POV Character Description - How Much?

Wayne Mack

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How much physical description do you usually include in your stories?

I find that I usually do not provide more than a name and gender via pronouns for my main characters. Is that sufficient? I've scanned the introductory chapters in several books by different authors that I enjoy reading and have found only one described the physical characteristics of the main character any where within the first couple of pages. Is light or nonexistent description considered normal?

What is your preference as a reader? Do you care what the characters look like?
 

sule

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I generally prefer sparse physical description as a reader, since it gives me more freedom to picture the character how I want. Especially early, I find that physical description of a POV character can feel very clunky if not done well (and yes, that includes "he brushed his long brown hair out of his eyes", at least for me).

As a writer I am also in the camp of, "as sparse as possible," leaving out basically anything that isn't essential to either the character or the plot. For instance, I don't think that eye color is very important to establish unless the character having that eye color matters in some way. Basically, if the description feels like it is there only to establish what the character looks like I personally feel that it shouldn't be there; if I have a description of the character I want to make it do multiple things.
 

Mouse

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Name and gender and that's pretty much it. And nope, don't care what characters look like, as a reader (unless it's important) and I usually forget anyway.
 

AnyaKimlin

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I like description as a reader but the only time it annoys me if a writer doesn't is when hair or eye colour or other feature becomes vital to the story and they give it hundreds of pages in.

I write what I like to read, but pull it back because my tastes are dated.
 

Astro Pen

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Initial thought.
If you are in first person limited the the idea of POV is that for the purpose of the story it is 'you' so best not ladle on characteristics. Your character becomes clear through actions. The POV is the one character who is not being observed.
( And, whatever you do don't pass a mirror admiring your rugged features and run your fingers through your dark quiff. ;) )
 

Steve Harrison

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I only need the basics when I read and quickly form a picture of the character to carry me through the story. Yet it always amazes me when I see a film version of a novel and the characters look nothing like I pictured them.

I provide similarly basic descriptions in my own writing, although as my usual method is multiple POVs, there's more scope to provide a few different visual impressions if necessary.
 

WatermelonPink

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Perhaps a little too much. I often want to get the image of the characters exactly right into the reader's mind as I myself envision it, so because of that when I introduce an important or reoccurring character, I tend to describe them as much as I can without using too much. Or instead, I'll add some details about their appearance as little bits here and there in later parts of the story. It may be a bad habit.
 

Maseeha.Aellari

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I actually did include a physical description for my MC because it was important to her character, personality, dilemma, etc. It honestly depends on the character. For some, I write a name, a quirky characteristic, and that's it. For others, I write a full-blown description, but it's important that you aren't just listing features here. Do your physical descriptions through describing the character's movements.

For example: "He stretched out his arms and a set of translucent wings unfurled." instead of "He had translucent wings"
 

DLCroix

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Hi! I would say that at a certain moment you don't even ask yourself; you just do it, and it becomes so automatic or unconscious that actually rather than describing you are "characterizing" here and there one or more characters at the same time, in such a way that on the one hand you take into account the camera shot, what is seen, and on the other you have the psychological plane. That is why a hair color is not just a hair color. For example, if he wears braids, a color can mean glorious actions, the times he has been injured fighting for his queen, etc. When you learn to characterize rather than describe, even the smell can be a sign of holiness; the type of sword, the emblems on their armor can remind an old man of an ancient aero-mechanized unit that fell defending the city long ago and of which perhaps only those two or three types remain. This characterization can also be added to the irony-demonstration method through dialogues for irony and demonstration through an act.
 

ckatt

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Do I care what characters look like? I guess as much as I care about any other details in the story. Some people may think that description is useless, and if you think of it only in terms of drawing a picture in your reader's mind, maybe it is.
But descriptions can also be used to characterize. Knowing that somebody has sharp pressed pants and combed eyebrows tells me a lot more about them than just how they look in a visual sense. And I think I prefer images to being told someone is an "anal-retentive poindexter"
A scar can suggest a history of fighting. A tattoo might suggest a social group they belong to.
But eye colour or the size of their ears, anything that they were born with doesn't really tell you much about who they are. Unless they're like an elf or a Vulcan.
I think the reason you don't find physical descriptions at the beginning of books is because description usually isn't action and until we care about what a character's doing, we probably don't care about how they look or why do I look that way.
 

Biskit

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I like to leave it as sparse as possible and I particularly loath those sort of "rote descriptions" where you get height, weight, hair and eye colour on each character introduction. The main one I've used that springs to mind is a sort of de-frocked preist demon-hunter who I definitely mention as being built like a gorilla. I couldn't tell you what colour his eyes are, but anything mortal that he hits is going to feel it, which is important.

I might (don't think I've done it yet) mention hair colour if it was something unusual and significant in the plot, or tells the reader about the character who chose that tint, but otherwise, why? What does it add to the story?

I have mentioned fur colour on a breed of genetically engineered cats who are only there to maul one of my character's boots and leave hairballs on the turning points in the plot, but you sort of expect that sort of description with cats. :giggle:
 

tinkerdan

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Using first person POV there is little direct description. Though I cheated a bit in the beginning of the first novel.
Most of the character's description comes in comparison.
Such as: Sheila's hair is darker than mine, a dishwater-blond. Standing across from me we see directly eye to eye.
 

Toby Frost

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I think it depends hugely on the circumstances. A lot of main characters are stand-ins for the reader and are often "generalists" - ie skilled at everything but not specialised towards anything in particular. They're often cleverer, more attractive etc than average, but not to the great detriment of anything else. Unless they've got an obvious flaw or unexpected quirk they don't need a lot of description.

But where you've got a character who needs that sort of detailed description, then they ought to get it, especially if the description is needed to set the reader's expectations on what they will do in the course of the story. I agree with Biskit that a kind of standard identikit description (eye colour, hair colour etc) isn't really all that necessary. I can only think of two characters whose eye colour I can remember - Titus Groan and Raistlin the wizard - and in both cases they had very strange eyes.
 

zmunkz

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I like to know generally what the character looks like. The reason is, many times authors leave it out (presuming it’s not necessary, I suppose) only for a scene 100-pages in to occur where the hair color (or whatever) gets mentioned, and I realize the entire story I’ve lived so far was wrong. It seems minor, maybe, but reading is an extension of human empathy, and we bond with the characters as we would with real people. It doesn’t take long before our image of the characters is no longer swappable without a major ejection from the immersion.
 

JS Wiig

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@zmunkz agree 100%. If you’re going to include any character description do it early. I really dislike having an image in my head only to have it drop-kicked by some contrary description later in the story.

Same reason I avoid any telly or screen interpretations of something I’m reading until after I’ve finished.
 

tinkerdan

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I like to know generally what the character looks like. The reason is, many times authors leave it out (presuming it’s not necessary, I suppose) only for a scene 100-pages in to occur where the hair color (or whatever) gets mentioned, and I realize the entire story I’ve lived so far was wrong. It seems minor, maybe, but reading is an extension of human empathy, and we bond with the characters as we would with real people. It doesn’t take long before our image of the characters is no longer swappable without a major ejection from the immersion.
while I empathize with you on this:

Insert skin color and then ponder about how ridiculous this begins to sound.

Just food for thought since it is a touchy subject and I expect my post to disappear quickly.
 

JS Wiig

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@tinkerdan a potentially interesting discussion.

Would something like Grisham’s A Time to Kill be the same story if skin color were never mentioned, or not mentioned until well into the text, after a reader had already established a (possibly different) mental picture of the characters?
 

zmunkz

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Insert skin color and then ponder about how ridiculous this begins to sound.
I’m not sure I follow... can you expand the concern? Characters probably have a skin color, and it may or may not be relevant. I’m not sure what is going to get ridiculous ...?
 

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