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I have a tendency to forget to describe character's appearance. But I always describe them, though often a little while after their introduction. So, how long after someone's introduction is "acceptable" to describe them? In my case, (the case that prompted me to ask this question), the character is described in the same chapter, 866 words later. A little less words if you count from when his name is revealed.

Is this too long? And this is quite mild. Some of my character get no physical descriptions, until potentially many chapters later, when their appearance becomes relevant to the plot or narrative.

But I have been told how important giving characters a face is. Without it, they're just grey silhouettes in the readers' minds. And though I believe other things like personality, plot importance and symbolism should carry characters, instead of appearance, perhaps the physical description is vital for the existence of the character.

33

Personally the dissonance whenever I have imagined a character for hours and maybe thought about their stories throughout some days because I can't read a book straight in one go is the biggest problem. It's very irritating because some part of me wants to scratch all that I have thought about through the time and rebuild it to have the same image as the author, or at least something roughly close, and another part just wants to continue with the image I had in my mind because I am used to it and probably have come to like it with regards to the story.

This is not just happening with their general appearance, but also with other characteristics. As someone who is right-handed it can be irritating to follow a character's story for hours and in a critical moment their "strong hand" is bound or something like that and instead they use their right hand - I thought right was the strong hand. It's a bias, I know, but I will imagine every character to be right-handed by default unless explicitly told that they are left-handed. And if it becomes important which hand is doing what it will be irritating.

If it gets important you should mention it at an early point in time when a "viewer" would have realised it. There is no point in talking about the hands if you are only concentrating on the feet in a scene. But you can just use a calm scene to showcase this by making a generic allusion to the character using their left hand for something like holding their coffee cup.

It's the same with their clothing, general appearance, mannerisms, ... You don't have to scream in the face of your reader that the girl's hair is 76 centimetres long at the longest point and has a mahagoni colour when seen through the light of two of the three suns of your fictional planet around noon, but only if it's still a bit wet from the shower because otherwise it would be brighter - just say that she has long, brown hair. And once someone in your book wants to talk more specific about the colour, like when they are comparing the hair colour of two characters, you can get more specific. But if you never mention that she has really long hair and that will be relevant, for example in a fight scene, your readers might be confused if they imagined someone with short hair.

Giving some rough details when everything is new and filling out the details throughout the book is always a good way to keep your readers attention and not get derailed, but still making sure that they understand what is going on.

People think in the form of pictures. They will picture the scene you describe. Everything you don't describe will get filled in by them so that they can still have a picture. The longer you wait to "fix" things in the picture the more pictures will have accrued that need to be "fixed". The appearance of humans is incredibly important for us humans to determine whether we like or dislike someone, which is probably why your beta readers or other feedback-giving people told you that you need to give your characters a "face". If you don't give them a face and clothes and a general appearance your readers will do it for you to the best of their abilities. But the characters that are acting are always in the middle of the picture. If you haven't described them it will feel like you have "forgotten" something that now needs to be filled explicitly.

As long as nothing important happens in a chapter it would be okay to leave the generic description for the end of the chapter. Most of the time a very rough description will happen when a character first appears, but there are all sorts of reasons why you might delay the description. Wearing a helmet, darkness, other things that are more important, such as death traps, ... Anything that makes your character later say something like "Now that I could have a good look at him/her/ ... I realize that [whatever you want to say to describe them]."

Waiting multiple chapters is too long most of the time. At least for the generic rough description. It's not a problem to wait with the detailed description for a few chapters though.

All of this obviously depends a lot on the story. If the appearance is important the moment the character appears it needs to be told. If it's not possible and relevant to describe you should not waste too much time while other things are obviously more important right now.

  • 2
    Jesus, people are quick to accept answers today! This is the second time an answer was accepted while I was writing one myself. :D (Good answer though - I'll +1 as soon as I am allowed to vote again.) – PoorYorick Jun 23 at 19:58
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    Note that not everyone thinks in pictures. Some are unable to visualise in this manner. – wizzwizz4 Jun 24 at 15:48
  • @wizzwizz4 true, see my comment under Yorick's answer – A. Kvåle Jun 24 at 18:04
  • @PoorYorick one of the reasons it's generally expected that people should leave it a day or so before accepting an answer - it allows people around the world to answer. – UKMonkey Jun 25 at 13:43
20

Yes, it is bad. Your description should come pretty early on. Consider the mental image readers have of a scene - in the moment that a character appears visibly, they will imagine the character in some way. (Obviously, if the character is introduced as a shadowy figure at first, you only have to describe them once they come into the light and the protagonists can clearly see them.)

If you don't have a narrative reason to postpone the description, then describe the character directly. Or not at all - not every character needs a detailed description. Ideally, the things you mention should be important, maybe even relevant to the plot. Character descriptions are often way too detailed.

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    Good answer, deservant of an accept too. I like the fact that you mentioned that character descriptions are often way too detailed. This might just be for me, but I personally don't care what characters look like, and I'll probably just imagine them as a bundle of their personality traits that I've picked up. Though, then again, I have a hard time imagining characters anyway, I probably have aphantasia. – A. Kvåle Jun 23 at 20:07
  • That might be why you have such a hard time describing characters initially @A.Kvåle – Wayne Werner Jun 25 at 16:51
  • Yes, I believe so. I lack the nuance and care when describing people AND places because I can't see them vividly in my head. – A. Kvåle Jun 25 at 21:09
8

I'd say the issue is that if you are in a character's viewpoint and they meet a new person, they will likely have some response to that new person straight away. That should be mentioned in the moment.

He smelled like old garlic and fish, and I took a step back.

or...

She wore a bowtie and suspenders. I wanted that sort of moxie, the self confidence to cross dress in some little way, say 'up yours' to anyone I happened to pass on the street.

or...

This kid--my god this kid looked completely hopped up on... something. His eyes were glazed over and he smelled like he might have soiled himself. i looked up at his mom, but she seemed just like any other soccer mom.

^Those are the sorts of things that a character would notice, and they not think them later, at the end of the scene, but instead right away. I think some reaction (which provides description) should happen right away, and it should be the response from your viewpoint character that tells us more about her/him.

6

I think it is a job for rewrite. I do not even THINK about my character's physical traits very much until such a trait becomes necessary to the plot -- Say for example I have actor characters, and I want my male character to be rejected as the romantic interest. One way of doing that is by making him too short for the female lead, the producers want somebody at least 3 inches taller than the actress they have already chosen. I decide my character is 5' 9", the actress they cast is 5' 8", and that is why he loses out. (Though I will probably never mention the specific heights in the story; more like "we're looking for somebody at least 5' 11").

But instead of describing this THERE, in the second Act, if I think 5' 9" would be a workable trait, I go back and put it where it belongs: In the first half of Act I, the setup of the world and the characters where the reader is expecting all sorts of new information to appear. I will likely have to invent some excuse to have his height matter, so I do that, and double-check the rest of the story to ensure this new height doesn't make any other scenes feel unrealistic.

The first half of the first act is where you have pretty much complete freedom to do anything and be forgiven by the reader. That is where we introduce magic, fantasy worlds, space travel, aliens, psychic powers, miracles, Gods, immortality, anything that demands a suspension of disbelief for the reader/viewer, in order to accept and enjoy the story. The same goes for physical traits, skills, or innate abilities that will matter to the plot line, like the male actor's height in my example.

Once that window closes (usually with the inciting incident) the reader's openness to new critical information fades quickly. New information increasingly comes to be seen as a deus ex machina that breaks the suspension of disbelief and jerks the reader out of their immersion.

I am sure some great writers might get away with it; but rather than relying upon my genius writing ability, it is easier for me to just follow the standard rules: Go back and rewrite, get it into Act I, and preferably before the Inciting Incident; it only takes a little creativity and a line or two of text.

Richard had to jump a few inches to grab the new box of coffee filters from the top shelf of the cabinet.

Ah, Richard is not very tall.

6

As Secespitus says -- and I upvoted his answer -- if you delay describing a character, then the reader forms a mental image, and then later you break it and it's very disconcerting. The reader now has to go back in his mind and re-imagine the whole story up to this point.

If something about the character never becomes relevant to the story, you can just not mention it. In general, the reader will either imagine the character as being like himself, or as being what he thinks of as typical for the setting. Like if the story is set in China, I'll likely assume that all the characters look Chinese unless you tell me otherwise.

Or if the point is trivial the reader may never even think about it. If you don't tell me what moles the character has on his body, I probably will not think about it for a moment.

I think the most crucial point is, If something about the character turns out to be important, mention it BEFORE it becomes important. Especially if it's something that others would likely have noticed. Like if in chapter 24 there's a crucial scene where the heroine is mistaken for a man because she is bald and stocky, and you've never mentioned these things about her before, I was probably viewing her in my mind as having long hair and at least generally "girl-shaped". Not only does this overturn how I've imagined the whole story up to this point, but it also has the danger of looking like a cheap trick. At this point in the story you suddenly needed there to be some confusion about her identify, and so without warning you introduce information that all the characters would have known, but that you never shared with the reader. Like you didn't know how to advance the story at this point so you just suddenly made up something jarring.

4

The answers so far concentrate on late introduction being a bad thing. However it can be used very effectively.

Ursula K. Le Guin didn't mention a specific detail of the main character in Earth Sea for quite some time. By then the reader may have formed his own picture and she shattered it when finally revealing it. I think it was very well done (and I was interested to see how Gorō Miyazaki would deal with this in the Anime adaption but unfortunately he didn't. At all. The SciFi miniseries did equally bad.)

Not going into specific detail because it would be a spoiler. But it can be googled easily.

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