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In my setting, a city was founded by people from all over the world, and developed in almost complete isolation (long version here). The story in itself starts several generations after the foundation. All inhabitants of the city have mixed origins, but not enough time has passed for an “average physical appearance” to emerge.

When writing my first test scenes, I found myself describing in too many details the appearance of my characters. For now, my solution is to make the diversity of the city population clear early in the story, and to give only a couple of physical traits to each main character.

But I have the same problems with my crowd descriptions. They end up either full of purple stuff, too dry or just plainly awkward.

For example, I’ve tried describing skin tone with colors only, but it’s not very evocative. I’ve also tried comparisons, using minerals (copper, terra cotta, etc.), plants (wood, flowers, etc.), weather stuff (clouds, sea, etc.) or even food (chocolate, honey, etc.)...
It was the worst.

I just don’t know how to show the variety of skin tone, hair color & curliness, eyes shapes, etc.


What guidelines should I use to convey the image of a diverse crowd and to show the physical appearance of my main characters while avoiding purple prose and awkward comparisons?


EDIT

Quick translation of some of the descriptions I'm not happy with:

The stranger at the kitchen table looked up from her newspaper. She had a thin face splattered with chocolate freckles and flanked by two big round ears.

In the door frame stood a little old man with a closed face and hair like a storm cloud.

When Adda stepped on the deck, she was greeted by a sailor leaning against the parapet, sipping a bowl of coffee almost as dark as his skin.

Her long oiled hair made her look like she was coming back from a swim in the nearest canal. This impression was accentuated by the sweet and sickly smell following her.

He was a man of dignified attitude and slow gestures. His daughters and him shared the same delicate features, the same golden skin, the same brown freckles and the same thick black hair, but not the same ears. The girls had their mother’s ears.

A sentence trying to show the population diversity :

A fever of merchants and buyers filled the market place. Here, one circular look offered the full palette of all the colours, faces and hair métissage * could create.
* (Not sure how to translate it, mixing maybe?)

  • 1
    Can you post an excerpt? Your purple is someone else's lavender is someone else's blue. It may be that your descriptions are fine and you're suffering from impeded arborvision. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 9 '16 at 13:57
  • @LaurenIpsum It's written in French. Should I try to translate a couple of paragraphs? (Also I'm at work, so it'll have to wait until the end of the day.) – Babika Babaka Jun 9 '16 at 14:03
  • @LaurenIpsum Added some of the descriptions I'm not happy with. I may replace all my characters with gray blobs. But don't worry if it comes to this I'll update the post. – Babika Babaka Jun 9 '16 at 21:49
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There are a number of solutions that I have for this, as I suffered from the same problem:

  • Only describe what you need to

Imagine trying to describe James Bond to someone. You could say that he is handsome, looks good in a suit, and has an athletic build. This could be enough to get a good image in the reader's head, and could describe any of the actors that played James Bond.

Describing someone down to the last detail is generally quite boring for a reader to endure, and they will likely picture something else in their head anyway. It's also very difficult to ingest all of that information and assign it to a single character, so the reader may overlook details of the character that become important later in the story. Rather, just say the important details, those that will help to describe the more unique aspects of a character, and the reader can fill in the rest of the details.

I tend to go for around 3-4 pieces of description that would distinguish a character from John/Jane Everyman. Heavyset, red-haired, tall, muscled, just enough for the reader to distinguish that character from any other that they may read about. If something insignificant like a character's eye-color becomes important later on in the story then mention it as an extra attribute after the description, as it will not be enough to get a good picture of someone on it's own.

  • Introduce characters gradually

It's easy to get details between characters mixed up, especially when they're described close together. Needing to describe what 5 people look like on a page can make a reader easily forget which person is the redhead, who is the person with the large nose and who only wears black clothes.

The best way to do this, particularly if the requirement is that many characters are to be introduced at once, is to stagger the introductions. Have someone approach the character first, have a small interaction to cement that character into the mind of the reader, then introduce another afterwards.

If introducing two people at once, it is best if they are completely different or very similar. This way it is easiest to describe how they are different from each other, again allowing the reader to remember them with minimal extra description needed.

The cliched introduction to a team of people, where one person goes round introducing the newcomer to each member whilst they are performing a specific task, is overused because it works. It immediately cements that Max is the blacksmith, Helen is the archer and Dave is the wizard. This then distinguishes each of them without having to go into too much detail until later in the story when they can be described separately.

  • Descriptions for wider groups

This may help with your issues of having different groups of people that don't fit a single description. Describing a specific trait that is prevalent across an entire group/ family means that it never really needs to be brought up again. After a single clarification, everyone knows that Lannisters have blonde hair, Weasleys have red hair, and elves have pointy ears. That description isn't usually needed again.

You can introduce a group and describe them as having a specific set of characteristics, or describe a single person and specify that a particular feature that they have is prevalent among the group to which they belong: "She had the dark curly hair that was the trademark of her race, however she was much taller than rest of her kin, as they were generally of a much shorter stature."

Whenever someone of that group is then identified, other descriptions of that individual can be used, and the reader will know to assume that they are similar to the rest of that group, rather than having to reiterate that each person of a specific race looks a particular way.

  • POV perspective

If you're writing from the perspective of a character, remember that they would only notice things that they would be likely to notice. So they would not think about or be amazed at things that they are used to, but the reader is not.

This means that, as in your story where every person looks quite different and unique, no one would generally comment on it, as for them it is not out of place. However, they may comment on something that is out of place for them, and explain why it's out of place.

For example, seeing a group of people who look similar and explaining "I've never seen so many people who look so alike before..." would get across to the reader that most people are supposed to look quite different. This means that the need for awkward exposition, such as "everyone looked incredibly different and individual, as expected," is completely bypassed.

  • Thanks for your answer, the first two paragraphs are very helpful. However, my problem with the group description is that there is no shared traits (and no clearly distinct ethnic groups) because it's a mixed population. I don't know how to describe it clearly and non-awkwardly. – Babika Babaka Jun 9 '16 at 14:50
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    @CerisestHilaire I missed that part of the question on my first read through. I've edited in an additional point that hopefully helps with your situation. – Mike.C.Ford Jun 9 '16 at 15:25
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In looking at your excerpts, and granting for translation, I think the problem is that you start well and then add too much. You don't have to give all the details at once. If this is a person we never see again, secondary details don't matter; if your protagonist is interacting with the character, then there's time later in the scene to add more detail.

The stranger at the kitchen table looked up from her newspaper. She had a thin face splattered with chocolate freckles and flanked by two big round ears.

Remove "and flanked by two big round ears." You can add it a paragraph or two later, or even a scene or two later: "Her hair was drawn back, highlighting her big round ears." However, if her ears are not important later — if it's not something which distinguishes her from someone else or sound doesn't play an important part in the plot — I wouldn't describe them.

In the door frame stood a little old man with a closed face and hair like a storm cloud.

This is perfect. Don't change it.

When Adda stepped on the deck, she was greeted by a sailor leaning against the parapet, sipping a bowl of coffee almost as dark as his skin.

I like the comparison, but the phrasing is purple, I agree. I'd remove the drinking action: "She was greeted by a sailor leaning against the parapet. He had coffee-colored skin and a brilliant smile."

Her long oiled hair made her look like she was coming back from a swim in the nearest canal. This impression was accentuated by the sweet and sickly smell following her.

Drop the second sentence here, and if the smell is important, add it later in the scene.

He was a man of dignified attitude and slow gestures. His daughters and him shared the same delicate features, the same golden skin, the same brown freckles and the same thick black hair, but not the same ears. The girls had their mother’s ears.

This is almost fine. I'd end it after "thick black hair." Unless the ears are important to the plot, you don't have to describe them.

A fever of merchants and buyers filled the market place. Here, one circular look offered the full palette of all the colours, faces and hair métissage * could create.

This is fine; I like this image.

Generally, dial back by about a third, and you should be okay.

  • Thank you, I will rewrite my test scenes using your advice. As for the round ears, it's kind of a running joke. Most members of one familly have them and this trait is commented on several times and used to recognise said characters. It's indirectly linked to the plot as the story focus a lot on the themes of familly, the need to belong, illegitimate children, etc. I tend to bring attention on them too much and too often. – Babika Babaka Jun 10 '16 at 14:53
  • @CerisestHilaire Ah, but if there is a link to the plot, then it makes perfect sense to call attention to it. If you establish early on that ears are a marker of family/house/breeding, then that's like talking about a family crest or a color of clothing as an identity marker. Context is important. :) – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 10 '16 at 15:10
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In addition to Mike C. Ford's excellent suggestions, there is a secret technique, misunderstood but effective, known to all professional writers but divulged to few outsiders…

Don't show, tell.

"The city was founded by people from all over the world. Generations had gone by, but not so many that its people all looked the same."

Job done!

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