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  1. #1

    Character description.... Important?

    ...5 minutes (read my other thread, you'll get it)

    Anyways, I have intentionally not been descriptive with the appearances of my characters.

    I found whenever I read something, I'm sometimes disappointed on how the writer tells me how they look.

    My point of this was to leave it up to imagination and let the reader create the characters appearance in their own head.

    Now, don't get me wrong, I do have somewhat of a description of some characters. But the description almost justifies who they are and what they do and why they can do what they do and bla bla bla....

    Some of them more than others. Actually to tell you the truth, out of all the characters I do describe, my main POV is the least...

    But in general or on average, any description of a character is pretty vague...

    Is this bad? Should I dive into what people look like a little more?

    I'm not big on detailed description. If I'm reading a book, I usually skim through that part.... I have asked a similar question before... but maybe I need more opinions.
    Last edited by DaBlaRR; 08-11-2015 at 10:13 PM.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
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    Aug 2010
    Quote Originally Posted by DaBlaRR View Post
    Should I dive into what people look like?
    Less is more.

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2011
    It depends. What a character is wearing and their general appearance can reveal a lot about a character. Are they blue-collar/white-collar? How long is a man's hair? Is it unkempt, or parted precisely. Scars? Jewelry they wear that is inherited. Boots. Wide belt buckles. Dog tags. Tattoos. Character description can influence a reader's perception of your character . . . or it can be boring as hell and reveal nothing.
    Last edited by The Tinman; 08-13-2015 at 06:45 PM.

  4. #4
    Rogue Mutt
    Quote Originally Posted by The Tinman View Post
    It depends. What a character is wearing and their general appearance can reveal a lot about a character. Are they blue-collar/white-collar? How long is a man's hair? Is it unkempt, or parted precisely. Scars? Jewelry they wear that is inherited. Boots. Wide belt buckles. Dog tags. Tattoos. Character description can influence a reader's perception of your character . . . or it can be boring as hell and reveal nothing.

    Though even nondescript can be important, like the character is so normal that he/she just blends into the background.

  5. #5
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    May 2015
    Elkins Park PA
    Think of a film. In the time between two eyeblinks we learn how the character is dressed, how they stand, their age, and much more. And that tells us a great deal about their personality, their social/political beliefs and the story's setting. So description can have a great deal of relevance, because the other characters are going to react to what they perceive about the protagonist, and vice versa.

    But notice that what color the protagonist's hair is, and much of their physical appearance is usually of less importance. The problem we face, as writers, is that film, and life, are a parallel mediums, and the one we work in is serial. So to give a fraction of what the protagonist is seeing would take the traditional thousand words it takes to describe a picture. And that picture is static, where life—and our story—is not. So we may need that data, but can't stop the action to describe what the protagonist can see because it would slow the story to a crawl. And in any case, the vast majority of what's in their field of vision is being ignored because it's either familiar or irrelevant in that moment.

    What that means is that we have to use tricks that are unique to the profession to slip the necessary information in without stopping the story. So instead of talking about the protagonist's long hair we have him/her brush it away from their face while they're doing something meaningful to the story. For most detail we tell the reader what has the character's attention in the moment they call now, as they perceive it, because that will be driving their thinking/deciding/acting (and hopefully, the reader's as they share the adventure). Here's something Dwight Swain said that I think relates to your question:
    A stimulus is significant to the degree that it presents the external world as your character experiences it. Although we may not view it through his eyes, the picture we receive of it must reflect his state of affairs and state of mind. A woman who goes to church to flirt with the man in the next pew zeros in on one set of stimuli. Her neighbor, come to check on the styling of other parishioners’ clothes, reacts to a different group. A friend that seeks spiritual uplift and enrichment approaches with values that draw her attention to things that, to her, mirror such uplift and enrichment.

    Yet all three sit side by side within the sanctuary. It’s merely the stimuli they note which make the difference.

    It is, in brief, a matter of selection.

    Or consider a tiny mountain lake. Thickly wooded slopes sweep down to the water’s edge along half its shore line. Sheer cliffs rise gray and forbidding on the far side. Two camping trailers and a tent stand in a patch of clear ground down close to the narrow south beach, where a rutted dirt road terminates. There are children at play . . . women cooking . . . a man who bait-casts a hundred yards or so off to one side.

    The road, in turn, leads away from the lake, around a spur of brush, then off along the edge of a meadow thick with wildflowers—columbine, trillium, bellwort, violets.

    Now a pickup truck approaches, bouncing noisily along the road. Far away across the meadow, behind a hillock and almost in the shadow of another spur of brush, a pair of bear cubs frolic under their black-furred mother’s watchful eye. Close to the center of the lake, a rainbow trout jumps, and the bait-caster on shore pauses, rod poised like some sort of long, strange, quivering, insectile antenna.

    What will your focal character notice about this scene? To what specific fragment will he react? Is his lens fixed on the trout? The bears? (And if so, which one?) The blonde child peering from the tent? The approaching pickup? The sound of the pickup’s motor? The gray rock faces of the cliff? The columbine? The bellwort? The big, raw-boned woman in Levis who hunkers by the fire, poking sullenly at her frying bacon with a stick?

    It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of your focal character’s—and your—choice. For to a very considerable degree, your readers will draw their conclusions as to the meaning of the focal character’s reaction on the basis of context—that is, the stimulus or motivation that provokes it.
    So that's the situation, as a film sees it. But as your character sees it...
    By way of illustration, let’s go back to our scene at the mountain lake. Our focal character lies high on a rocky, wooded slope with a pair of binoculars. His purpose is to rescue an abused child whom he believes to be a prisoner in the camp below. The effect we seek to achieve at the moment is one that will excite such intense feelings of compassion and outrage in our focal character that he’ll be blinded to everything except the absolute and urgent necessity of going ahead with the rescue, regardless of personal peril.

    Note, now, how sharply this choice of effect limits us; how strongly it turns us away from most of the potential motivating stimuli laid out below. Meadow, bears, trout, truck, landscape—all must be abandoned, because they offer little chance for the specific kind of stimulus we need: a goad to compassion and to outrage.

    Is there anything that offers more potential? Of course: the child herself—the little blonde girl peering from the tent. She’ll be our motivating stimulus.

    How to highlight the point we want to make? —Well, suppose the child’s been beaten . . . punished for trying to run away, perhaps. Bring her up big in the binoculars, all anguished, tear-streaked face. And, since kids do cry for a variety of reasons and even our focal character knows it, maybe we should black one of her eyes—an ugly, swollen bruise, rich with blues and purples.

    Is the child sucking a thumb or a lollipop? Blowing her nose? Playing with a puppy? No. All such are extraneous, introduce possibly conflicting notes, and thus shatter the unity of the effect. So, we’ll avoid them.

    On the other hand, perhaps it would be worth while to give her a rag doll to clutch to her ragged breast. A broken rag doll with the stuffing coming out, to draw a nasty parallel with her own condition and thus strengthen unity of effect.

    Then, on to description, phrased in terms to reflect your focal character’s attitudes, his mood. And here we come to an important point, already stated but worth beating on a bit.

    For all we know, this child is a brat, a hateful little monster. She received her black eye when she climbed to the roof of one of the camping trailers in direct defiance of her mother’s orders, then lost her balance and fell. In fact, she’d probably have fractured her stupid skull if she hadn’t landed on another youngster, breaking his arm. That’s why the pickup truck is bouncing along the road; the father had to take the other child to town to get the fracture set. Meanwhile, Little Miss Noxious has succeeded in floundering into the lake. It was the third time, and the rags she now wears are the only clothes her distracted maternal parent can find for her. Also, flailing in the water, the dear child lost the handsome new ten-dollar doll her father bought her for her birthday. So the rag doll is one she stole from the little girl of a poverty-stricken family down the line.

    Now all the above and more may be true. However, for our purposes here, the important thing is that the focal character doesn’t see it that way . . . and always, we describe in terms of his state of affairs and state of mind. So though our little darling be Miss Lucrezia Borgia, Jr., our story will present her with strong overtones of Little Eva.

    So how does the focal character see her, maybe?

    Agnes’ face came into focus, then. The blonde hair was matted, the worn plaid dress in rags. She’d been crying too, apparently, for there were tear-streaks on her grime-smudged cheeks. Dark circles rimmed the great, frightened, little-girl eyes, and when she turned her head to the left a fraction, a bruise came into view, all ugly blues and purples, swelling shut the lids, as if she were a grown man slugged in a barroom brawl.

    Miller lay very still, his knuckles white on the glasses. . . .

    A motivating stimulus, and the start of the focal character’s reaction. One approach, out of an infinity of possible approaches. Each of us would do it differently—differently each minute, even—for each of us can only be himself as he is at this moment. Are all motivating stimuli this lengthily or this tightly drawn?

    Of course not; no more than all shots in a movie are close-ups. Thus, the scene on the lake might begin:

    Motivating stimulus: The lake lay like a drop of icy rain, caught in a cleft of a thin green leaf.

    Character reaction:

    Feeling: (NOT STATED)

    Action: Hunkering down in a clump of spruce high on the mountainside, Miller considered it carefully.

    Speech: (NOT STATED)

    Motivating stimulus: The camping trailers stood at the lake’s south end, Godden’s tent beside them. . . .

    . . . and so on.
    This particular section, when I first read it, was an eye-opening experience because it was when I finally realized what POV actually was.

    Hope this helps.

  6. #6
    Member K.S. Crooks's Avatar
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    Nov 2014
    Toronto, Canada
    For me it is also about remembering that what I see in my head cannot be seen by anyone else. This means I have to be descriptive about a scene or the characters involved. I like to error on the side of being over descriptive initially then lessen during editing otherwise I may leave out needed information. I also like to have characters that look very different from each other and to have the reader realize they look different and not one generic fall-back description that most people use. Most elves or fairies for example tend to look the same I like to vary the appearances and the same goes for people.
    K.S. Crooks - Dreamer and Author

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