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I've heard a lot of people saying they skip descriptions if they are written as one bulk list, but others say it's important that we let the reader know what the character looks like and include all the intended details we want to reveal about their looks as soon as possible.

So, when describing a character, should you write their description in one bulk of text all at once, or spread the points out with other stuff happening in between like in the following example?

Sweat dripped down her amber skin.

Text

text

text

She shook her head, gazing at him with her blue eyes.

text

text

text

She moved a lock of her dark hair from her face.

What is the best practice? And also, would the same rules apply to the POV character or not?

  • 3
    I think this is an example of a "good subjective" question. While people are invariably going to side with the approach that suits their own personal preferences, there are only two options, and the answers and votes should form a consensus as to which of them is better. +1, and I intend to post an answer myself when I have the time. – F1Krazy Nov 5 at 15:10
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    If the description can be excised without disrupting the storyline, you might be doing it wrong. He had blue eyes is a descriptor with no obvious inherent value. His eyes were the exact color as her father's reveals something about the observer and hence has value. If you need to give 'blue' for some reason, then His eyes were the exact shade of blue as her father's. Depositing a chunk of descriptors implies the observer (the POV character) is somewhat anal about appearances. Is that your goal? – DPT Nov 5 at 16:02
  • @DPT, sorry, I don't know what you mean by "anal," and Google isn't helping much. – Klara Raškaj Nov 6 at 10:02
  • It's an abbreviation for 'Anal-retentive' (which google knows about) but use of the word as a descriptor (as i did) may say more about my age and where I grew up than anything. @KlaraRaškaj . A character who spends a paragraph describing a person in narrative down to the last detail comes off as... fussy, a bit obsessive, and so on. – DPT Nov 6 at 21:02
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In general, do not give a laundry list of features. The reason for this is you are asking the reader to memorize a lot of stuff that is disconnected from the story.

In order to connect their features to the story, you should have a reason that feature makes a difference: If I picture a short man, I will invent reasons that shortness has some impact on him, in practice. There is an example in an American commercial where a rather short well known comedian in a grocery store has difficulty reaching the upper shelf to get something he wants, then pretends he actually wanted something else on a lower shelf.

If her skin is amber, why does that matter? Instead of telling us, you can invent some reason for somebody else to mention it. If she has blue eyes, maybe that is something her lover is attracted to. Maybe somebody comments on her unusual eye color, and she doesn't like it, because to her eye color doesn't mean anything.

If you dole out the descriptions in the story, and connect them to her emotional state and how people react to her, then the reader, visualizing the scene, remembers these features. It will also naturally force you to spread them out to some extent, because it is hard to make every feature you want to get out there to all matter in some particular scene.

It is true that any physical feature your character has that will have an impact on the story later should be introduced early, but not "as early as possible". Early means in the setup, so no later than the first 20% of the story. Especially if the feature has consequences later in the story.

Also, in describing features, it is always best if you can "show" the feature through the actions or words of other characters, not the narrator. The more indirectly the better.

If she's beautiful, don't tell us that. Show us she is beautiful by how others react to her. One degree of indirection is having a character say she is beautiful. Two degrees (and better) is nobody says it, but people act it: When she walks into a room, a man looks at her, rapt, so long that his date notices and punches him, then glares at our MC, who thinks, I don't want your guy, sweetheart, I'm just going to pee.

The same goes if she is not that attractive, or for any other feature. Don't tell us, make it important to some story moment, so it reveals something about her character. The above thought could be followed by, I should take him, though, I'd be doing you a favor in the long run.

Which would show something about her character. she's not dumb, she knows the ogler is going to cheat on his girlfriend sooner or later, and she's quite confident she could take the girl's boyfriend if she wanted to. And she has an altruistic side, she's thinking of the welfare of a stranger even though the girl is glaring at her.

So she knows she's attractive, and she knows how to use it, but I wouldn't have told you that, I am showing it by the nature of her natural thoughts.

  • How would you describe a POV character? The reader should know what they look like ASAP, right? How would you go about describing their appearance, if at all? – Klara Raškaj Nov 5 at 15:56
  • @KlaraRaškaj Gradually! No, the reader doesn't need to know what they look like, sometimes not in any detail at all. You describe them based on what is necessary in their opening scene: The most basic thing first, what gender would somebody think they are? What are they doing? If they are running, is it easy for them? Have they been running an hour? If so, they are probably pretty fit. Can you find a way to indicate their age? Maybe she's thinking she graduated from high school ten years ago, maybe she's not looking forward to the ninth grade, just give us a clue. (Continued) – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 5 at 17:10
  • Her physical appearance doesn't matter unless it has an impact on her story, the reader wants to imagine themselves as your MC, so the more detail you force on them, the less they are able to do that. And the more detail you provide for them to memorize, the less able they are to do that. Reveal your character descriptions gradually as the story progresses, part of your job as an author is to use your imagination so this description is not just told, but shown, through character interactions and actions. If a feature has no story impact, let the reader imagine what they will. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 5 at 17:15
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There is no correct answer. As some have intimated a character's description is only necessary if it's relevant to the story.

My personal technique involves giving a reader a vague enough description to remind them of somebody they already know -this goes some way to employing the empathy card. Essentially, the character becomes the reader's character as opposed to the writer's.

And because I'm progressive (applying critical thinking to problems rather than follow tradition) - publishing has changed! More of than not describing the physical characteristic of the main characters is a pointless exercise. There is a 95% chance they are depicted in glorious 32-bit technicolour on the front cover!

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