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This is more for my own curiosity than anything else but I was wondering if when reading about a character with no specified gender and no description of their looks, does the choice of words used to describe their personality affect what your mental image of who you think they are?

I ask because I have been working on a story for a few days and I just realised that in the 3.5k~ words I have written I have never actually specified anything physical about the character or used any gender-specific terms despite having a good idea in my head of who they are.

So other than physical descriptions what factors influence a reader's "image" of a character?

  • Possible duplicate of writing.stackexchange.com/questions/44127/… – Bella Swan Apr 5 at 9:56
  • Welcome to Writing.SE! I'm afraid this does break a couple of our rules. We don't do critiques here, so I'm afraid you'll have to remove the link to your story; questions here should be standalone anyway, without requiring us to read any external links. I think you could reword this to ask for general advice rather than anything specific to your story. – F1Krazy Apr 5 at 11:23
  • I've edited the question to try and veer it away from "critique" territory. Hopefully I haven't strayed too far from what would be useful to you. If I have then I apologize and feel free to revert my edit. – motosubatsu Apr 5 at 11:51
  • Thank you for your edit! I only added the link as an example of what I was talking about but your rewording of the question makes it much better! – Sparrowonfire Apr 5 at 13:07
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This is more for my own curiosity than anything else but I was wondering if when reading about a character with no specified gender and no description of their looks, does the choice of words used to describe their personality affect what your mental image of who you think they are?

If personality traits that are particularly strongly associated with a specific gender in the reader's culture are stressed this can lead to a reader making assumptions, as can the genre of the story but in the absence of these factors most people are going to assume a POV character of non-specified gender (as in it hasn't been specified, not that they are explicitly non-binary!) is going to be the same gender as them. Especially where the POV is 1st person.

Beyond gender readers will start to form an image based on things we know about them - e.g. their profession - if someone described a character as being a "blacksmith" for example readers will likely start to attribute certain characteristics to the way the character looks, e.g. large, muscular etc.

Or if a character starts to fit into a common trope in other media/stories they will start to imagine them as looking similar to other examples they have "seen". But the details will vary wildly depending on that reader's own experiences.

If a character is a hard-ass drill instructor for example I'm going straight to R. Lee Ermey in my head - because I grew up with things like Full Metal Jacket and Space: Above and Beyond so in the absence of any other descriptive cues my brain pulls up "archetypal drill instructor" and that's mine - for someone who had different influences in their life it may be completely different.

  • Thank you for your answer. I was wondering if the personality of the character had any effect on a readers visualisation of the character but it makes a lot of sense that people will take more from what they do rather than who they are as a person. – Sparrowonfire Apr 5 at 13:09
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I seldom describe my characters to the readers; other than traits that are important to the plot, or are already obvious by the plot. Even then, I strive to have other characters make comments on their appearance or looks, and those in somewhat general terms. Or their appearance enters into the thoughts of the POV character.

Readers develop their own ideas, and I think this makes it easier for the readers to identify with the characters they like, and imagine what they will.

One thing I do is find a way to quickly indicate gender, but that might be done by name, or if the name isn't gender specific (or is not usually used with the gender) then with a pronoun. e.g. "Charlie was washing her hair".

Other physical traits can be important to the plot, and should be brought up long before they are necessary. If a person is particularly tall, and that comes in handy, we should know it before we imagine a person of average height. The same for athleticism, or widely perceived beauty, or anything else out of the ordinary.

But I try not to have the narrator do that description; I prefer to invent some situation so the characters do it.

Marcie said, "If Alex were here, I bet he could reach it."

"And if we had a ladder we could reach it, but we don't have Alex or a ladder, so -- any other ideas?"

We also have self reference:

"Oh my god, I love this dress! Do you love it?"

"On you, sure. You have a bust, I can't fill it."

Readers can get a sense of what a character looks like by how other people in the story treat the character, and how the character thinks and behaves. I prefer to leave it at that.

Of course, all that might be ruined by your cover art showing a depiction of one or more characters!

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I tend to be sparing of physical descriptions of characters in that readers will create an image of said character based on who they think they are.

I have a character who, initially, I introduced using only her surname. In the third paragraph, I used the feminine possessive pronoun and this guy I was reading it to said ‘Where’d the girl come from?’.

Now, I know that my secondary protag is of Irish descent, her family leaving Ireland during the Troubles and moving to the beautiful country of Columbia. I know that she saw dark things, was shaped by her experiences and set down the path she trod in part out of love for a dead sibling, in part to destroy those who hurt her family. The reader, from what I have in the book, can imagine a fierce Latina who chose a cool code name. I mention that she is beautiful, but never describe even the colour of her hair.

Description of a character’s physical appearance is only important when it is of important things. I have characters that I never describe - their name, thoughts and actions tell the reader who they are. The reader can choose what they look like.

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