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I'm writing a Third-Person POV Fantasy, and I want to publish online, but I can't give a cover or a summary, or anything else to help introduce the story...

Plus, my title that doesn't explain much, if anything... its something like "Water", or "Stream" or "Mirror"...

I want to start the story off like: "[Main Character] does [Stuff]..." or "[Main Character's Group] does [Stuff]...", but I'm having trouble creating descriptions that don't break the pace of the story.

So...:


How far into a story can I go until not physically describing main characters becomes really weird?


Some answers from the comments from the meta post:

I've written three novels without describing the physical characteristics of my characters, so the answer is as long as you want. – Kit Z. Fox


I think there was something about it, but it is a good Q. from what I read, do a little asap…just enough for us to get a general impression, that it is not just a disembodied body. Later more may be peppered in sparingly, but not necessarily... keeping things vague is good for the imagination. – Reed

  • @KitZ.Fox - How about now? Hmm... Gonna re-order the 'paragraphs' again... – Malady Aug 6 '15 at 12:18
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    Read Asimov's short story "Youth" to see just how far one can go... archive.org/stream/youth31547gut/pg31547.txt – Jacob Krall Aug 6 '15 at 17:45
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    I'd agree with "all the way to the end", if ya want. Or you can describe incidentally and in small parts - "Gorrick picked up the plate with his 63rd mating pseudopod - a deliberate slight! Floobar's armpit sphincters widened in disgust..." You can also use a late reveal as a plot twist/gimmick. – Grimm The Opiner Aug 7 '15 at 8:25
  • @GrimmTheOpiner: "Plot twist" was exactly my thought upon reading the question title. (Relevant TV Tropes entry.) – Tim Pederick Aug 7 '15 at 11:35
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    The thing to watch out for is only describing them halfway through the story. I always find it very jarring to discover that a character is blond when I'd already given them black hair, because the author didn't specify. – Peter Aug 12 '15 at 19:09
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It's important to remember that the characters live in your head, but they only are present in the reader's consciousness to the extent you place them there through your words. As a writer, I also dislike writing physical descriptions, but as a reader, they are very helpful in helping visualize a character. When a physical description comes in a book after you've already formed a mental image of a character, it can be jarring if it doesn't match.

When you don't include a physical description, you're also dependent on your reader's own cultural context to fill in the blanks. Right now, in America, I'd guess (unscientifically) that the typical "generic" narrator would be a white male in his twenties or thirties, probably dark-haired. If your character doesn't match that description, or if you're expecting to be read outside that cultural context, you might want to make sure you call that out.

It's worth looking at a few recent controversies around this: When the character "Rue" was played by a black actress in the first Hunger Games movie, there was an outcry, despite the fact that the author of the original book had always envisioned the character as black. She is actually described that way in the book, but subtly enough that many readers missed it. Similarly, Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea was adapted for the screen twice, and both times the dark-skinned main character of the book was re-envisioned as white-skinned, much to the author's displeasure. Again, the descriptive cues are there in the book, but subtle enough that readers missed them.

  • Well, yeah... In actuality, I started with a "In a world..." opening to exhibit the big changes from our normal reality, but I felt that this question deserved some polite fictions to ease reading and comprehension... – Malady Aug 6 '15 at 13:38
  • To add to this a little as a reader, as soon as an author begins describing a character doing things, I begin picturing the character. Try to describe the character before having them perform any actions – Prinsig Aug 7 '15 at 8:56
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I think readers need some general idea about the physical characters. It's generally a good idea if we know gender, for example. But other than that, I'd say most of your description can (and should) come as needed. Show what your characters look like by having them do things. A strong man can be called on to lift something, an old person can hobble, or whatever.

In terms of more detailed descriptions? A lot of rookie writers want to have a paragraph letting the readers know details of the character, and it leads to those painful look-in-the-mirror-and-describe-yourself passages, especially in first person. I don't need to know the character's eye colour and hair style, I don't need to know what the character is wearing unless it ties into characterization or plot, etc.

So, as a writer, I try to describe physical features when they're important. If my MC sees another character and forms an instant impression based on appearance, I need to give enough description to explain that impression. If other people are judging by MC based on appearance, I need to make sure readers understand what that appearance is. Other than that? Leave it out.

That said, if a feature of appearance is going to become important later in the book, I'd say it's a good idea to introduce that feature as soon as possible, before the reader has formed their own picture of the character in their head. This can generally be done organically, as described above, but if, for example, your character has a big birthmark on her face but spends the first half of the book hanging out with people who know her and don't notice the mark anymore, and then is shunned during the second half when she starts hanging out with strangers? I'd mention the birth mark as soon as possible, just so it doesn't come out of nowhere later on.

So - descriptions only as needed, worked in organically whenever at all possible, and if somehow remarkable, they should be mentioned before the readers have a chance to form their own picture of the character.

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If you don't describe a character the moment they first appear, the reader will form an image.

If you're happy to let readers form whatever image they want, don't describe the character, ever. Many stories do this.

If you are going to describe a character, do it as soon as you can when they first walk onstage. Never wait until after the reader has formed an image of the character. Violating an image that the reader has formed will throw the reader right out of the story.

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I'm currently reading the Diving Universe books by K. K. Rusch. They are told in first person, and all we ever learn about the protagonist is that she is a woman (from the blurb and by inference). We are not told anything else. The other characters refer to her as their "boss" or not at all. We don't know her age, looks or anything. What we do learn, though, is how this character 'ticks' -- how she thinks and feels, about what, and what drives her. Despite the total lack of exterior information, this character is very much alive and relatable.

There are many other books that do not tell much -- or even nothing -- about their protagonists. I like that, because it facilitates their use as a projection surface for myself. If the protagonist is a cypher, this allows me to easily put myself in his or her place and become the protagonist of the story myself.

I feel that only a book aiming to portray a certain person (biography) or 'type' should describe its protagonist at any length. Otherwise I prefer them to be left relatively blank. Only describe the proragonist as far as their appearance or personality are relevant to the story.

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It seems to me that Kit Z. Fox's answer, which you quoted in the question itself, is a good answer.

That is, you can avoid ever describing your characters. Whether it seems weird depends on the expectations of your readers, the genre you're writing in, and your own style and narrative voices.

In your case, it seems like you are writing (conventional?) fantasy, and are simply having trouble wondering how you can start out with events without description of the players. I'd tend to suggest that you just need enough references to common genres so that the readers can fill in with conventional expectations, and only include the needed details. Names and terms for things can be used which will conjure familiar images and settings as long as nothing contradicts expectations.

If the first line is "Rutherford's machete hacked through the last of the fronds to reveal his companions surrounded by dancing pygmy headhunters..." I'm imagining Rutherford's a 19th-Century British explorer in Africa.

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First a disclaimer: There are always exceptions to every rule, especially when it comes to writing - some people can do completely opposite things to each other, and still produce good works.

That said, I would suggest as a good rule of thumb, that you never explicitly describe physical characteristics, unless they are related to something else in the story. It's like how you don't take the time to list the species of every tree your characters pass - because it doesn't matter.

For a rough example, think of the Belgariad series. I know that Polgara has dark hair with a white streak, because it's relevant to the story. I know that Garion has sandy hair, for the same reason. But I have no idea what color Belgarath's hair is, despite him being a main character of equal importance to the others. It might have been mentioned, it might not, but it's not related to story which means it doesn't matter.

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Joe Abercrombie does this a lot with his later books, allowing the reader to build up a picture of the character, then throughout he will add the description piece by piece. It works great and I always feel satisfied that I understand the character well enough to live without that predefined picture in my head so early on.

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