The Necessity of Describing Characters

ZroSkeerd

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I've hit a bit of a snag. Is it really necessary to describe what a character physically looks like? I think sometimes you can get away with not doing so, but wanted to pick a few brains besides my own.
A brief(ish) explanation: My current WIP is an urban fantasy with heavy leanings into horror. It opens with an elderly lady home alone after a visit from her young grandsons. At the end of the opening chapter, she will have been killed, so I need the reader to connect with and care about her very quickly.
My issue is she's home by herself and I'm just not finding an organic way to work in what this lady looks like. At the same time, though, my hope is I can keep it vague enough that the reader will put their own grandmother or someone similar in their mind as a stand-in for the character, which in theory would help get that quick connection and ramp up the shock and horror when she's killed.
I'm curious what other people think. Has anyone had success going one way or the other? I'm all ears and open to all suggestions.
 

Ursa major

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You need to ask yourself what you think a character (indeed, a person in real life) should look like in order for other people to connect with, or care for them. Better still, does it really matter what their physical appearance is?

Isn't it the character's... er... character and actions that make them sympathetic (or not), and make their demise tragic (or not)?

Now if you were making a TV programme or film, their appearance might matter because, without a voiceover, all there is is their appearance and what actions they take (or avoid taking). But in a book, the creator has lots of other means to do what you want.
 

Yozh

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Unless it’s important to what’s happening, I see visual description as a needless distraction. Think about what physical traits impact the story and include them in a natural way. E.g if she is frail or has mobility issues due to age, and that affects her ability to defend herself from killer, then describe her struggling to rise from her chair or something like that.
 

Swank

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You ought to have something that distinguishes the character, but that doesn't necessarily have to be how they look. Or the totality of how they look - a couple of key features also does the job.

I think most people that 'need' a physical description will just substitute their own assumption if the story is slim on details.

There are very well loved books where the appearance of the MC is never revealed to allow a plot point about their actual identity. That wouldn't be possible if it was necessary to spell out appearances in written stories.
 

Christine Wheelwright

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I find it annoying when an author routinely provides a description for each and every character in the story. I think if it is important and relevant then it should be included. Otherwise, it may make more sense to allow the reader to use their own imaginations. In the case of the little old lady, it probably does not matter exactly what she looks like. You can impart a sense of frailty or vulnerability through her well-described words and actions. I would spend time on that and let the reader imagine the details for themselves.
 

ZroSkeerd

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Thanks so much for the quick responses. It seems like everyone's thoughts more or less align with my own. I'll check this one off the list and keep plugging away. Thank you again!
 

The Big Peat

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The necessity of describing characters depends on

a) your own style - some go big on it, some don't; some write close 3rd PoV or 1st person where people thinking about what they look like might be weird, some write a more distant third or 2nd PoV where the narrator can absolutely describe the character just because
b) what you want from the character

So you don't necessarily need a description if you don't want one. Arguably better off keeping it loose if you want an everywoman sense to her.

(I do generally like character descriptions though)
 

Swank

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Just read a good one Stephenson's Zodiac. The MC describes himself in terms of how and why others react to his appearance.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Some readers prefer little or no description, others really want to have an idea what everyone looks like. I'm one of those readers who prefers a great deal of description, especially if it is well done—that is, if the physical description gives some insight into a character's personality, or how other people regard/react to that character. Purely superficial description I can do without.

So there is no way you can please everyone; therefore, you might as well please yourself. Unless, and to whatever extent, it detracts from the story, that is. But in choosing what you prefer, it would be best to consult what you like as a reader. For instance, are you avoiding description because you aren't good at it and don't want to take the time to learn? That's just laziness. Or, as another example, do you want to leave it out because as a reader it always makes you feel impatient when a writer wastes their time (and yours) with describing characters? If that is the case, there is nothing wrong with consulting your own tastes.

But if you are going to describe a character, it is a good idea to do it early in a story. Because it can be a surprise and a distraction if readers discover, several chapters in, that the person they have been imagining looking a particular way, is meant to be quite different. (Not a problem with the character you are asking about, obviously, as she dies in the beginning and there is no "later" for her. But in general, I think it is good to work in description early, if you are going to do it at all.) I remember reading a book and imagining the main character as blond all through the story (this was because of the cover art) and then in the very last chapter the author mentions the woman's long dark hair. I didn't appreciate that. And I couldn't blame the cover artist for leading me astray, as it would have been so very easy for them to miss that one mention, practically a throw-away line in the last few pages of the story.
 

Astro Pen

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Whatever you do don't have her looking at herself in a mirror. :rolleyes: You will be pilloried.
Sympathy will come from what she is thinking and feeling, how she thinks of herself and her empathy for others. Maybe some kind and gentle thing she was going to do tomorrow that never happened, making the world a poorer place because of her murder.
 

paranoid marvin

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This van be one benefit of choosing an appropriately illustrated cover. If you want you readers to view your character/space ship/monster/other thing the way that you do, slap a picture of it on the front.
 

Xavier Schwindt

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I've hit a bit of a snag. Is it really necessary to describe what a character physically looks like? I think sometimes you can get away with not doing so, but wanted to pick a few brains besides my own.
A brief(ish) explanation: My current WIP is an urban fantasy with heavy leanings into horror. It opens with an elderly lady home alone after a visit from her young grandsons. At the end of the opening chapter, she will have been killed, so I need the reader to connect with and care about her very quickly.
My issue is she's home by herself and I'm just not finding an organic way to work in what this lady looks like. At the same time, though, my hope is I can keep it vague enough that the reader will put their own grandmother or someone similar in their mind as a stand-in for the character, which in theory would help get that quick connection and ramp up the shock and horror when she's killed.
I'm curious what other people think. Has anyone had success going one way or the other? I'm all ears and open to all suggestions.
I wouldn't say that I have had sucess eaither way but my main WIP dosn't really describe what my MC looks like right from the get go. Instead I slowly throw parts of him, like his eye color, hight, ect. at the reader so that they aren't overwhelemed. However I think that you could possibly not even describe your character at all (it would make things a lot easier (or harder) if it ever got adapted) because in my opinion how they feel is more important. I like to give a sense of their manarisms, are they limping? How do they veiw that beam of light comming in throught the window. All in all I like to use a combination of the three depending on what sort of story you are trying to tell. Do take into acount that it really matters what POV you are writing from (either the POV character, and/or the POV as in first, second, third. I write in limited third.).

Blessings!
 

Swank

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I don't notice eye color in real people, unless they really standout.

I feel like many character descriptions I've read are taken off of driver's licenses. Descriptions should not be vital statistics but the impressions that impress themselves into other characters, or nag at the character themselves.


And, (at the risk of closing this thread down and getting myself banned) avoiding certain types of physical descriptions allows the writers of SFF exotica to avoid pinning their characters down as being a particular race - which is another way to be inclusive with humans that don't have to conform to 21st century earth norms.
 

The Big Peat

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Since we seem to be tangeting on to our favourite forms of character description, I have to say I quite like thorough ones with the vital statistics - which doesn't preclude handing out impressions - and am actively very in favour of taking a few sentences to say everything important about the character rather than stringing it on. The drip-drip school of description drives me as wild as far as I'm concerned, they just prolong the exposition.

Which just goes to show, whatever you want to do, someone will like it and somehow will hate it.
 

paeng

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Try related chapters in David Lodge's Art of Fiction.
 

Yozh

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Since we seem to be tangeting on to our favourite forms of character description, I have to say I quite like thorough ones with the vital statistics - which doesn't preclude handing out impressions - and am actively very in favour of taking a few sentences to say everything important about the character rather than stringing it on. The drip-drip school of description drives me as wild as far as I'm concerned, they just prolong the exposition.

Which just goes to show, whatever you want to do, someone will like it and somehow will hate it.
If you are going to do a physical description, I agree best get it done straight away. Pet peeve s when I’ve made a mental image of character and then I keep having to revise it as author adds in bits that clash with my imagination.
 

ColGray

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There are very well loved books where the appearance of the MC is never revealed to allow a plot point about their actual identity. That wouldn't be possible if it was necessary to spell out appearances in written stories.
The Revisionaries, by AR Moxon, has the absolute BEST reveal on this point. It's a throw away line like 500 pages into a long, complex book and i literally laughed, shut the book, and went for a walk rethinking the entire book. Just flooringly, amazingly good.
 

ColGray

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I think its really hard to have NO physical descriptions of any character, but avoiding a description of one character absolutely works IF: (1) there's an impression/reaction to the character, (2) there are in depth physical setting descriptions and (3) the author avoids a late dump that isn't a twist/reveal.

I think the the first two make sense, so i'll focus on the third: totally agree with @Yozh: avoiding a description to then later throw in, He tossed back his blond hair and flashed his brown eyes, is annoying and jarring for your reader. To instead say, He tossed back his blue hair and flashed his cat slit eyes, is like, wait, what? But even that is tough bc holding something back from the reader--when the other in-world people know the truth--can be annoying if the reveal isn't massive/redefining.

I'll say it also matters on the perspective of the work. A 1st person story could easily avoid describing themselves (no looking in the mirror and hard pass on boobily boobing down the hallway). Avoiding description is harder with a third person omniscient. Its even harder with a close third or second person (Anne Leckie delights in 2nd person and tweaking the nose with physical descriptions and I adore it). Example: I don't think about my skin or hair color. I notice other people's. I might remember if someone is an outlier, but I'm unlikely to remark on it like, Do you remember the guy with the amputated leg, vs, Do you remember Rob? He was talking about his two sons and ... etc.

TLDR, does the structure support the exclusion, are you using the exclusion for a purpose, or, do you (the author) not want to be tied down?
 

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