The Necessity of Describing Characters

Swank

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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.
Read Use of Weapons.


I like how Vonnegut introduces all male characters with their penis length in Breakfast of Champions.
 

Dragonlady

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Sorry for posting twice in a row, but it took me a while to look this up:

There is an old thread in the Workshop, where we practiced using physical description to reveal more than how a character just looked. The challenge -- physical description as a key to character
this is sort of my take, what can their physical description show about who they are? Perhaps they take off the apron covered in spatter from baking with the grandkids, or don't have the money to replace their slippers. Just finished a rom com, so totally different, but character descriptions were sparse and tended to hinge on how character and appearance interacted, eg the chic character with an impeccable dress sense, the character whose clothes lead to assumptions about their personality.
 

ColGray

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Read Use of Weapons.


I like how Vonnegut introduces all male characters with their penis length in Breakfast of Champions.
Vonnegut is the cock of the walk. Is there a more precise shorthand for telegraphing a culture and set of characters values than by introducing men by penis length?

I appreciate the recommendation, but I can't stand Banks. I read Consider Phlebas, and thought it was actively bad. People said, Oh, no no, you have to read, Player of Games. I read it, liked it more (but that was a low bar to clear) and went, So, the minds are bad, right? That's one of his underlying themes-- coming out of the cold war, he's saying that unending, militarily enforced cultural hegemony is bad? Right? Aaaaaand, nope. Actually, it's good! Then people said, Read Use of Weapons. It's a very cool narrative structure but ultimately failed for me because, again, the Minds are functionally all-knowing but <shrug>, if they revealed that, there's no book.
Between his lazy twists (Intergalactic planetary AI's who can manipulate everything but plot-armor) and detours into bizarre but deeply irrelevant narrative cul de sacs (100 pages on poop eating cannibals? A planetary gerontocracy when de-aging tech is ubiquitous?), Banks is just a hard nope.
 

paranoid marvin

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I visualized a scene without any further description.

Never underestimate how much readers can fill in the blanks.


Yes, I agree.

It reminds me of video games. The more realistic/'life-like' the graphics, the more I disassociate from the characters. Back in the day,they would be represented by a simple shape or block. That sprite was a warrior/wizard/astronaut; I could project my imagination on that block to make it whatever i wanted it to be.

I like to fill in the dots;I like to project myself into the body of the protagonists, or imagine what they may look or sound like.

For instance, when I played The Secret of Monkey Island on my Amiga, I knew what Guybrush sounded like; it was definitely a British accent. When i heard his American accent in the later versions it totally threw me and felt so wrong.

sometimes more is less
 

ColGray

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Consider Phlebas ends with the
literal genocidal annihilation of two sentient races at the hands of the Minds (the shapeshifters and the Idirans) and the Culture characters cheering, Hurray for the good guys! We're the best!

I went in knowing nothing and assumed there was a lot of heavy-fisted Cold War symbolism where the Minds were a politburo/central communist committee stand in. Between the central control, purporting cultural unity but allowing for local customs and hunting their own I was like, shrug, sure, communism. And the forces opposing them were the religious and people who placed a premium on individuality? Sure, yep, Cold War ideologies. Oh, they won, committed genocide and had no qualms at the leadership level? Wow, yep, lines up.


And then I read that Banks was entirely sincere: the Minds were good and the Culture utopian!

That Banks somehow managed to convince people the minds are good/benevolent is insane.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I visualized a scene without any further description.

Never underestimate how much readers can fill in the blanks.
But sometimes they have such vivid imaginations that, left to fill in the blanks, they imagine things that are counter to what the author intends. Then grow confused and irritated when the rest of the story doesn't bear out whatever it is they, the reader, have imagined. Or they interpret characters in a way that would leave the writer astounded if they knew.

Besides, when it comes to elderly ladies, not all age into some sort of stereotypical grandmother. Some are slim, still attractive, and in fantastic shape. They play tennis, they play golf. They dress well and go to the hair salon twice a month. Others are so frail and unwell, they need a walker to get from one room of their own apartment to another. As a result, they spend their days reading or watching TV. Others, not quite so frail, spend most of the day knitting, when they aren't leaving their chair just long enough to stuff their visiting grandchildren with ice cream and cookies. Still others are mean old busybodies.

So if readers imagine their own grandmother or someone else specific that they know—as ZroSkeerd hopes they will—and one reader fills in the blanks with an image of the grandmother that abused them for years as a child, and another reader imagines a nosy, gossipy, neighbor who poisoned someone's cat for peeing on their lawn one time . . . well, there goes any hope of establishing sympathy. (Meanwhile, other readers, who had active, athletic, wealthy grandmothers may be wondering why the elderly woman in the story didn't defend herself against the attacker with one of the clubs in the golf-bag they have imagined in one corner of the room. And readers who had the ice cream and cookies grandmother may wonder why she didn't poke out the murder's eye with one of her knitting needles.)

So I maintain that the best thing to do is to at least give readers just enough to provide a structure for their imagination to build on. It doesn't have to be much. (Or it can be a lot . . .it depends on the author's style.) It doesn't even have to be a description of the character herself. A walker in the corner, plus several bottles of medicine and a pile of mystery novels on the side table by the chair, may clue readers in to what they are supposed to be imagining, and they can expand on that to whatever extent they please without going off on the wrong sort of tangent.
 

Swank

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Consider Phlebas ends with the
literal genocidal annihilation of two sentient races at the hands of the Minds (the shapeshifters and the Idirans) and the Culture characters cheering, Hurray for the good guys! We're the best!

I went in knowing nothing and assumed there was a lot of heavy-fisted Cold War symbolism where the Minds were a politburo/central communist committee stand in. Between the central control, purporting cultural unity but allowing for local customs and hunting their own I was like, shrug, sure, communism. And the forces opposing them were the religious and people who placed a premium on individuality? Sure, yep, Cold War ideologies. Oh, they won, committed genocide and had no qualms at the leadership level? Wow, yep, lines up.


And then I read that Banks was entirely sincere: the Minds were good and the Culture utopian!

That Banks somehow managed to convince people the minds are good/benevolent is insane.
I really don't know how to take this sort of thing. You brought your assumptions and biases to someone else's piece of fiction, and then judge that fiction as poor because it isn't what you would write. That's insane.

Banks wanted to illustrate what an actual post-scarcity utopia would look like, and one of the labor saving devices he invents to make this reasonable are supercomputers with empathy that don't mind doing the scut work. And that allows for stories about what people might do when they don't normally have to do anything. Most people see his efforts as original, and he even invented a new kind of space station concept in the process. His protagonists are largely good, ethical, smart and egalitarian folks that want the residents of the galaxy to be nice to each other, and do what they can to nudge things that way.

Banks is rightfully critical of Western colonialism, but his Culture is not a proxy for communism or anything else - because it is fiction. He uses conjectural technologies to frame how humanity might survive its worst tendencies and go on to thrive as something still largely like us.

I enjoy reading Banks because he is an excellent writer, is very funny, knows how to use horror within the story and is genuinely original in his material. His non-SF is equally captivating, surprising, funny and human. I personally would judge him in the top 10 SF writers of all time, if not higher - and I'm certainly not alone in thinking so highly of his work. So when someone shows up who thinks Banks is a hack, Dune is boring, Star Wars is silly or whatever - I just note that this person is either not very flexible in their approach to enjoying SF, or they think being contrarian adds value to their credibility.


Now, let's get back to the only SF of any merit - Star Trek.
 

BAYLOR

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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!


Too much character detail all at once can bog down the story.
 
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Swank

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Back on topic:

There is no right answer. Readers don't have to fill in the blanks (I'll bet most readers don't envision "grandma" at all, they just keep reading.) Providing a character description is neither good nor bad - it is just a passage to read for pleasure inside a novel that exists to be read for pleasure. If the description makes the read better - great. If it drags down the story with a bunch of formulaic factoids - why is it in there?

And that brings us back to the real problem: We constantly discuss storytelling as if it were a multiple-choice activity that you can score highly on if you pay attention to all the tips and tricks that publishers, authors, how-to writers and agents - you too will write something of value.


Well, I don't think so. Most of the stuff we talk about for writing something that might get published sounds like a formula to kill any sort of creative impulse and produce the sort of pop culture crap that you can find on the Disney+ channel.

If you want to write something that is actually good - that gets published because it is good, gets read because it is good and is remembered because it is good - you're going to have to write something much closer to the gut, and think of your writing more like poetry than a plastic model kit. So if you write a character description, it had better be because you had something really interesting to say with that description and you couldn't conceive of the passage, chapter or novel working without it.


So here's some obnoxious advice to aspiring writers: READ MORE BOOKS LIKE YOU WANT TO WRITE. And when you have found some you absolutely love, go back and find out if the author used character descriptions, or if the protagonist grew as a person, or whatever bug you have in your ear about writing. You will learn a lot more by reading what someone really successful did than by thinking of any of this stuff as rules, methods or guidelines.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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So here's some obnoxious advice to aspiring writers: READ MORE BOOKS LIKE YOU WANT TO WRITE. And when you have found some you absolutely love, go back and find out if the author used character descriptions, or if the protagonist grew as a person, or whatever bug you have in your ear about writing. You will learn a lot more by reading what someone really successful did than by thinking of any of this stuff as rules, methods or guidelines.
I'd hardly call that obnoxious advice, since it is the same advice that I (and many, many others before me) frequently give.

____

However, as an aside, can we please be less personal in our responses to each other—like not questioning each other's motives or sanity just because we have differing opinions about a given work? Most of us here have been here long enough to know the rules, have we not? It would be a pity if some otherwise excellent posts had to be removed.
 

ColGray

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This seems like it is all really bout what authors would personally like to see, not what [some] readers might actually like to read.
One of the best pieces of advice I've heard is that, when you find a book you love, a book with which you really connect, read it twice. The first time is to read it and enjoy it. The second time is to figure out how the author performed the magic trick.

Finding books that perform magic tricks can be the hard part--and their particular trick isn't doing everything you want to do; it's doing one thing so well it elevates the entire work. Harrison's, Silence of the Lambs is an utter masterpiece of pacing (among other things); Carver's, Why Don't You Dance, is a masterpiece of concision and inference but of a different flavor and style than Dillard's Tinker at Pilgrim Creek--itself a masterpiece of inference and transcendental thought.

I think it's also worth reading authors you foundationally disagree with -- for the same reasons. That feeling of, Why do other people like this utter drivel, is helpful if you then follow up with, No really: why do they like this?? And spend some time to figure out.
 

paranoid marvin

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This seems like it is all really bout what authors would personally like to see, not what [some] readers might actually like to read.

True, but we too are readers as well as writers. It's far easier to talk about what  we like/prefer to see in a story and why, than what someone else does.

I think that it's pretty clear that there are varying opinions on the subject, and that all are valid. Whether we like lots of information (or not) about a character, and whether it's given all in one go at the beginning of the story, or drip fed throughout varies from person to person. In much the same way that description of anything in your story is, beit places, people or objects.

Whatever you do, you will not please every potential reader all of the time. Which is why we as readers will prefer one author over another. You could be a Tolkien, and create a whole world, with its own languages and history; and then place your story within that environment. Or you could be an author who leaves an air of mystery, allowing the reader to imagine for themselves. Both can work, but much depend upon the quality of your writing and the imagination within your story.
 

paranoid marvin

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One of the best pieces of advice I've heard is that, when you find a book you love, a book with which you really connect, read it twice. The first time is to read it and enjoy it. The second time is to figure out how the author performed the magic trick.

Finding books that perform magic tricks can be the hard part--and their particular trick isn't doing everything you want to do; it's doing one thing so well it elevates the entire work. Harrison's, Silence of the Lambs is an utter masterpiece of pacing (among other things); Carver's, Why Don't You Dance, is a masterpiece of concision and inference but of a different flavor and style than Dillard's Tinker at Pilgrim Creek--itself a masterpiece of inference and transcendental thought.

I think it's also worth reading authors you foundationally disagree with -- for the same reasons. That feeling of, Why do other people like this utter drivel, is helpful if you then follow up with, No really: why do they like this?? And spend some time to figure out.

Just be careful not to dissect a book you love too much. Once you look behind the curtain and find out how the trick is performed, most of the 'magic' is lost.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Yes, we are all readers here—most of us, I imagine, avid readers.

But it is true that as we devote more and more of our time and thought to the craft of writing that we become more sensitive to certain things about the way a piece is written—because we've been told that adverbs are bad, we start noticing adverbs, because we've been told that head-hopping is bad, we become sensitive to how point-of-view is handled, etc.—things that we didn't notice before they were pointed out to us by someone, and which the average reader does not and never will notice at all. Every year there are books published which break every single guideline that the current conventional wisdom about writing holds dear, books which go on to become enormously popular. But when I say that the average reader doesn't notice these things, I mean that they don't notice them consciously. Because we don't know, and we probably can't know, if they might be affected by those things unconsciously, or if, had the book been written according to the guidelines of conventional wisdom, they might have liked the book as well or even better. Regardless, the book sells in the tens of thousands and a successful career is born.

But here is something I have discovered about readers (even readers who are writers), and that is that we each have an internal list (conscious or unconscious) of certain things that we want in a book (and of course it's not the same for everyone), story elements, particular plots, characters, prose style, favorite tropes, whatever it may be, that just work for us, whether it's a matter of simple enjoyment, or something that moves us on a deeper or more personal level, it just works, and if a book delivers a sufficient number and a sufficient amount of those individual personal preferences (for the sake of brevity I will hereinafter refer to these preferences as "the goods"), some of the very fussiest readers are going to either overlook or excuse the very things that they would ordinarily criticize. Whereas, if they encounter those same faults in a book that doesn't deliver the goods, they'll be all over those perceived faults, such that they will probably be too distracted to take note of whatever strengths (if any) that book actually has.

And since it is impossible to deliver the goods to every reader who picks up our book (since nobody has exactly the same list as anyone else—and also preferences can change over time), we should strive to do what we do as well as we possibly can, because there are plenty of readers who can be won over by excellence, even when it doesn't come wrapped up in all their favorite flavors.
 

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Just be careful not to dissect a book you love too much. Once you look behind the curtain and find out how the trick is performed, most of the 'magic' is lost.
Absolutely. I "did" Wuthering Heights for 'O'-level English Literature, and I've never managed to enjoy it since. Can't even get past the first few pages, even.
And the same applies to William Wordsworth's Prelude, though to be fair, he really is turgid at times.

And to the left, three yards beyond,
You see a little muddy Pond
Of water, never dry;
I've measured it from side to side:
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.


Really, William?
 

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I can write rhymes like that, but I always refer to them as doggerel. I ought to re-invent myself as a poet inspired by Wordsworth.

Someone earlier in the thread mentioned not noticing people's eye colour in real life - for me it is one of the first things I notice as I look a person in the eye when meeting them. I've been teased when describing someone as in "so who was that new guy at the meeting this morning, black hair, blue eyes, grey tie" "ooh you stared deeply into their eyes did you?" "Wot?" And then I discovered that no-one I am asking paid any attention to the new person.
I'd also note that CS Forester makes much play on Hornblower's brown eyes, and at times describes them (when Hornblower is being emphatic/determined/pissed off) with a phrase to the effect of being the mouths of twin pistols pointed at you. (But his phrase was better.)

However if someone said to me "oh the lady in the xxxx shoes" I'd be saying "wot?" I am vaguely aware of expensive high heeled shoes and status symbols and red soles and the like but very vaguely. (I mainly think of high heeled shoes as nice little earners for podiatrists.)
 

ColGray

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Just be careful not to dissect a book you love too much. Once you look behind the curtain and find out how the trick is performed, most of the 'magic' is lost.
Oh, i dunno -- i think it just shifts the magic. It's like watching a Ricky Jay trick where he explains exactly what he's gonna do, then does it, and it still fools the audience... I love it and respect it even more.
 

ColGray

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But here is something I have discovered about readers (even readers who are writers), and that is that we each have an internal list (conscious or unconscious) of certain things that we want in a book (and of course it's not the same for everyone), story elements, particular plots, characters, prose style, favorite tropes, whatever it may be, that just work for us, whether it's a matter of simple enjoyment, or something that moves us on a deeper or more personal level, it just works, and if a book delivers a sufficient number and a sufficient amount of those individual personal preferences (for the sake of brevity I will hereinafter refer to these preferences as "the goods"), some of the very fussiest reader are going to either overlook or excuse the very things that they would ordinarily criticize. Whereas, if they encounter those same faults in a book that doesn't deliver the goods, they'll be all over those perceived faults, such that they will probably be too distracted to take note of whatever strengths (if any) that book actually has.
That is incredibly insightful and helpful.

So much of "literature" is about mandated obeisance to the greats and yet I know there are "great" written works that offer me little. The common response is usually that the bored reader "just doesn't get it" or "is too immature" for a given work--certainly that is what I heard when I yawned my way through Amis' London Fields--but in retrospect it's like, Or the book is full of unrepentant aholes doing unrepentant ahole things and eventually killing the only mildly decent character in the book-- and I find stories that celebrate unrepentant aholes being aholes to be lazy and banal. I can respect the writing, even if I find the story itself middling.

It sets up kind of personalized, bifurcated hierarchy/flow chart, which is interesting as a self-critique method. At the core is the foundational stuff (grammar, language, world, etc.), then moves into basic structure (plot, motivated characters, stakes) then into arc structure (payoffs, reveals, themes, growth/development) and finally elevation components (atmosphere, interiority, experiential universality). But concurrent and distinct to that is a second track that is about personal preference (tropes, story beats, specific twists, character arcs) which either raises or lowers the overall enjoyment or perception of the work.
 

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