Character, Physical Descriptions...

-K2-

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Before I ask this question, I just want to say that 'I realize' as I write I have a clear image in my head of a character. I know how they look, speak, act, dress and so on... So, I get that and also understand that what is in my head is not on paper for the reader to know.

That said, as I'm writing my newest works (contrary to some previous), I've come to the realization that probably 95% of my characters have little to no physical description (height, weight, hair, features, etc.), or any commentary about their clothing, equipment, etc.. Most of the description only comes in the form of speaking mannerisms.

So my question is, "is that a problem, or, can it work to simply let the reader make up what they might imagine, considering that whatever they imagine has little affect on the story?"

In some cases the characters are significant or encountered often. Others would have rather exotic clothing, armor, weapons, looks and so on... but, I'm just not able to see how it detracts from the story to not describe those aspects in detail.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

Thanks for your input!

K2
 
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Cathbad

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I like to describe my characters - to a point. A few characters - like the dragon Darganau, I feel need full descriptions; but I usually don't get specific on height (I might note another character says he/she is "rather short/tall") or weight - unless these specifics are germane.

I usually tell hair and eye colors, at least of the main character(s), but even this is personal taste. I think you could leave out physical descriptions all together, and leave it up to the reader's imagination! Or perhaps, offer very general descriptions: "He was quite handsome/dark/pale." "She was curvacious/thin." Only if a physical detail is germane to the very character does it absolutely need to be mentioned.

I know some writers get very detailed in character descriptions, others not so much. As a reader, I tend to ignore the writer's description of the character. In example, I was quite taken by surprise when they cast Morgan Freeman in the role of Alex Cross. I'd read all of the books up to then, and I told a friend, "Not that I mind, but they never mentioned his race." He told me, "Go look again." I did, that night. Surprise! :) (I did envision a white detective, but honestly, only because so few white writers had written their heroes/protagonists anything other than white.)
 

RJM Corbet

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@-K2-


"....95% of my characters have little to no physical description (height, weight, hair, features, etc.), or any commentary about their clothing, equipment, etc.. Most of the description only comes in the form of speaking mannerisms..."

I think that's the best sort of writing. Just a little physical description perhaps. It lets the reader form a mental picture.

I try to base a character on someone I actually know. It works for me.
 
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Stephen Palmer

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If you want your reader to strongly identify with the main character, best to describe them as little as possible.
Personally, I add a bit of description - maybe hair colour, that sort of thing - then let the reader imagine the rest. With secondary characters you can add more.
 

RJM Corbet

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If you want your reader to strongly identify with the main character, best to describe them as little as possible.
Personally, I add a bit of description - maybe hair colour, that sort of thing - then let the reader imagine the rest. With secondary characters you can add more.
I remember one of John Grisham's books where it was, I think, about Chapter Three before he even named the character and by then the reader already knew him well.

There's a thing I don't like: where the first one or two words of a new book or story are the name of the protagonist: " Misga Wonderboom woke up already thinking about ..."

I would prefer the piece to begin with: "She woke up..." Plenty of time to name her later.

So, the name and physical description do not at all work to really define the character, imo? It's just a paper cut-out, not real flesh and blood. Good writers instinctively understand this?
 
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Brian G Turner

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Throw in a few cues when the reader meets them, and maybe repeat anything that's relevant - ie, limp, hour-glass eyes, etc. But aside from that, the reader will create their own image, so long as the characters are reasonably well differentiated.
 

Joshua Jones

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I'm of the same mind as everyone else. Unless there is a plot reason for a description, I don't give it, and I only give aspects as they appear in the plot. If a character aging is important, for example, I may have him look into the mirror and see grey appearing in his beard. But, yeah, for me, descriptions are absent unless necessary, and minimal when used.
 

Stephen Palmer

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So, the name and physical description do not at all work to really define the character, imo? It's just a paper cut-out, not real flesh and blood. Good writers instinctively understand this?

My preference is to name the characters at the first possible moment. Usually in my novels that is in the first one or two words. A name is entirely different to a description. A name is an identity, which readers will use to create the person in their minds. Description isn't so important, and anyway it comes afterwards. Bob Shaw said you should give some small details of physical description as soon as you can, and, in general, I'd agree with that.
 

-K2-

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Great stuff everyone. Your insights have already helped to evolve my thinking on the subject at hand, yet has also indirectly touched on some aspects of what I'm working on that are similar yet unrelated.

Thanks for all your help. Any other thoughts on the matter are also welcome.

K2
 

Joshua Jones

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My preference is to name the characters at the first possible moment. Usually in my novels that is in the first one or two words. A name is entirely different to a description. A name is an identity, which readers will use to create the person in their minds. Description isn't so important, and anyway it comes afterwards. Bob Shaw said you should give some small details of physical description as soon as you can, and, in general, I'd agree with that.
I agree; names are important to introduce early, because that is how the reader identifies this character at first. Descriptions, on the other hand, are frequently unnecessary, and rarely beneficial.
 

RJM Corbet

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Ok, but I've just grabbed a book at random out of the bookcase and it's Ernest Hemmingway "Across the River and Into the Trees.'

The protagonist is 'the shooter' for the whole of chapter one. Only at the start of chapter two, when attending a medical, is he identified as a Colonel of Infantry (with the capitals).

The doctor calls him 'Dick' just once by name, and from then on he is 'the Colonel' for the rest of chapter two, etc.

In each chapter there are only two characters involved, however.
 
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Joshua Jones

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Ok, but I've just grabbed a book at random out of the bookcase and it's Ernest Hemmingway "Across the River and Into the Trees.'

The protagonist is 'the shooter' for the whole of chapter one. Only at the start of chapter two, when attending a medical, is he identified as a Colonel of Infantry (with the capitals).

The doctor calls him 'Dick' just once by name, and from then on he is 'the Colonel' for the rest of chapter two, etc.

In each chapter there are only two characters involved, however.
I think we are using "name" differently here. I am using it to mean the designation given in the story which the narrator uses to identify the character to the reader. Whether that is a given name, rank, alias, or broad description, it is still the character's "name".
 

RJM Corbet

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I think we are using "name" differently here. I am using it to mean the designation given in the story which the narrator uses to identify the character to the reader. Whether that is a given name, rank, alias, or broad description, it is still the character's "name".
I quite understand.

I've just done a quick flick through the first pages of a few more books. Writers seem divided by preference. In first person writing, many wait for the protagonist to be addressed by his/her own name by another character, rather than starting the piece: 'My name is Jon Smith and I ..."

In PG Wodehouse 'The Luck of the Bodkins' (third person) it's only towards the end of chapter one, by which time the reader has already got inside him, that the protagonist is named as Monty, and only at the start of chapter two he becomes Monty Bodkin.

Others, like Elmore Leonard, seem to prefer to open the book immediately with the protagonist's name. Anyway. Like I said, just a quick flick and not worth writing a PhD thesis on the subject, lol ...

(post edited)
 
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-K2-

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So, I'll toss something in on the "name issue" in that it is one of those sub-topics I mentioned.

In the first novel I wrote (of this series, which is now moved to the second), the protagonist who is the first character we encounter, first line, doesn't have her name mentioned until the third chapter. It worked well, but, I began to wonder if that 'mystery' was really needed.

In the second novel I wrote (which has become the first now in the series), that same character is named in the first line, albeit, to simply tell us who someone is talking to. ((ROUGH DRAFT: "Are you going or not?" one of the guards shouted at Rokka-Kae, causing her to chuckle nervously.))... That, I'm really not sure I like, however, if I waited until her name is used, that means a whole bunch of 'she, her, the woman, etc.' overwhelming the text.

Though I'll consider each method, I'm of the opinion that to either force it in too early, OR, hold off too long for no reason are equally bad. I agree that if the character's name would be used by another, no matter how early, it should be. I'm also of the opinion that too many 'gender specific or other descriptive' words used to simply keep from revealing the name becomes clumsy.

IOW, I'm of the mind that trying to follow some rule on that point is not the ideal. So use it when it fits and is needed. But, that's just my uneducated opinion.

K2
 

CTRandall

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I second Mouse. Very little description is needed unless it does something important for the story. For one of my characters, the only description is that she's middle-aged. At the end of the book, however, another character notes the foreign style of her hair and clothes, marking her out as different at a significant point in the story. Earlier, the description would have been a waste of words but, at that point, it furthers the development of the story.
 

The Big Peat

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I care about descriptions. The trend may be for less is more but I prefer more is more when the writing voice is good, and if it isn't good then what it does is irrelevant. And I've had beta readers complain that I under describe. I've also had them complain that I over describe too.

Which just goes to show this is very much a matter of taste and for pretty much any level of character description, you can find a successful author doing it.
 

sknox

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There's the famous example of Mickey Spillane (high literature, I know), who never describes what Mike Hammer looks like. He did this deliberately, so every [male] reader would be free to imagine himself as the tough private eye. I'd wager every reader of those books has a mental image of Mike Hammer and would swear there's a description somewhere.

That will work with main characters. Not so sure for secondary characters. For those, a standout physical characteristic--hair color, height or weight, beard, or whatever--provides a useful third way to refer to them, beyond name or relative pronoun.
 

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