Are character and world descriptions necessary throughout a story line

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There's something I've been wondering about for a while now every time I start new stories or introduce new characters and locations. Is it necessary to go into great detail about the appearances of characters and locations? I usually prefer to leave that up to the reader's imagination. I don't want my story to become one of those books that take a really long time to get to the important parts in the plot. Any thoughts?
 

MikeAnderson

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It can be helpful to give a reader a glimpse of what you're building. You may be writing about the Mojave desert, and there's a reader in the U.K. or Brazil that have never been to the Mojave, or even a desert for that matter, that may need some context of what they're experiencing. Too little detail leaves the reader with too much of a burden to create that world in their head, and too much kills any need to in some cases.
 

sule

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Write your story the way that you would enjoy reading it. If you don't like reading extensive descriptions, don't write them. For me personally, I like giving enough description that the reader has a foothold and can fill in the rest on their own so long as they understand the parts that are pertinent to the story.
 

DLCroix

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Hi! Personally I think it depends on the type of story and also on the style or internal voice of each writer. But never lose sight that the most important thing is the story itself. For example, you can have characters only slightly sketched at a descriptive level; but if the central idea of the story is poorly developed, then there is nothing to do although, on the contrary, you have a lot of characters described in depth.
The other important part in most stories is the dialogues, which are another covert way, let's say, of characterizing a character: someone from the middle or upper class will be more sophisticated while someone from a rural environment or who has not suffered major linguistic mutations, either he will tend to speaks in a vulgar way, if he tries to affect his speech on purpose it will sound cheesy, or his speech will seem from a different century precisely because the languages of remote peoples, having no contact with civilization, tend to NOT experience significant variations.
Because we do NOT all speak at the same way; not even those from different cities, and if that doesn't happen in the same country, imagine how it should be between people from different worlds.

Now, when it comes to presenting new places, I also advise you to consider three things: your characters may know those places, and as it is obvious to suppose, you too. But not the reader.

Although here it is necessary to make a clarification: a tale, given its brevity, does not leave you much space to consider these points. Even so, it would be appreciated if you gave at least a few strokes. On the other hand, if it is a novel, there you do not worry because you have much more space.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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I always have trouble remembering to describe my own characters. First of all because I'm just not that good at remembering real-life faces in detail, and second because when I read a book, a personality can be pretty much the same as a face for me--I can associate the name I'm reading with a specific person/personality, without having to picture the face in-between. I'm picturing the personality instead, the shape of it and the flavor and the gut impression of who they are. And then, while a face type sometimes comes with that personality, an actual face just isn't as important anymore.

So for me as a reader, as long as they're well characterized, I don't personally need much description beyond male/female, large/small--how they physically interact with the world around them--unless the story makes it important. I don't even usually need to know the hair color. Or eyes. Maybe clothes, though, depending on the setting.

I'm starting to realize this indifference for imagery may not be normal for everyone.

I'm not bothered when people do include that kind of detail, though. It can help a lot when a particular character just isn't important enough for a developed personality--and memory is always aided by extra association. Plus, we all know how fun it is to figure out that kind of detail for your own characters. They're just so rarely important to the story. Most often, the best physical description you can give to readers is in the character's attitude--and the attitude of the other characters towards them.

I recently had a fully-developed character I literally couldn't decide was dark, blonde, or redhead because her character and attitude had never been built around what she might look like at all. She would have been the exact same person either way--and yet finally pinning her down to any one color at this late date didn't feel right, either. It almost seemed to make the idea important when it wasn't. But I didn't want to leave readers without anything, so eventually I just figured it could be an unspecific honey-brown. Very nice and unextreme range of colors there! And from there, readers are all free to have their own ideas for what that actually looks like.

For a while, I really wanted to just cheat and call it "forgettable" or "inconspicuous" colored hair. :giggle:
 
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Steve Harrison

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I try to tailor introductions and character & location descriptions to the minimum required to provide a clear picture to my target audience. Further detail can then be drip-fed during the course of the story without resorting to chunks of exposition.

It's as easy as that. And as difficult.
 

The Big Peat

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I was going to say how long is a piece of string but this

Write your story the way that you would enjoy reading it. If you don't like reading extensive descriptions, don't write them. For me personally, I like giving enough description that the reader has a foothold and can fill in the rest on their own so long as they understand the parts that are pertinent to the story.

Is as good an answer. You can do anything between very minimalistic and completely over the top - the question is, what do you prefer?

It sounds like you're the sort of person that just wants to put a few details in that the reader can build off in their imagination - and there's nothing wrong with that.
 

Biskit

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I tend to be quite sparse on character description, but that's partly down to writing 1st POV, and writing things the way I see them, and since I doubt I could tell you what colour hair someone has ten minutes after meeting them, I don't tend to put that sort of description in. World description is the same - I put in what I do/would notice, which can make for some idiosyncratic descriptions, but then that's a big part of the point of the writing for me.

That said, I am currently writing a 1st POV that is almost the opposite of me. The character is irritating (OK, so not completely opposite), insensitive, utterly self-absorbed and vain to the point of obsession over appearance and presentation, and keen to mention not only the style of boots chosen today but what colour the laces are. Honestly, if I ever met my character I would be smacking my head against the wall waiting for the deluge of detail to stop, and it's an interesting challenge to try to slot myself into that mindset to do the writing, and then trying to throttle back so that the detail doesn't become too much.

TL;DR
It depends on what you're doing and how you choose to write.
 

-K2-

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@Artemis Cromwell ; Unlike most here I'm just a novice at all this, so weigh my response appropriately.

Perhaps it's just my limited set of readers, but responses to what I've written has generated some very kind reviews regarding the story world's surroundings and sensations. Responses such as 'I could see/smell/taste/hear/feel it clearly, helped me to envision it as though I was there,' though flattering, infers to me something else.

Other folks stories in my limited circle, always focused upon the characters, their dialogue, and action. Reviews focused purely on the characters and action, nothing else. Much like if you watched a movie, and everything behind or around them blurred, was inconsequential and therefor ignored. The differences with my stories was that I supplied a detailed environment, mentioned changes to that environment as the characters moved through it, their sensations and so on. In my work, readers besides mentioning the characters and actions, then spoke in detail about how they could clearly envision every sensation the characters experienced, the world around them...and could really see the character there, and more so, place themselves there.

So, right or wrong, I'm of the opinion that many (not all readers), don't use their imaginations as much as we might hope. If they're not supplied something to work with, they'll simply discount it and focus on the characters and actions alone. Give them an environment (how much is debatable), and ONLY then will a reader add that to the picture. However, the primary difference between reviews was how other folks stories were discussed as though the reader was a voyeur. In mine, the readers placed themselves there, fully immersing themselves into the story.

Perhaps to make up for my other shortcomings, I'll continue to opt for the latter.

Character descriptions in contrast, I'll detail or not to suit my mood, but never just issue a blunt--5'-4", 120#, dark hair...etc.. Any description will be metered out slowly as needed, recognizing it might alienate a reader and keep them from inserting themselves there.

K2
 
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DLCroix

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@Artemis Cromwell ; I believe that more than describing, you must characterize. Thus, short hair or the absence of a braid on a samurai can be the sign of an outrage, punishment or disgrace. Or indicate the extreme inexperience of a young hussars's officer who envies the braids or scars of his comrades (an emblem of mature warriors, who have already been in battle) as well as yearns for his mustache to grow. Some things can even be discussed by your characters, by which I mean that it can indeed be a topic of conversation like: "Don't worry, Lieutenant; it will soon grow. Then you will seem like one of us."
As for the places, ask yourself what you notice when you sit at the table in a restaurant, what you look at from a terrace. When you arrive at a train station in the morning, what do you feel? is it cold, hot, is the station empty, full? Then transfer that to your characters. They can say some things (it is always preferable), you the others.
But, as long as you maintain that sense of wonder, that you experience the sensations of a place that you do not know and can transmit them, you will understand that the description is not a requirement or an obligation, but a resource that flows naturally and allows the reader to see and feel through your characters.
 
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@Artemis Cromwell ; Unlike most here I'm just a novice at all this, so weigh my response appropriately.

Perhaps it's just my limited set of readers, but responses to what I've written has generated some very kind reviews regarding the story world's surroundings and sensations. Responses such as 'I could see/smell/taste/hear/feel it clearly, helped me to envision it as though I was there,' though flattering, infers to me something else.

Other folks stories in my limited circle, always focused upon the characters, their dialogue, and action. Reviews focused purely on the characters and action, nothing else. Much like if you watched a movie, and everything behind or around them blurred, was inconsequential and therefor ignored. The differences with my stories was that I supplied a detailed environment, mentioned changes to that environment as the characters moved through it, their sensations and so on. In my work, readers besides mentioning the characters and actions, then spoke in detail about how they could clearly envision every sensation the characters experienced, the world around them...and could really see the character there, and more so, place themselves there.

So, right or wrong, I'm of the opinion that many (not all readers), don't use their imaginations as much as we might hope. If they're not supplied something to work with, they'll simply discount it and focus on the characters and actions alone. Give them an environment (how much is debatable), and ONLY then will a reader add that to the picture. However, the primary difference between reviews was how other folks stories were discussed as though the reader was a voyeur. In mine, the readers placed themselves there, fully immersing themselves into the story.

Perhaps to make up for my other shortcomings, I'll continue to opt for the latter.

Character descriptions in contrast, I'll detail or not to suit my mood, but never just issue a blunt--5'-4", 120#, dark hair...etc.. Any description will be metered out slowly as needed, recognizing it might alienate a reader and keep them from inserting themselves there.

K2
I see your point. I also believe it's important to give readers something to work with. In my case when it comes to writing, once I start adding details for characters or places, I always end up with three outcomes: I get bored with what I'm writing (which isn't good), lose sight of the plot, or become too invested in characterization or description. Maybe, it's because I tend to pay more attention to the characters, their actions and the story more than their appearances and how their world looks as both a reader and writer. I'm also a novice writer myself, so I know I that I still have a long way to go before I develop a strong writing foundation and style. I appreciate your advice as well.
 

-K2-

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I see your point. I also believe it's important to give readers something to work with. In my case when it comes to writing, once I start adding details for characters or places, I always end up with three outcomes: I get bored with what I'm writing (which isn't good), lose sight of the plot, or become too invested in characterization or description. Maybe, it's because I tend to pay more attention to the characters, their actions and the story more than their appearances and how their world looks as both a reader and writer. I'm also a novice writer myself, so I know I that I still have a long way to go before I develop a strong writing foundation and style. I appreciate your advice as well.

Well, just like any aspect I suspect, and something @Brian G Turner always suggests it to 'drip in' details a little at a time, as needed and when appropriate.

Taking his advice, with my primary character Kae, in the first chapter I only note that she has short, dark hair (as she sweeps it out of her eyes), and wraps a black scarf over her face. Later in the chapter that her clothing is black (hoping she looks like a shadow). Third chapter we find out she has extensive facial scars. Forth, a tattoo on the side of her neck and another behind her ear. Fifth that she's Indigenous American. Seventh chapter that she has implants, and though her torso can be seen, I don't mention her other 'reaper' tattoos until the eighth.

In the tenth chapter, I fill in a lot of blanks as another character looks her over and other specific events take place. She removes her facial implant and how her face sags is noted. Later, a character notes her numerous scars and tattoos. Later, as Kae looks over that character that checked her out, she notes the other gal is about 20--half her age--and stands a half-head shorter though Kae stands at five and a half feet.

It goes on and on all spread out as her weapons and armored clothing, more details about her body and so on are revealed. Some not until chapters 40-50.

So, if it's not needed--or better still pertinent--at that moment, I don't mention it.

That said, many folks prefer giving a full compact description ASAP so the person can be envisioned clearly. That makes sense, and I have received comments like, "I didn't realize she was so old...:cautious:...short...:confused:...etc." but, though it shifts their image which is slightly upsetting, like you it was simply too clumsy and inappropriate to say more earlier on.

Anywho, just my take on it.

K2
 

tinkerdan

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I think it's important with fantasy and Science fiction to narrow into some view of the world around thee character.
It is quite different from writing about contemporary scenes where most readers can envision the world from what they know.
When they don't know the world and you don't fill in some of the gap--you could end up with characters on a whiteboard.

And if you don't develop the characters enough; you end up with one dimensional props on a whiteboard.
 

Karn's Return

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There's the idea of show vs. tell, but you can provide descriptions of both world and character without being infodumpy. Take, for instance...

"She had blue eyes, with brown hair that was curly."

Dull, scientific, and while it is straight to the point, well, there you be. Then there's this:


"Her sapphire eyes contrasted nicely with her rings of chocolate locks."


Which sounds better to you? I far prefer to provide at least some basic description of characters, simply so people can see what my own intentions for them were...or that would be the case if I had any readers. XD But, I would say give at least some background to each, much for the same reason tinkerdan above stated, though I must admit that my description is one of the weakest parts of my writing. Come to think of it, character development in general is.


(And that's not being self-deprecating, people. I rather pride myself on worldbuilding and lore, rather than the arguably more complex aspect of psychology and flowery speech.)


As for locations, it's okay to be a bit more slapdash. Certainly describe if a character is going into a settlement of some type; saying what kind of settlement, be it a city, farm spread, or basic village, it should be enough to give most veteran readers a rough idea of what the land will look like simply by such terms. Otherwise, a rough description of whatever wilds there might be, if the setting is meant to be far from any kind of civilization.
 

Steve Harrison

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There's the idea of show vs. tell, but you can provide descriptions of both world and character without being infodumpy. Take, for instance...

"She had blue eyes, with brown hair that was curly."

Dull, scientific, and while it is straight to the point, well, there you be. Then there's this:

"Her sapphire eyes contrasted nicely with her rings of chocolate locks."

Which sounds better to you?

Showing and telling, for me, are determined by the job at hand, whether it's the pacing requirements, how much I want the reader to know, the importance of the information, the needs of the scene or any of the other elements that require a decision at any given place in the manuscript.

So, which do I prefer? In the right place at the right time, they are both fine :)
 

tinkerdan

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I would try to simplify this...not that you should.

"Her sapphire eyes contrasted nicely with her rings of chocolate locks."
Unless it's vital to know that the locks are ringed(maybe that means a curl or a tight curl?)

Her sapphire eyes contrasted well with chocolate locks.

I have a character who:

Her eyes almost matched the straw-colored hair.
 

Joshua Jones

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I haven't chimed in here yet? I'm slipping...

I think it depends on the story and perspective. If you're writing a close 3rd or 1st, I would think you would only want to include details as they appear to and are noticed by the character. For example, if your character is in a hallway firefight, he/she's probably not going to notice a stray bullet hit a lighthouse painting on the wall; he/she'll notice the chunk of wood fly toward his/her head, and hear the glass crunch under boot afterward. Omni gives you a little more leeway, but I still wouldn't include many details which aren't related to the plot. The old adage about if it doesn't move the plot forward, move it to the bin...

That said, I do think many readers like having some idea of what a character is intended to look like. Show, don't tell applies here. If you can work it into the narrative (i.e. there's some reason for a character to point it out rather than just a stand a gawk moment), I feel it's stronger and less distracting. Then again, it isn't a huge sin in my eyes to have a character notice how another looks upon their first meeting, provided it makes sense in context (no one is going to note significant detail of another person in the middle of a high stress moment, and a description here will kill the tension).

All that said, I think were newer writers often err here is in providing too much detail, rather than not enough. So, if in doubt, take it out and see if the story still makes sense without it.
 

Narcissus

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The other important part in most stories is the dialogues, which are another covert way, let's say, of characterizing a character: someone from the middle or upper class will be more sophisticated while someone from a rural environment or who has not suffered major linguistic mutations, either he will tend to speaks in a vulgar way, if he tries to affect his speech on purpose it will sound cheesy, or his speech will seem from a different century precisely because the languages of remote peoples, having no contact with civilization, tend to NOT experience significant variations.

Remember Eliza Doolittle?? She thought she could improve her station in life if she could simply learn to speak like an educated person.
 

Capricorn42

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I like to keep descriptions to a minimum and let the reader build their own picture of this person, or place. Mind you, when describing either, I think a mention about scents, smells, odours, can be very effective. Most people can quickly build a mental picture from a single scent (EG a simmering casserole, coffee, etc).
 

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