types coming up in different ways.

"Should we have a drink?" Bill asked.
"Of course," replied Jill.
Phil looked up. "I think we're out."
Bill's right hand disappeared into a cabinet only he can reach. Gin droplets pattered the table as he yanked the stopper.
Jill jerked back. "Hey, this is my clean outfit!"
Phil touched her stained blouse with a bony finger. "As usual, that's not saying much."

Phil is thin, Bill is tall and Jill is a slob.
 
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Ihe

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I'd say to focus entirely on WHY these three chars are sitting at that table. The purpose of the meeting and what happens there is more important than the descriptions. Try writing it with no descriptions whatsoever, only action and plot. If you find that the "action/plot" is too thin, you'll find you may be using that scene as a way to infodump descriptions instead of moving the story forward, in which case you must make the scene mean something. If that is not the case and the action/dialogue/plot is solid, then turn your attention to the chars and setting. Descriptions will depend on the POV (point of view). Are you writing the scene from the point of view of character A, B, or C? They will all have different ways of perceiving the others and/or will be in different states of mind--which should reflect in your writing--and/or might not describe themselves at all. Or maybe your POV is omniscient... And as Cory mentioned, don't try to describe every little thing. Readers will fill in the blanks, as long as it makes sense within the context provided.

And welcome to Chrons.
 

The Big Peat

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I would argue against vague descriptions; a distinctive physical appearance is a good way to fix a character inside a reader's mind and you can then call back to that appearance quickly when reintroducing the character after a long time out to jog readers' memories.

Which isn't to say you need a prolonged description. The one sentence description of Mrs Dursley in the beginning of Harry Potter is, I would argue, a classic. But you benefit from a sharp one. And, unless there's good reasons for not describing them then i.e. the narrator can't see them, describing them later simply doesn't give them the same oomph. Whatever you have to say about how they look, say it in their first scene.

Very much a matter of taste though. I know readers who complain about the author trying to tell them what the world looks like and readers who complain if the author doesn't give them strong descriptions.

Could you go into more detail about the scenario in question?

p.s. Sorry to be a nag, but could you please put more line breaks into your posts in future if possible? Makes it a lot easier to read :)
 

RX-79G

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I would argue against vague descriptions; a distinctive physical appearance is a good way to fix a character inside a reader's mind and you can then call back to that appearance quickly when reintroducing the character after a long time out to jog readers' memories.
I think you can describe characters in distinct ways without providing the kind of description that would be useful to a sketch artist. We form distinct impressions of people all the time that aren't strictly visual. The written medium really gives us so much power to choose how we'd present anything, and visual descriptions ought to be somewhat low on the list compared to subtler things that words work so well for.
 

CylonScream

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Could you go into more detail about the scenario in question?

p.s. Sorry to be a nag, but could you please put more line breaks into your posts in future if possible? Makes it a lot easier to read :)

I think I've backed myself into a wall with the scene. Two groups are sitting at different tables in a cafe on a space station. Both groups are going to be on the same starship that departs the next day. (the groups have not meet each other yet) The group not in the scene has some of the "main" charc. that have been introduced and the new group is there to witness a situation for later dialog. Here is the sloppy opening scene so far.

Another group of Commanding Officers are killing time in the same café. 2nd Helmsman Iggy Kang is a short 5ft 7in Chinese Earthen with long straight black hair. He has a trimmed Fu Manchu mustache accompanied by an imperial chin beard.
Kang notices a familiar face but cant put a name to it. “Is that our Captain standing at that table over there?” Kang asked

There are two there characters sitting with Kang that are new to the story.

P.S. I dont take it as a nag. I take it as a learning opportunity!
 

Brian G Turner

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I dont consider myself a writer, yet.

Welcome to the chrons forums, CylonScream. :)

Writing is a learning process, and it's easy to get stuck with beginning issues. The simple truth, though, is that much of the time it's better to leave something incomplete and then come back to it later. Otherwise, you could end up rewriting page one over and over and over again. :)

It's also a very good idea to have an understanding of the technical issues of writing - it's not simply a case of putting things on paper. Two great resources for this to start with - and I'd recommend both - is to read Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer, which deals with the technicalities in a comprehensive yet concise way.

The second resource would be to watch many if not all of Brandon Sanderson's writing lectures, which are available for free on YouTube: Write About Dragons

Both of those should help you overcome basic problems, while allowing you progress enough to find your own style - your voice. Hopefully, anyway. :)
 

Abernovo

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Very quickly. Browsing while I have my three minutes of working internet...

If you write, you're a writer. Put that aside right now. You may be completely amateur, you may only be writing for yourself, or you may be writing with an aim to publish, but you're writing, ergo, you are a writer. A writer, starting out, if you like.

As to your descriptions, you're right - you probably don't want to much all blocked together in an info-dump. Have you tried the old exercise of writing a day in your life of each of your characters? Not an exciting day, and not an exciting exercise, especially as it has nothing which adds directly into your story. But it is a way to build up a feel for them, and then you can drip description in as you go along in your story proper. And, you'll have be used to writing about them, so their odd little characteristics and foibles (we all have them) will come as second nature to you. Sometimes those little things (an innate sadness caused by previous events, a nervous fidgeting in the feet, an intensity as they look at their lover which reveals more than words ever could) describe more than long, drawn-out, descriptions ever could.

The other thing is the old team-building thing most of us hate. Ever been in a team intro session where you had to introduce yourself, give three words which define you, and tell the team something which they wouldn't know from looking at you? Do that for the characters, and use that, again to drip little bits of description in. We don't need to know exactly what they look like (unless one has two heads: that may be significant), as we all build our own pictures as readers. Just give us starter points to build from.

Most of all, welcome to the Chrons, good luck with the writing, and Don't Panic! :)
 

The Big Peat

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I think I've backed myself into a wall with the scene. Two groups are sitting at different tables in a cafe on a space station. Both groups are going to be on the same starship that departs the next day. (the groups have not meet each other yet) The group not in the scene has some of the "main" charc. that have been introduced and the new group is there to witness a situation for later dialog. Here is the sloppy opening scene so far.

Another group of Commanding Officers are killing time in the same café. 2nd Helmsman Iggy Kang is a short 5ft 7in Chinese Earthen with long straight black hair. He has a trimmed Fu Manchu mustache accompanied by an imperial chin beard.
Kang notices a familiar face but cant put a name to it. “Is that our Captain standing at that table over there?” Kang asked

There are two there characters sitting with Kang that are new to the story.

P.S. I dont take it as a nag. I take it as a learning opportunity!

There are very few walls you can't get away from *somehow* in writing.

There's two elements to this. The first is that you ideally, you need some sort of space between character introductions. If you look at Brandon Sanderson's The Final Empire as an example, he handles introducing his ensemble very well in terms of spacing. One of the ways he does it is introducing the characters who we meet for the first time at the big meeting as they walk in one by one.

If we can't have the characters walking into a big group scene one by one, then what some authors will do is have the first character speak and introduce him, then introduce the next character when they speak, and so on. Its all just a matter of spacing out when we meet the characters a little so they're not on top of each other.

The second element - the actual description.

You don't need to tell us someone is short *and* that they are 5'7", because they're telling us the same thing. I'd personally prefer being told someone is short as a reader. It leaves more to my imagination and it feels more real, because I don't think many of us eyeball a person's height exactly on meeting them.

The facial hair is good, because that's a memorable thing. The whole "Give everyone an eyepatch" type descriptions recommended by some authors may be crude, but it works.

Right now though, the description feels a little lifeless. It just gives us a physical description but it doesn't hint at his character or show him doing anything with it. You can do more with it.

What have you been reading other than Old Man's War? Are there any character descriptions you particularly love in those books?
 

Theophania Elliott

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I definitely agree about not giving everybody a full description straight away. However, if your character has important features that you're going to refer to later, it's probably better to introduce those features earlier rather than later. Readers build their own mental picture of a character, in the absence of the author giving them one - and it can be a bit of a jolt when the character you've been visualising as having dark hair for 300 pages suddenly turns out to be blond. It doesn't bother me all that much, but some people get really narky about it.

It's also perfectly possible to go through an entire book without giving a physical description; I remember reading an article by an author who had done exactly that - and had spoken to a reader who had sworn blind that a particular character had dark hair and dark eyes. Of course, hair/eye colour hadn't been mentioned in the book - but the character was so alive in the reader's mind that she never realised that she had made up the physical description herself.
 

CylonScream

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There are very few walls you can't get away from *somehow* in writing.

There's two elements to this. The first is that you ideally, you need some sort of space between character introductions. If you look at Brandon Sanderson's The Final Empire as an example, he handles introducing his ensemble very well in terms of spacing. One of the ways he does it is introducing the characters who we meet for the first time at the big meeting as they walk in one by one.

If we can't have the characters walking into a big group scene one by one, then what some authors will do is have the first character speak and introduce him, then introduce the next character when they speak, and so on. Its all just a matter of spacing out when we meet the characters a little so they're not on top of each other.

The second element - the actual description.

You don't need to tell us someone is short *and* that they are 5'7", because they're telling us the same thing. I'd personally prefer being told someone is short as a reader. It leaves more to my imagination and it feels more real, because I don't think many of us eyeball a person's height exactly on meeting them.

The facial hair is good, because that's a memorable thing. The whole "Give everyone an eyepatch" type descriptions recommended by some authors may be crude, but it works.

Right now though, the description feels a little lifeless. It just gives us a physical description but it doesn't hint at his character or show him doing anything with it. You can do more with it.

What have you been reading other than Old Man's War? Are there any character descriptions you particularly love in those books?

Stephan Kings the Dark Tower series has to be my fav. descriptions. Although SK in not one of my fav writers. I do see his unique skill but its not for me. The first book "The gunslinger", I had trouble following the story. SK can use two pages to describe what other writers will do in a paragraph. Not saying its wrong, just not for me. It felt to me that he just wanted to show off his writing skills. Now, that did tone down as I went through the series.

Odyssey One: From Evan Currie. I really enjoyed this series, I was disappointed that the alien race felt like the replicators from the Stargate Tv show, but this was my fav. simplistic description format.

I'm mainly writing this novel for me. Not trying to write a masterpiece. I know my skill set. But I am trying to write a novel that people can enjoy. Publication is not my main goal. But I'm not going to lie. It would be amazing if that happened. So I am trying to keep that in mind while writing this story.

I see your point on the unnecessary "short" and "5ft 7inch". Now that you've mentioned that it just reads silly.

Kang's personality actually comes up a few sentences later in that conversation which is revealed by his responses to comments, and actions.


I took a few hours last night reading more post here at SFFC. I must say there's a lot of good writers and helpful people here. I'm happy I found it, even though I feel like a kindergartner in collage. I had fear posting here, but have been surprised by the kindness that I've received. I kind of expected a cut throat community that would bash a newbie. I have no reason why to feel that way, maybe Ive noticed to many youtube videos my kids watch lol. I do appreciate the time people take to give advise and I thank you.
 

CylonScream

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Welcome to the chrons forums, CylonScream. :)

Writing is a learning process, and it's easy to get stuck with beginning issues. The simple truth, though, is that much of the time it's better to leave something incomplete and then come back to it later. Otherwise, you could end up rewriting page one over and over and over again. :)

It's also a very good idea to have an understanding of the technical issues of writing - it's not simply a case of putting things on paper. Two great resources for this to start with - and I'd recommend both - is to read Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer, which deals with the technicalities in a comprehensive yet concise way.

The second resource would be to watch many if not all of Brandon Sanderson's writing lectures, which are available for free on YouTube:

Both of those should help you overcome basic problems, while allowing you progress enough to find your own style - your voice. Hopefully, anyway. :)

I've seen Wonderbook mentioned several times in other threads and plan on reading it. Thanks for the info on it and Brandon's lectures! Also noted that I've added an "s" to my name that is not wanted. I cant figure out how to edit it. Is that possible, or is it not available to keep people from ranting and switching names?
 

Brian G Turner

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Also noted that I've added an "s" to my name that is not wanted. I cant figure out how to edit it. Is that possible, or is it not available to keep people from ranting and switching names?

I'll edit that out now - watch out that you may need to log in again after. :)
 

The Judge

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First of all, Welcome to the Chrons! I hope that being here will also help you to cope with the pain of your injury and the boredom of being house-bound (and you have my sympathy on both counts).

I took a few hours last night reading more post here at SFFC. I must say there's a lot of good writers and helpful people here. I'm happy I found it, even though I feel like a kindergartner in collage. I had fear posting here, but have been surprised by the kindness that I've received. I kind of expected a cut throat community that would bash a newbie. I have no reason why to feel that way, maybe Ive noticed to many youtube videos my kids watch lol. I do appreciate the time people take to give advise and I thank you.
By far the majority of people on Chrons are helpful and polite -- those few who aren't, don't tend to stay long -- so there's no need to be frightened! But I understand we're rather the exception than the rule in forums, nowadays, so don't stray too far from us.

It's always daunting coming new to a group, and feeling that everyone else knows so much more. But we're all here to learn, and it's just that some of us are a bit further ahead because we've been learning for longer -- for years, many of us. The best advice I can give generally is not to worry about technical issues at this stage. To my mind, it's like giving a theoretical textbook on the theory of colour and perspective to a child who has just started infant school. Better by far to sit with the writing equivalent of the poster paints and splash about making a great deal of mess, while enjoying yourself immensely, finding out which colours you like, which angles are best for you etc. When you've got thousands of words down of all kinds -- description, dialogue, narrative, action scenes -- then come back to the theory and read up on it, and it will make a lot more sense. Having said that, if you want to do a bit of learning at this stage, I'd recommend our The Toolbox which has a lot of useful information for beginners and the more experienced alike.

As to your original question, I'm not a fan of lots of physical description, and I certainly don't like the police-identity-parade paragraphs some thriller/crime writers use as soon as a new character enters. I don't know if you came across it in your reading of old threads, but here's a thread about info-dumping -- which is what I would call that kind of depositing of description -- in which I give two examples of describing a woman at post#7 which may be of interest.

My advice is to give whatever description is pertinent in a way that enhances the story, and carries it forward, not which stops it dead. And it's best to give it from the experience of your point of view character -- ie the one who is there and whose thoughts/sensations show us the scene you're writing about eg "As always when he was thinking Kang pulled at his long moustache" or "Kang stroked his intricately-cut beard as he watched the group" or to bring it even nearer to POV experience "Smith wondered if Kang realised he always fussed with his Fu Manchu facial hair when he was thinking." (Not very good examples as they're cliched and rushed, but I hope they show what I mean.)

The main thing to remember is DO NOT WORRY! Not about any of it. You're not going to write a masterpiece straight off, any more than a kid who kicks a ball about on a local playing field is going to be playing for a top football team at the end of the week. What you can do, is enjoy yourself, and learn. So here's to enjoyment and learning!
 

NbDawn

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Welcome to the group! It's okay if you're a new writer. The only way you'll learn to get better is to write.

I think I've backed myself into a wall with the scene. Two groups are sitting at different tables in a cafe on a space station. Both groups are going to be on the same starship that departs the next day. (the groups have not meet each other yet) The group not in the scene has some of the "main" charc. that have been introduced and the new group is there to witness a situation for later dialog.

Here's what I've learned so far... While it might seem logical to set up your story with introductions, it can really bore the reader. You want to grab the reader's attention somehow. I think you've recognized something is wrong, but have misattributed it to too many character introductions rather than the real issue - you haven't gotten the reader's attention. Try setting up your introduction for each character in a way that is more exciting. For example, maybe one character is running late to the departure time. Perhaps another character doesn't really want to go, is afraid, or is leaving someone special behind. Maybe another character is excited about adventure and relates all the rumors he or she has heard about the trip and about the captain. Maybe one has an addiction problem he's trying to hide. Maybe one is actually a criminal with a false identity. The list goes on. This is just one way to try and get your reader's attention. Try to think of other ways you can grab your readers' attention, such as with action, scenes, conflicts, a puzzle.
 

CylonScream

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Welcome to the group! It's okay if you're a new writer. The only way you'll learn to get better is to write.



Here's what I've learned so far... While it might seem logical to set up your story with introductions, it can really bore the reader. You want to grab the reader's attention somehow. I think you've recognized something is wrong, but have misattributed it to too many character introductions rather than the real issue - you haven't gotten the reader's attention. Try setting up your introduction for each character in a way that is more exciting. For example, maybe one character is running late to the departure time. Perhaps another character doesn't really want to go, is afraid, or is leaving someone special behind. Maybe another character is excited about adventure and relates all the rumors he or she has heard about the trip and about the captain. Maybe one has an addiction problem he's trying to hide. Maybe one is actually a criminal with a false identity. The list goes on. This is just one way to try and get your reader's attention. Try to think of other ways you can grab your readers' attention, such as with action, scenes, conflicts, a puzzle.

Agreed , the actual beginning is trouble on the main characters shuttle as he arrives at the space station that the mission will launch from. The scene I was having trouble with is actually on page 40. I beleive Ive fixed it today but I need to spend more time on it. Thanks for your input!
 

The Big Peat

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I've never read Stephen King's the Dark Tower, but I just had a look and I did notice two good pieces of succinct character description early on that I like. I think they're a good example of one way of doing it, particularly with minor characters.

"The little of his face visible between beard and hair seemed unmarked by the rot, and his eyes, while a bit wild, seemed sane."

"One lamp glowed sunkenly, and a shadow jumped and flickered as a gangling old man in bib overalls forked loose timothy hay into the hay loft with huge, grunting swipes of his fork."

What I like about these is

a) Short. One sentence each. Not slowing things down.
b) They mention what is vivid and unusual. A really hairy face and wild eyes. Gangling grunting old man. As a result, that forms a strong mental image.
c) They give a quick shot into what each is like as a character, not just what they look like.

And to echo The Judge, look at what's not mentioned. There's a lot we don't know about the characters, but then we don't need to.

I suggest picking out your own favourite character descriptions from books and using them as an example of what to emulate.

p.s. The Chrons community is capable of tough love, but the emphasis is usually on love :)
 

Theophania Elliott

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One common thread of the 'good' descriptions listed here appears to be action. You don't just get a list of someone's physical (and/or mental) attributes: you get to seem them demonstrating those attributes. Someone doesn't just have a moustache: they can smooth it, pull at it, or even twirl it (but only if they're the villain). A person isn't just tall: he reaches for something that only he can reach. Someone isn't just a slob: they have food stains down the front of their clothes.

If you use action as part of describing someone, you also get a bonus. Is the tall person reaching for something he wants, or something someone else wants? Or is he refusing to reach for the thing? You therefore find out that he is not only tall, but also helpful (or not). If someone is fiddling with their moustache, are they nervous? Thinking? Demonstrating their villainous credentials?

In Peat's Steven King example above, not only do you get a strong mental image of the character's appearance, but you get hints about character as well. To me, the farmer guy reminds me a lot of some of the old farmers I know: tough, silent, and prone to mending things with bits of wire.

The other guy might be on this side of the dividing line between sane and insane - but only just. He is unmarked by 'the rot' - how did he escape? And mentally, I added a hat with a brim. The description just seemed to be of the kind of chap who would wear a hat...
 

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