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October 28, 2014

Ask Jami: How Do We Describe Characters?

High-heeled shoes with text: How Do We Describe Characters?

Today, I’m wrapping up questions about characters that have come in from some of my readers. Last week we covered the issues of how many characters our story should have and how to decide which character’s point of view to use in each scene.

Our question today is about how we should describe characters: how much, what methods, what details, etc. As we discussed last week, the answer to these questions often depends on our story’s genre and what we want to accomplish with our readers’ impressions.

When we’ve talked about descriptions here before, we focused on settings and how it’s important to describe our settings enough to anchor our readers. Our descriptions need to establish whether our characters are inside or outside, on a spaceship or a horse, or flying a military jet or a hot air balloon.

If we don’t anchor our characters within the setting, both with an overall description and with props (such as an umbrella for the rain or reins for the horse) that they interact with, our writing can fall victim to the “talking head syndrome.” Our characters can seem like they’re disembodied heads or voices just floating in empty space.

But do we have to describe our characters to the same extent? Will readers be similarly lost if we don’t provide details?

How Much Should We Describe Characters?

Killion asked:

“Would you … write about how to describe characters? I sometimes find it difficult to describe what my characters look like. Often times it’s because my scenes have action, and it is not relevant at any time to discuss what they are or are not wearing…”

Let’s start first by talking about how “character description” might refer to:

  • Physical appearance: height, hair color, eye color, scars, etc.
  • Clothing: Armani suit, leather pants, plaid jacket, etc.
  • Behavior: twitchy, quiet with a lowered gaze, shifty eyes, etc.
  • Attitude: “take no prisoners,” friendly, distracted, etc.
  • Impression: (i.e., How does a character make the point of view (POV) character feel?) scared, happy, attracted, etc.

When we look at that list, we can see that some types of description are more important for sharing insights into a character, and some are better at creating a visual image of a character.

Internal Character Insights:

Most stories would include behavior, attitude, and the impression of the POV character in their descriptions. All of those descriptive elements help our characters feel more three dimensional and add interest to our story.

Even so, we don’t need to add these details unless they’re relevant to the story. Readers don’t care if an “extra” is distracted unless it illuminates the story or the POV character in some way. If the distracted guy doesn’t affect the POV character or story, who cares?

External Character Appearance:

However, Killion is asking more about a character’s visual image, their physical appearance and clothing. And the answer to that question depends entirely on our genre and target audience. Some genres create a movie-like impression of the characters, and other stories take the attitude that a blank slate will allow readers to more easily step into a character’s shoes.

As Killion noted, for some stories, anything beyond basic descriptions can come across as irrelevant. So, just as I mentioned with character insights above, the key is to describe when it’s relevant to the:

  • story,
  • character, or
  • target audience.

If we want readers to get a chick-lit feel from our story, we do have to include clothing, car, and prop labels (i.e., relevant to the target audience). If we want readers to think our characters are prepared for the impending snowstorm, we do need to mention their hats, gloves, and jackets (i.e., relevant to the story). If we want readers to get a feel for a character’s quirky personality, we can mention their funky socks. Those details add to readers’ understanding of the story or characters.

On the other hand, if we don’t want readers distracted by irrelevant details of the character’s brand of underwear, we simply don’t mention it (i.e., irrelevant to the story or target audience). If the character wouldn’t pay attention to the color of their pants, we don’t have to mention a color (i.e., irrelevant to the character). Those details wouldn’t add anything, so it would be pointless (and slow down the story’s pace) to include them.

As with many elements of writing, we need to decide what impression we want readers to have. We get to choose, and there’s not an always-right answer. *smile*

How Can We Describe Our POV Character without the Mirror Cliché?

For descriptions of non-POV characters, we can—and should—use our POV character to share the details. Just as we make setting descriptions active by showing the details through our POV character’s view, we should do the same with character descriptions.

A heterosexual female POV character wouldn’t describe an attractive female the same way she’d describe an attractive male. One of the biggest faults of male authors who write female POV characters is when they describe other female characters with a “male gaze” instead of with their female character’s thoughts. (Trust me, guys, I don’t catalog other women’s chest size. *smile*) That’s a major groaner for many readers.

The difficulty comes when we have to describe our POV character. As I mentioned in my post about weak writing:

A lazy and cliché way to introduce a character is to have them look in a mirror. … Normal people don’t look at themselves in a mirror and think “Yep, that’s my x-colored eyes and my y-colored hair.””

So how do we let readers know what the POV character looks like?

The first thing we should recognize is that the physical appearance of our POV character is usually not that important. It’s certainly not important enough to rate space on our crucial first pages.

In other words, it’s okay if readers gather clues about their appearance over time. Readers might learn their hair color in one scene, eye color in another, etc. For most stories, the POV character’s appearance doesn’t affect the story, so readers don’t need to know the information right away.

That again brings us back to what’s relevant and what affects the story. And that’s how we sneak in references to their appearance—when the point isn’t only to bring up how they look.

When it’s relevant to the story, whatever method we choose to share the information is less prone to bad writing. Dialogue that would sound cheesy when out of the blue will make sense when it fits the story. Heck, even a scene with a mirror will work when it’s relevant to the story.

Potential methods to share clues to our character’s appearance include:

  • Dialogue: “Your hair looks great all the time. I don’t know how I’m going to wrangle my curls for the prom.”
  • Action: She pulled her fingers through the thick cloud-like mass on her head, demonstrating the difficulty in managing the chaos.
  • Reaction from other characters: The dress shop’s cashier stared at her a minute longer than was comfortable. It was the eyes. Her violet eyes never failed to attract notice. She was tempted to wear colored contacts just so she could blend in with the crowd.
  • Mirror: Her reflection on the mirror caught her eye, and she straightened, pulling in her stomach. She still looked short and dumpy. Ugh. Time to hit the gym before the big dance.
  • Other Senses: She stumbled in her heels, and the artfully arranged braid keeping her hair under control shifted dangerously on the crown of her head. (Read more about using other senses.)

As I mentioned, any of these methods could be cliché or cheesy if they seem to come out of nowhere or if their only point is to share descriptive information. However, in my no-context examples, I tried to show how if we include the how or why something is relevant, we can make any technique—even the mirror cliché—work for the story and the reader.

In those examples, why does her hair or eyes or height matter? Because she’s insecure about her appearance. The “how she feels about it” aspect makes the information relevant to the character, which in turn, makes it relevant to the story and the reader.

So in our story, we can look for places where appearance hints would be relevant to the character or story. But we also shouldn’t worry if it takes us several scenes or chapters to get the various descriptive elements on the page.

Do We Need to Describe Our Characters’ Clothing?

The answer to this question greatly depends on our genre and target readership. Many readers of the chick-lit genre (and some young adult and romance sub-genres) want to see the labels of the clothes, underwear, cars, etc. Whereas, in other genres, it would be silly—and more importantly, bad for pacing—to interrupt a fight scene to describe someone’s shirt or shoes.

But we also need to note that there’s a difference between referring to clothing items (i.e., mentioning it exists) and describing clothing items. “Referring” means that we mention clothing’s existence: He swung his fist so hard his shirt pulled out from his waistband.

Great. We know he has a shirt and something with a waistband. Do readers need to know more? Do we need to describe the shirt and not just refer to it? Maybe, maybe not.

Is the shirt’s color important to the story (he wore black to sneak into the house) or the character (he wore blue to match her dress)? Is the fabric or fit important to the story (the linen easily ripped in the fight) or the character (opening the buttons allowed him to catch a draft and cool off)? Does the genre or target audience want to know the brand?

Depending on our genre, we might refer to the POV character’s clothing once a story or once every couple of scenes. Or we might describe the POV’s character’s clothing in detail every time they change outfits.

For some genres, extreme details do advance the story or character development, and in other genres, they’d bring the pacing to a halt. So there’s no rule about the right amount. We have to read in our genre to know the expectations of the target audience and then pay attention to our story and characters.

How Much Do We Need to Repeat Descriptions in Sequels?

Killion also asked about sequels in book series:

“Do I have to rehash what each character looks like again?”

The answer here again is: It depends. *smile*

Some series want to pick up new readers with each book. Each one might have a standalone plot that’s wrapped up at the end of the story. For these sequels, yes, we’d want to include character descriptions in each book because we’re treating each one as separate, and we’d want to immerse new readers in this story with whatever descriptions are appropriate.

Other series are designed like serials with cliffhangers, and new readers would be lost anyway. For these sequels, a quick reminder description would usually be enough unless some aspect of their appearance is important to the story (like Harry Potter’s scar). In that case, we’d want to ensure that detail was fully included in each story, just to make sure readers remembered the significance from one book to the next.

So our decision would depend entirely on our goals for the series and on what we wanted to make sure readers understood. The more readers need to know, the more we need to describe.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, there’s not a single rule for how much to describe our characters because it all comes down to what impression we want readers to have. The best advice I have is to:

  • read in our genre so we know the expectations for how much, what method, what details, etc.
  • include only descriptions that are relevant and active for the POV character or story

Anything else is essentially an information dump, no better than static descriptions or pointless backstory. Even with character descriptions, we want to show rather than tell most of the time.

Personally, I rarely describe my character’s clothing beyond the basics. In my paranormal romance genre, clothing is often important only for how one character reacts to another (he loves her sexy dress) and whether their clothing impedes their actions, such as in fights or sex scenes. And as someone who doesn’t pay attention to clothing details in real life, I am so glad for that. *smile*

Do you struggle with how to describe your characters? What elements do you usually include? Do you have other tips to share? Have you noticed poor character descriptions in stories (irrelevant, cheesy, or…)? Do you have a pet peeve about writing or reading character descriptions?

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[…] Actually, this topic is interesting because I received three different questions within two weeks that were all related. All three readers had questions about characters, specifically about numbers, point of view, and descriptions. […]

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[…] (And once again, this post turned out really long, so I’m going to save the question about character descriptions for next […]

Kim

Great post!

I’m so glad you mentioned the target audience and the genre. That’s a good reminder. I’m not interested in a lot of detail when I read, but I know that historical fiction readers like the little details. I have to remind myself to put them in.

Like you pointed out, I only like the descriptions and details if they add to the feeling of the story. Telling me what people ate for dinner just to add detail bogs me down. Unless it’s important to the characters or the plot, I don’t care if they ate enchiladas or roast beef.

About series…when I read a series I do like to be reminded in every book what the characters look like. Since I tend to skim over details in my reading, it’s helpful to be reminded.

Anne R. Allen

This is a great post, Jami. I have a new-writer friend who really needs this one. People forget a novel isn’t a movie. You don’t have to put everything on the page. Readers will fill in the blanks with their own imaginations

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Well I always do the behavior, attitude, and impression, but I do a minimum of physical, visual stuff because I want the readers to imagine it all themselves, lol. In my genres, martial arts stories and romance, they often do describe in some detail the protagonists’ appearance and clothes, but meh, I don’t care, I still DON’T want to describe them, lol. I want my readers to judge for themselves what they look like lol. Oh personally whenever I see an author describe clothing, I automatically skip that passage, lol. So much for that author’s hard work in crafting that passage, hahaha. I’m just THAT uninterested in clothes. Usually the most I ever talk about for clothes is their color (blue? black? white? red?), or maybe “the aura of the clothes” like “flowery/ fancy/ elegant” that reveals character personality. But the vast majority of the time, I make literally zero mention of what kind of clothes they’re wearing, haha. About their looks, have you ever read stories where the authors say that so and so is beautiful, then they describe their physical features, and you’re like, “You call THAT beautiful???” Especially when they start describing square jaws and cleft chins. Cringes. I hate square jaws and cleft chins. Much prefer softer and more feminine features in both men and women, lol. So that is a reason why I wouldn’t want to describe physical appearance. (Though I SOMETIMES may say something very basic, like he was short, or she had gold…  — Read More »

Killion Slade

Thanks Jami for answering my questions! Your answers were completely in line with what I was thinking, but I wanted your experience to help understand how I could/ should make them more brief or dive right in.

I truly like the way you explained the relevancy is based on how the characters feels toward themselves and how other might view them as well. That helps quite a bit!

Thanks so much!! ~Killion <3

Carradee

But we also need to note that there’s a difference between referring to clothing items (i.e., mentioning it exists) and describing clothing items.

This. And it doesn’t just apply to clothing.

As an editor, I sometimes have authors assume my, “This needs to be mentioned earlier” note means that I want things have to get full sentences or paragraphs of description—something that they rarely are willing to do. I’ve had folks protest my sample edits and go hire someone else over that.

Whereas the confused folks who bother to ask me for an example of what I mean end up going “Oh!

Crystal Collier

And what it all boils down to is: it’s totally subjective. =) I suppose that’s what great critique partners are fore–to help you make sure you’ve got the right balance of description to story and that it’s delivered in the most effective way.

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

It’s definitely something I’ve been wondering about and with four species of alien featuring in my story, as far as describing physical appearance goes, I don’t think I can avoid it!

I did read a lesson in how NOT to do it last night. I shan’t name the book (obviously) but my God it was painful. The aliens were having a long conversation about their drawn out war (massive backstory info dump) and from the manner in which they were talking they sounded, well, Human, even using Human sayings (would an alien really use the phrase “being on the sauce”?). It was a bit of a shock when the writer did get round to providing a description which revealed them to be the short, grey type with the big black eyes. After reading that I would have to say that using the right dialogue is essential in giving an impression of a character when a physical description hasn’t yet been given. What I read last night jarred badly.

I have to say reading blogs like yours, as well as craft books, has revolutionised my reading experience. I now find myself mentally putting big red lines across passages which are unnecessary and re-organising sentences. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing, it takes a lot of fun out of reading!

Sophie
Sophie

Oh, this is going to be helpful! Excellent points made, Jami!

Character description is so difficult at times, because I’m never sure if I’m overdoing it or underdoing it–and since my brain has a tendency to miss stuff out, that makes it even harder to tell.

I think I have a better idea of what to do now, though!

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[…] how to identify and fix cliché phrases and ideas, such as avoiding a “mirror” description […]

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