8

I find it horribly irritating when I'm half way through a book and suddenly discover a character I imagined as skinny is now "folding his arms across his barrel chest" or a character I envisioned as one ethnicity is now described as another. It's really jarring.

Seems like it would be a bad idea to restructure your reader's depictions of a character long after the character has been introduced, but I see this fairly frequently. Usually it's just a bit of flavor on the character and isn't related to the plot, but even if the detail is plot-critical, it seems to me that it would be important enough to work it in as the character is being established rather than disrupt the reader's picture. I mean, why hide it?

What value is there in adding physical appearance details late in the story and potentially causing the reader to "reload" the character?

  • 2
    You just noticed a common error. The answer is "about none" See an example – SF. Mar 4 '17 at 23:43
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because you are discussing your reading experience and do not appear to have a writing problem. – user5645 Mar 5 '17 at 17:41
  • @what, I don't know where it is written that you have to actually be having a problem to ask a question about it. Writers are readers and it make perfect sense to me that you might come up with a question about writing technique that is worth answering and that might be useful to other writers, while reading just as well as while writing. Good writers learn to read with attention, and such questions can easily occur when reading with attention. (I have long held that critiquing is actually more valuable than being critiqued for just this reason: it forces you to read with attention.) – user16226 Mar 5 '17 at 18:26
  • 2
    @what, of course there is a writing problem here. I'm seeing published authors doing something that doesn't make sense to me and I'm wondering why they are doing it and if there is a reason to do it myself. – user2859458 Mar 6 '17 at 18:14
4

My sense is that it's usually a simple oversight, not a deliberate choice. Often writers have an image of the character in mind, and don't notice that they haven't yet put that image on the page.

9

This is the result of two misguided pieces of advice given to most aspiring writers today: "show, don't tell", and "jump right into the action". Taken together, these two piece of advice leave no room for the writer to set up their story. So writers ask, how am I supposed to tell the reader the backstory? How am I supposed to tell the reader what my characters look like? And the advice they are given is to work it into the narrative as things go along.

One of the results of this is what you are seeing. It is one of the first things that jumps out at me in many people's writing that I read in critique groups. I call it the reset. The writer give us a couple of hints about a person or a scene. If that is all we get, we build our own images around those details. That would be fine if the details we were given were enough to evoke an image and contain all the information that actually matters to the story.

But then a few pages later, the writer drops a few more details. The picture we have built up shatters and we have to reset and build the picture again.

Then a few pages later a few more details drop. At which point the reader gives up and runs screaming from the room.

The basic problem is that, though they may have some merit in some situations, and if not taken too far, these types of advice, combined with the lamentable obsession with writing in the first person, put the writer in a straightjacket. They take away half the writer's toolkit. Take half the tools away and it is no wonder that the work is often clunky.

Of course, we have all read painful info-dumps and wooden characterizations. But that is just immature craft. Not doing info-dumps or characterization at all is not the answer to not being very good at them. The answer is to get better at them. Note that the first several pages of the first Harry Potter book (or any Steinbeck novel) are pure info dump and characterization. But they are done well.

By the same token, of course, taking off the straightjacket won't automatically cure all of a writer's craft issues. It is still a very hard craft to master and there are few if any shortcuts. But at least with the straightjacket off, the writer can begin to work on their craft.

  • 1
    Well put. If I can't visualize my characters, how can you? And if I can visualize them, why not let you know? This assumes that the visualization is relevant. – user23046 Mar 4 '17 at 20:44
  • +1 I think you got it. Although I think the issue is not misguided advice, but rather misunderstood advice. The "show" in "Show, do not tell" actually implies you provide full description, that is what "showing" means, but it is easy to forget if you try to get right into action. Similarly, "Jumping to action" is IMHO more about skipping passive scenes and text outside actual scenes, not reducing scenes into catalogues of physical actions. – Ville Niemi Mar 6 '17 at 23:27
  • 1
    @VilleNiemi The way I look at it (and this is the writer in my talking), any advice that is so easily misunderstood is misguided, even if there is a reasonable interpretation of it. The first order of business for a writer is to make themselves understood. Show don't tell and in medias res are so commonly misunderstood that they constitute bad advice even if there is a reasonable meaning intended. – user16226 Mar 7 '17 at 12:32
  • 2
    @MarkBaker Seems like a solid argument to me. I guess that in general any advice that gets compressed to one sentence or paragraph that gets repeated as gospel without full context will be commonly misunderstood. So maybe you could even argue that the entire style of giving advice by compact rules is flawed? Fundamentally I think the issue is that people are not trained to understand the limitations of communication and so they fail to understand that snippets taken out of context must be interpreted with your mind wide open and with active effort to reproduce the context. – Ville Niemi Mar 7 '17 at 13:07
  • 2
    @VilleNiemi Yes, there is even a name for it. It is called the Curse of Knowledge -- the inability to understand what it is like to not understand something you know. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_of_knowledge If you know what you mean, you assume that the few words that sum it up for you communicate it fully and unambiguously to another person. A good writer is one who can overcome the curse of knowledge, but the fact that we see so much evidence of it in the advice that writers give to writers shows how rare good writers really are. – user16226 Mar 7 '17 at 13:19
1

Yes, I've noticed this, and there's rarely a good reason for it.

Occasionally writers do this deliberately to spring a surprise on the reader. Like, "ha ha, all along I had you thinking these were people but really they're mice!!" If done well this can be a clever plot twist. If done poorly the reader just feels like the whole book up to this point was a fraud.

I recall that in Isaac Asimov's "Second Foundation", there's a point -- and I'll avoid giving details to avoid spoilers -- where he suddenly reveals that two characters who the reader has almost surely assumed to be different people all along are really the same person. (This would be awfully tough to do in a movie: wouldn't we see the character's face and realize it's the same person? It would be suspicious if one or both was always seen only as the back of his head, or always wore a mask, or was always in shadows. But in a book it works.) It works because it suddenly brings things together, the reader's likely response is, "Oh, now I see why ..." and "now I get it". But I can easily imagine a writer doing this poorly and the reader saying, "What? That was a cheap trick to solve the problem!" or even "Huh? What do these two have to do with each other? How could they be the same person? Wasn't one of them in place X while the other was in place Y?" Etc.

Usually, though, I think it's just that the author got sloppy. He pictured in his mind that George was a very young, strong and muscular man, forgets to mention this to the reader, many readers picture George as a thin and frail old man, and then suddenly there's a scene where George saves the day by lifting the car off the accident victim, he mentions at that point how strong George is, and now the reader has to re-visualize every scene.

The lesson authors should learn is: If there's something about a character that is important to the story, and that would be obvious when anyone first sees him, be sure you mention it when he is first introduced.

Of course this can create a problem with getting a story or a scene started. You don't want to beat descriptions to death. The reader doesn't necessarily need to know that a character is wearing a ring on the third finger of his right hand, that his shoelaces are black, or that he has a small mole behind his right ear. But tell the reader the things that would be obvious about the character to anyone seeing him when the reader first sees him, and that matters to the story. You can often do this very briefly. Like, "Tom was well-dressed" may be plenty of information. You don't have to specify the exact color of his tie and the brand of his cuff links. But if a scene begins, "Tom was working on his farm", then unless you specify otherwise, I'm going to assume he's wearing blue jeans or overalls. Don't tell me five pages later that he's wearing a tuxedo.

0

As you are asking your question from the reader perspective, I will answer it from that perspective.

A good writer will define all relevant aspects of a character's outward appearance when that character is introduced. Since it is unlikely that you are reading mostly bad authors, we must therefore assume that if you "frequently" discover relevant details later in a book you have probably simply overlooked these details when they were first given.

Research shows that readers tend to focus more on action than on description; that readers memorize action better than description; and that readers tend to project their own ideas of what a certaint type of character should stereotypically look like into books and overlay the author's descriptions, if those descriptions do not have a function in the narrative or are repeated.

As authors, we can learn from this research that we should

  • repeat important aspects of a character's appearance regularly, and
  • avoid description of irrelevant aspects.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.