Character design in visually oriented works (comic books, film, television) is often a useful shorthand for making characters stand out and be memorable in terms of their appearance. For example, Darth Vader in Star Wars is often cited as one of the most memorable villains out there in terms of his character design. Vader is large, imposing, dressed in very dark colors with a red weapon, covered by an inexpressive facemask that makes him look inhuman, has a distinct auditory tic that the viewer quickly learns to associate with his appearance (his breathing), and speaks in a very deep yet artificial voice. It is these physical characteristics that immediately tell the reader Vader is a scary guy and not to be messed with, and his inexpressive fact and robotic voice and breathing add to his apparent coldness and inhumanity towards others. Everything about him just screams "villain".

However, my question is does character design and visual or auditory signifiers of characterization work as well as establishing characterization in non-visual media? I ask this because I am not sure, but my first instinct is that it wouldn't. A mental image the reader constructs of a character is not going to be as vivid as an image that they physically see, and it's very easy for the reader to miss adjectives or lines of dialogue that describe a character and construct an inaccurate image of the character based on what description they do remember. But this is mostly a singular individual experience and I do not know if it can be applied more broadly. And if this is the case does physical character design even matter at all if you are working in a non-visual medium?

Here's an example from my own writing. I have a female character in my story that is basically "the muscle" of the team. Because women are generally shorter than men, I decided to emphasize her imposingness in her physical design by making her wider instead of taller, not necessarily obese but merely stout, heavy-set, and curvy , as well as tying into other commonly used visual signifiers of greater physical strength in female characters. In visual media this usually works because the character takes up more physical space than other characters, making them look larger and more imposing. However when my beta readers saw this character they thought I was fat-shaming the character. It comes across to me like visual hints of character design on characterization just don't work in a medium in which the audience is not physically viewing the story.

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    You have a double problem here. In addition to working with written descriptions, you have a need to create a positive description of a "strong, stout woman". Considering common beauty standards, it's tough. For example, Marvel's Squirrel Girl was created as strong and stout - but the creeping need to "improve" her looks had transformed her appearance over decades. My guess is she's going be just another "Disney Princess" (beautiful, but only voluptuous) before too long.
    – Alexander
    Jan 23, 2021 at 0:11

2 Answers 2


Thank You Beta Reader:

Writing is about what you see in the mind. You can paint not just the appearance but the very essence of a person with your words. Darth Vader by himself, without the dialog and actions he says and does, would come off not just as a villain, but a cartoon villain, almost too comical to be taken seriously. But strangling an officer of his own forces for lack of faith? That puts him into a different realm. Evil, but with thought and style.

Certainly you can DO all this with visual media. You can paint a very vivid picture of characters with words, though, as well. But as a writer, you have a vision in your own head and then need to convey that image. With visual media, you can see what you've made with eyes. In a movie, you have teams of people who work to carry out that vision. If they get things messed up (What? Why is Darth Vader RED??!!!??) it never makes it to the movie screen. And in visual arts, people can still miss seeing the NO COLOREDS sign that is supposed to tell them someplace is full of racist people. I find that a mental picture is more powerful for people who are filling in the details by themselves. But you can't control that filling-in process unless others help you realize that the perception you are weaving has holes in it. As a writer, you are more on your own.

I tend to repeat the points I want to convey the most in multiple ways as I write. But still, some things don't come off quite right. You should thank your beta reader for telling you up-front what they think. If they think it (even mistakenly) others will too. Like the director looking at the red Vader, your beta reader shows you the blind spots you have in your own vision. I would wish for more and better, more critical beta readers.

So edit your story, emphasizing the corded muscle and lean mass of your tank, how each muscle is individually defined. Maybe someone will think you're mocking body builders, who knows? Oh, wait. Your beta readers know. Hopefully they'll tell you exactly that.


No. They are different.

And I disagree about the reader. Every reader is different and will construct the best image for them as the reader, if you give enough that is needed, even if it falls short of 'everything' you could say.

Writing must describe enough so the reader can fill in what is missing. That would include ALL of what was important, but ONLY those things are required, although a few other details are okay trying to be complete is bad.

Artwork pictures have to be totally complete as incomplete pictures would annoy readers.

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