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I have written a novel in which none of the characters are ever described. It started out by accident (3 chapters in when I realized).

Question: Is this a good/unique approach or shot myself in foot?

Note: Due to a number of characters being cryogenic subjects, it was not necessary to describe them. All characters do have names but no descriptions. Thank you.

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    Pardon the question, but why would 'cryogenic subjects' not need a description? – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jun 4 '19 at 15:47
  • When you say you have written a novel, do you mean it's already finished? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 4 '19 at 16:00
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    @Igor do your subjects communicate remotely without seeing each other, or your book is actually set within a tank? – Alexander Jun 4 '19 at 17:14
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    If you put an @ before the name of the person you want to address, it automatically pings us. ;) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 4 '19 at 17:41
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    I think it doesn’t always matter. If your characters can easily be defined without the need of physical descriptions (which is a sign of good writing) then only describe characters if the character/narrator telling the story would pay attention to it. For instance in The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (told in 1st person) the protagonist doesn’t describe anybody beyond their race unless it’s something he’s currently noticing, it tells something about the person, or he’s commenting on it. The protagonist himself if never described at all. – Nadeshka Jun 6 '19 at 1:34
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If their appearance doesn't matter to the story, then there's no need to bring it up. But if it does matter, the story can be confusing if you don't explain, and it can seem like cheating if you don't bring it up until the instant when it becomes relevant.

For example, if you never describe George physically, and then half way through the book you suddenly say that George was able to crawl through the ventilation duct when no one else could because he is a midget and very thin, (a) Assuming there was no clue about this before, the reader likely imagined him as average height and build. Now suddenly the reader finds that the way he has pictured every scene up to this point is wrong, and he has to re-imagine the whole story. (b) A reader is likely to think, Oh come on, suddenly the author needs to explain why only this character can get into the locked room, and so he just makes something up to make it work.

But if you picture a character in your mind as, say, having a broad nose and a dark sun tan, but this never comes up anywhere in the story and is never relevant, then sure, just don't mention it.

If you don't give a description, the reader will generally assume that the character is like themself, or that he is typical for the setting. Like if I read a story set in Japan and where all the characters have Japanese-sounding names, I'd assume they all look Japanese unless you tell me otherwise.

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    I think this is the best answer. To add to the second paragraph, if the author doesn't have a solid foundation on what their characters look like, there is a danger that characters can develop seemingly conflicting physical characteristics without the author noticing. For example, if they are easily able to scale several steps in one bound in an earlier chapter, but struggle to scale a 3ft high wall in another. This may confuse the reader who would earlier have come to the assumption that the character was very tall but who now can't clamber over a small obstacle? Huh? – DoctorPenguin Jun 5 '19 at 8:41
  • Absolutely this. classicshorts.com/stories/sniper.html has basically no description of the characters - only what's necessary. You could change the color of their hair, and even their skin, and it probably wouldn't make a bit of difference to the story. – Wayne Werner Jun 12 '19 at 21:16
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First, good for you, it is a good sign that you aren't feeling compelled to describe characters.

To me, physical descriptions stalls the story, it is a lot of "telling", not showing. I always avoid prose that describes the physical characteristics of a person and does nothing else.

IRL physical traits make a difference, and if they do, the reader must be informed of that somehow, but since they do we can invent scenes where the physical trait matters and let the consequences inform the reader.

Or we can be vague; say my heroine is not attractive -- I don't have to describe a laundry list of facial features of why she is plain or unattractive for the reader to get it. I could give her a friend or a sister that is attractive, and the experience of walking into party and her companion getting all the attention (for her looks) and her being ignored -- and in her memory has always been ignored, and has always faded into the woodwork, no matter who she is with. She wonders what it would be like to command that kind of attention, but more as a curiosity. She doesn't begrudge her companion the attention. She knows she was born with different gifts.

To the extent physicality is important to the plot, I'd rather it be revealed without much detail. If it is important that Josh is tall, invent a scene in which his height plays a factor; for example Josh can reach something another character wants but cannot without a stepladder. I don't want to read "Josh was extraordinarily tall, six foot eight."

I can even introduce Josh's trait before we ever 'see' Josh. Here's a sketch of scene as an example:

Lewis, a kid with a ball stuck in a tree. His sister Kate is trying to get it down.

Lewis: "Josh could reach it."

Kate, waving at ball with stick: "Yes sweetie, but Josh isn't here, is he?"

Lewis: "Let's call him."

Kate: "He's playing a game." She throws the stick, and dislodges the ball. Lewis chases the rolling ball. Kate watches him get it, then run next door. She speaks to herself as she walks back into the house.

"Thank you, Katie. Think nothing of it, sweetie. I already have, Katie!"

If it doesn't matter to the story somehow, don't tell us.

If the reader has to know because appearance influences the story or personality (positively or negatively), don't just info dump it.

Reveal it within scenes where it determines how people treat the character, or make it matter in emotions or thoughts of the character, revealing how it affects them. Traits that do NOT matter to the plot, action, or inner life of the character, they really do not need to be described; the reader will fill in their own interpretation without even realizing it; often with their own traits if they identify with the character. So leaving out the traits that don't matter can actually increase reader identification with a character in a way that being specific would not.

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    Agreed. Barring showing through action. I'd recommend describing personality over physically. Seems to be how a lot of good authors do it-- e.g. She fidgeted foot to foot like an angry hornet. He came across as entirely suave and collected. – DPT Jun 4 '19 at 19:01
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    For what it's worth, I do want to read that Josh was extraordinarily tall. Either that, or make him commit that extraordinary act of not needing a stepladder the moment he first appears in the story - which may not always be possible story-wise. Otherwise when he finally reaches that something couple dozen pages later, I might have already formed a mental picture of him as of a short guy, and all of a sudden it gives that feeling of WTF... – Headcrab Jun 5 '19 at 8:43
  • @Headcrab You're making my point, thanks. Josh's trait can be introduced even before Josh is. We can talk about him: Lewis, a kid with a ball stuck in a tree. His sister Kate is trying to get it down. Lewis: "Josh could reach it." Kate, waving at ball with stick: "Yes sweetie, but Josh isn't here, is he?" Lewis: "Let's call him." Kate: "He's playing a game." She throws the stick, and dislodges the ball. Lewis chases the rolling ball. Kate watches him run next door, then speaks to herself as she walks back into the house. "Thank you, Katie. Think nothing of it, sweetie. I already have, Katie!" – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 5 '19 at 10:11
  • @Amadeus Such style is certainly not without its benefits, especially if the writer is paid per word... – Headcrab Jun 5 '19 at 11:59
  • @Headcrab It is a fundamental mistake of beginning writers to think that people that read for entertainment dislike reading. And novels are not paid by the word; nor are most forms of entertainment writing. We do not get paid for writing facts, we get paid for creating relatable moments and relationships and emotions. In the above we don't just reveal Josh's height, but relationships between Kate and Lewis, and both know Josh, who doesn't live with them, but Kate knows him well enough to know he's away at a game, and Kate has a sense of humor, and its in a story not a laundry list of facts. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 5 '19 at 14:03
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Since your novel is already practically finished, you can ask your beta readers if no character descriptions works. Ultimately, that's the only way you can really know if something works or not.

As others have pointed out, having no physical description of your characters can theoretically work. As an example, I have very little recollection of what the men in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises look like (other than Pedro Romero). Maybe Hemingway described them, but if so, it didn't leave much of a mark on me. Or, another example: it is not until midway through Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness that we get a hint of the MC's skin colour, and I don't recall a mention of any of his other physical features.

It could be, however, that for some reason or another, it doesn't work in your story. It could be that for whatever reason your readers would feel they need a description. Or maybe it does work, and you're worrying without need. Let your beta readers tell you.

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    It should be noted Hemingway is a famous minimalist; to him, if it's unnecessary, it goes. It's very rare he gives descriptions beyond bare distinguishing details, and it's a style I thoroughly enjoy. – Matthew Dave Jun 5 '19 at 9:35
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It depends if their appearance has anything to offer/indicate about the character. If not, then I'm happy to go without, and I'm sure I'm not the only reader to think that. Generally speaking, my characters' appearances are described with the bare minimum to indicate something about the character.

Muscular to the point of masculine woman: Someone who prioritises physicality over societal norms.

Smudged clown makeup on a former clown-turned-mass-murderer: Madman who cannot let go of his past monstrous actions.

Bald-on-top old man who grows his sides long and covers his bald patch with a hood: A man who cannot accept his growing age and enfeeblement.

I think you get my point. Describe what is necessary; character is more important than looks.

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In this story you'll see I have two characters who are never named, never described, and only one of whom is assigned a gender. Since they have a clear working relationship and clear roles within the narrative they don't need further development to tell the tale.

I have read a number of stories with little to no physical description of individual characters and others that go into exhaustive detail; both are valid approaches because what really matters is that the author has a clear vision of the character and conveys it to their audience. If the physical nature of the character is important to the narrative then they should be described sufficiently for the physical aspect discussed to make sense. On the other hand character, as in personality and motivation, is always important, your audience needs to know what makes the narrative's actors tick and how far they're willing to go more than what they look like.

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  • Nice story. Not familiar with the universe it is set in. It makes your point. – Igor Jun 5 '19 at 12:26
  • @Igor Yeah the the universe is a work in progress, that's the first piece I've published from it. – Ash Jun 5 '19 at 17:03
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As someone with a personal history of skimping on the descriptions I can tell you this will definitely turn some readers off. As with everything, you can't and shouldn't cater to everyone, but you SHOULD be aware of the costs of the choices you are making. Some readers are strongly visual people and want to have a clear picture of the characters and settings. As with any sensory details in writing, the less you include, the more your words will float in a disembodied void.

This is actually a case where taking the advice of other writers may be a potentially misleading. Writers have overactive imaginations, we're perfectly happy generating our own rich fabric of details, given minimal clues to work with. But not every reader is like that.

The big turning point for me on descriptions was learning that they don't have to be clunky, dry catalogs of details that interrupt the narrative. You can make them poetic, or active, or subjective, or biased, or emotional, and they can still pack a visual punch. "Her hair was a desert tumbleweed." "His face was ghostlike in its paleness." "Her skin was as rich and as musical as the black keys on a piano." "You'd never mistake him for a child, despite his shortness of height."

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Just to go against the current... I think well described characters is often important. While the vast majority of people here are encouraging you (and rightly so) to follow your vision, pointing out the advantages of your strategy, I'd like to point out some disadvantages.

As some of the other answers mention, writing no physical description means the reader is free to imagine what that character is like. I think avoiding physical description is indeed important if the aim of the story is to focus the reader on the inside of the characters rather than the outside.

However, I do tend do think of those characters as ghosts with names, and I will have to puzzle out hints of their physical characteristics. If I can't, I'll probably also fail to imagine the character at all. They'll really end up as named tags in my mind and it's harder to feel a connection to body-less characters. It's easier to get away with it when it's the POV character, but if no one else can be referred as the red-head guy, or the shorty one... that's just weird for me.

You may call me lazy - feel free - but the fact is that most people experience the world above all through vision. If a character is introduced to the POV character, I expect them to register at least one detail of the physical appearance.

Besides that, keep in mind that sometimes it's difficult to remember the names of all the characters, especially if there are a lot. When that happens, one relies on strong physical descriptions (the blonde girl, the skinny guy), strong personality aspects (the stubborn one, the whiny one), strong connections to the MC (a boyfriend, a cousin) or actions (the one who killed the dragon, the one whose parents kicked out). Again, notice that physical aspect isn't essential for everyone, but may be useful for some.

Do note that when I talk about a good description of a character, I mean no info-dump and bringing out only key physical aspects in a natural way.

Due to a number of characters being cryogenic subjects, it was not necessary to describe them. All characters do have names but no descriptions.

If these characters are never seen, sure, I don't see why they'd require a description. But if they are seen, I'll probably feel frustrated that I'm given no hint of how they should look. Creatures? So they're not human or maybe they're humanoid... do they look male, female or androgynous? Cryogenic... they look frozen?

Again, I'm not talking about extensive descriptions massively dropped at awkward moments, but the author created a picture in his mind when he created these characters and, unless there is a message underlying the lack of description, I sometimes do feel cheated out of the author's world. In those cases, you'll excuse me, but I do feel like the author was either too lazy (let the readers imagine them as I don't feel like being bothered with it when there's sweet action to jump into) or too afraid (what if that minority feels left out? I'll just let everyone picture whatever ethny they feel like).

Nevertheless, I know precious little of your story. Perhaps you do have a message that is underlined by making the reader blind and forcing them to imagine everyone as they feel like. In that case, sure, go ahead.

But if there's visual contact with the 'cryogenic creatures', at least give a couple of hints of what they look like. I can imagine them in so many different ways, that I really have no idea what the author was aiming for.

My novel has worked more on character/personality, which was part of the reason I felt physical description was not needed. So perhaps I am not as crazy as I thought (perhaps).

Avoiding physical description at all is not crazy. For as long as it works.

What I'm trying to point out is that you can give a couple of physical descritions here and there with no need to bog things down. For example, despite my defense of physical descriptions, I rarely give full descriptions of my characters. Most often, I either mention height, or size, or hair, or skin tone, or clothes. Occasionally, I may mention two of those. Most people don't notice eye colour unless it's uncommon so I rarely mention it.

My advice is to check with a few beta readers and see if they'd have liked to have a few physical descriptions or if they prefered it stripped to the minimum.


Edit in response to the comment

There are many ways of describing. I'm sure that a lot of people think of description as something as:

Joan was a short young woman with long wavy hair caught in a low ponytail. She entered the abandoned house with a thrill. The carved door whined open and she saw a long dark corridor. The light from the street shone on the cobwebs that covered the ceiling, making it low and creepy. Slowly she started going through it.

Going for no description would turn this hurried example into:

Joan entered the abandoned house with a thrill. The door whined open and she slowly started going through the corridor, the cobwebs above her making it feel creepy. She kept walking on and on, until if felt she would never reach its end.

When I say description is important, I'm thinking in these lines:

Joan entered the abandoned house with a thrill. The carved door whined open and she saw a long dark corridor that made her hesitate for a second. Slowly she started going through it. Thankfully, she was short enought that the cobwebs wouldn't touch her, and she was glad she'd done her hair in a low ponytail rather than the one high up that showcased how long it was. The cobwebs still made the corridor creepy, though.

In the first case, the description is dropped as if trying to paint a picture for the reader. This might make sense if it's the POV of a character that is analysing what they're seeing, but that rarely is the case in writing.

In the second case, the description is minimalist.

The third case once more gives description, but it is tied to what is happening - her low height and the length of her hair are mentioned because it makes sense to do so and those references help the reader create an image of the character without getting the reader out of the story. Even the 'long dark' characteristics of the corridor make sense because they are the ones that make the character hesitate.

When I think of description, this is what I'm thinking of, not the very common and poorly done first example.

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  • I have included thoughts from people looking at the subjects. For example: With the multiple leads between the head and the container, it was almost as if the head was at the center of a spider’s web. Not for the first time he thought to himself, “Is the head the spider or the food?” – Igor Jun 5 '19 at 23:19
  • @Igor: I appreciate you took the time to comment my answer, thank you. I take it that, in your novel, you described the container and the multiple leads that connect the head to the container, and possibily that description is much fuller than the one the comment allowed. If you had the people that see the subjects mention what they are seeing, then you have basically described it. Remember that are amny ways of describing. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jun 6 '19 at 10:16
  • The majority of the characters in my book are the Drs., scientists, assistants, etc. that work at the facility. To them the potential horror of what they view has been dulled by years of working there; and as a consequence they are not descriptive in what they see. However, to contrast that I have visiting characters that are descriptive (in their thoughts) of what they see. Majority of the book is at the lab/facility. My point of being non-descriptive is that when used it makes the potential horror of the situation stand out more. (My opinion). Thank you for additional input. – Igor Jun 6 '19 at 15:25
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TL;DR No, you are not obliged to do it, if your story works fine without it.

As in all art forms the art lies in the reduction: an artist shouldn't use each and every color; a composer shouldn't tell every musician of an orchestra to go all-in all the time; A designer should sculpt the emptiness (aka whitespace); a sculptor should not sculpt every detail (like body hair).

And an author should not write about every detail! Have you ever read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott? I is a novel but it reads more like a stage direction. It start with a minute description of a wood and of some minor protagonists including their clothings. It's tedious.

But then I might be a little biased, because I enjoy SciFi novels and especially those where you are thrown into a story and should figure out the environment by yourself (as a reader) by interpreting the dialogues and thoughts of the persons.

Addendum

You might want to present your story to a close (but not too close) friend or relative. If they complain, you can change, if not, you might finish your story without.

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