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I've been rewriting a book, and I've realised how blocky and kind of boring my character descriptions were in my first version of the book, and I thought that maybe instead of writing a character that is described with their physical looks all in one paragraph, it's better to scatter information about how they look throughout the book and mainly focus more on certain physical attributes and more on personality and speech patterns. Will that work better than having blocky paragraphs describing a character when writing from the third person?

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  • I'm not a writer but in my opinion the less boring the better. May 9, 2023 at 8:37
  • So your descriptions are blocky. Can you write in a language other than English? I read an interview with Murakami, in which he said that he didn't like the style that he used initially for his first novel (too flowery). So he rewrote the first chapter in English, accepting the limitations of his English (he couldn't do flowery), translated into Japanese, and decided he liked the simple style that resulted, so he imitated it. May 10, 2023 at 23:09
  • Nope, I only know how to speak and write in English. But I did state that I am rewriting the book, although I've (in general) only written the first 10 chapters of the book, and I'm in the process of rewriting the first chapter. May 12, 2023 at 4:48

11 Answers 11

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It's usual to describe an important character when the POV character first encounters them - otherwise the reader is left with a "white box" when they try to imagine what that person looks like.

The rules of thumb are:

  • The more important the character, the more detail they warrant
  • Focus on the key, interesting features
  • Evoke rather describe (briefly paint a picture with words rather than dryly listing info)
  • Don't overdo it; very few readers want a page full of exacting information
  • You can drop in further details later in the story, when they become important (although it can be good to hint/foreshadow asap)

As a quick example:

Bad:

"He was six feet and four inches tall, and about two-hundred and twenty pounds. He had brown hair, which was tied back in a two foot tail that went down his back. He wore a denim shirt, with a biker's belt and denim trousers. He wore black boots. His face had three scars, which ran at different angles, and made him look dangerous."

Better: (sorry, rushing this a bit, but hopefully demonstrates the idea)

"The guy was scary big; like a cross between a hell's angel and a mexican wrestler. A long ponytail ran half-way down his back, and the scars on his face told their own story."

(alright, not great - but you can see the 'evocative' version is not only more concise, but much more interesting to read. Note how much of the heavy lifting certain words/phrases can do: e.g. "hell's angel" covers a lot of the clothing)

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    Personally, I find that when an author describes the shape of each one of a person's features, it's difficult to combine them into a mental image of their face. Much better to give a general idea of their appearance. May 7, 2023 at 15:20
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    Indeed. Don't describe the visual details, describe the impression they make.
    – Philipp
    May 9, 2023 at 9:06
  • So when you say impression, does pointing out certain and unique parts of the face/body, such as saying one character has "doe-eyes" as an example or the one where the answer tells us that he had scars on his face, makes it sound more interesting than just plainly stating out information without describing more of the character's personality? May 9, 2023 at 15:03
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    If it's a particularly interesting feature or important clue to their character, then yes you could use that. Just don't give us a full run down of every detail.
    – Phil S
    May 9, 2023 at 16:44
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Commonly, characters aren't described in too much detail at all. The convention is to give only the relevant aspects ("tall and handsome") and leave the rest to the reader's imagination.

"Relevant" here means relevant to the story! If the appearance of your characters isn't important for the development of the relationships or the plot, do not describe them at all! For example, we never learn what Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar looks like.

If the looks are important, much will depend on your style of narration. If the new character is seen by your viewpoint character and the viewpoint character is surprised by how the person or being looks, the viewpoint character will certainly spend some time appreciating that apperance and so should you. For example, there is a paragraph describing Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings when Merry and Pippin see him for the first time.

If on the other hand different aspects of a person's appearance come into focus for the viewpoint character one at a time, then the narration should model this incrementally growing awareness. But again, only if it matters to the story, for example because how one character feels about the appearance of the other has an impact on their behavior (e.g. falling in love) or the phyiscal appreance shows the reader something about a character's life and personality (e.g. the tired face and rough hands of a hardworking person).

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  • +1 for the "growing awareness" part.
    – ojdo
    May 8, 2023 at 10:23
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It really is not necessary to go into detail at all. I really prefer to use other people's reactions to the person, the way they are treated, their interactions.

Cindy said, "Why don't you just go up ask him out? I asked Mark out first, you know. For real."

Ann laughed, truly tickled. "God, Cindy, you ever look at yourself? What guy on Earth is going to turn you down? The frikkin Pope wouldn't turn you down."

"If I were a guy, I'd date you. You're hilarious!"

"Right. That's the main thing guys are looking for in a girl, a good joke."

So, what does Cindy look like?

If some unusual trait is important to the story, like Cindy's exceptional attractiveness or Ann's ordinariness (and humor), then it should have an effect on the characters and people in the story. Long before it actually makes a difference.

Otherwise, what I see in the description of characters is often author wish fulfillment; how they'd like to imagine themselves, or their objects of affection.

The problem with the approach of describing a character in exposition (as opposed to a scene like above) is that unless exposition is describing a setting, it is basically something you are asking the reader to memorize and recall later.

And readers are both bored with such descriptions (as you noted) and they are bad at remembering such a laundry list of facts.

Readers are very good at remembering scenes however, and the gist of conversations.

They will remember this exchange between Cindy and Ann, especially if other characters react to Cindy as gorgeous. Heads turn when she enters a room. Boys stumble into desks. And Ann is ordinary but funny. The reader will develop their own conception of exceptional beauty for Cindy, and their own conception of ordinary for Ann.

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Some basic traits should be presented very soon. Maybe not in the very first paragraph, but not far off. General appearance, things you notice when you just meet someone in the real world.

Hair color is the most obvious example. You don't need to give your character's hair color at all (if it is not relevant to the plot, you can give the readers the freedom to imagine whatever color they want), but if you do, you should do it very soon. It is very annoying when this happens: you start reading a book, no information about this trait, then you imagine the character as a black-haired man for three chapters, and later it turns out that he was blond. Really annoying.

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    I read Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" (published in 1959) about 60 years ago, when I was 15. Almost no connection to the awful 1997 film series, it is mainly a philosophy about personal and social responsibility, and military command. Johnny Rico, the protagonist, is reasonably outlined as if an all-American boy. After about 80 pages of identifying with the character (whose family lived in Buenos Aires), you discover Rico is a Person of Colour. Not annoying, but I found it significantly (and permanently) mind-changing. RAH knew how to mess with your head. May 9, 2023 at 14:52
  • I'm reminded of a friend who read Harry Potter to her children and used the German pronunciation of Hermione, which is completely different from the English pronunciation used in the films. Very disorienting. May 10, 2023 at 15:33
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Describe Decisions

If you describe a woman as "blonde with blue eyes" you haven't told the reader anything about her.

If you describe a woman as having "hair buzzed short, with restless, probing eyes" you've told the reader a great deal!

In the modern, western context, a woman with a buzz cut has rejected "traditional femininity." You probably already pictured her with black combat boots and baggy pants, completing a "punk" look. Combining the punk look with the "restless eyes" we get an image of a physically aggressive woman - and we know that this is a image she chooses to project.

This is a useful description.

Deviate from or Embrace the Norm

If your character has made "very normal" choices in their dress and mannerisms, this probably isn't worth describing in detail - unless you want to emphasize to the reader how important "fitting in" is to this character. Then you could describe how their outfit is exactly on-trend without be avant-garde.

As Many Decisions as Reasonable

If you're limiting your physical descriptions mostly to decisions the character has made - budging muscles from working out, perfect makeup that takes an hour each morning, tailored suits in fine wool, etc - then you are naturally only going to have one or two things to describe for each character in any scene. There's only so much we can choose to say with our appearance at any given time.

Follow on scenes can demonstrate the range of the character's choices when they show off new sides of themselves.

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Maybe a little reframing, but nevertheless I'll throw it in: as a reader with aphantasia I take little benefit from long character descriptions. Neither can I actually remember many detailed descriptions in many of the books I'm reading (mostly SciFi, sometimes general fiction).

What I do clearly remember is reading how the characters behave or talk, and inferring from that a (non-visual) mental representation. For example, in a SciFi story I'm currently reading, most characters are very mature adults, but there's a character who is a just-past-adolescence youngling. He talks and acts appropriately annoying. I have no clue how the author intends him to looks like (he didn't really tell), but the character works perfectly fine, impersonating the role of the cliche youth.

To put it in other ways: I take a lot from people interacting with each other or the environment; I couldn't care less about how they look or what they "are". I could go without any looks at all, but if that is too extreme for you, I'd vote for describing them through the eyes of other characters, and in one spot at an appropriate time in your book; not strewn around.

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It's generally not nice to correct the reader after they've already formed a mental image of the character's looks. So, unless you're making an intentional point, describe everything you're going to describe at all as soon as plausible, and keep your peace forever about the rest.

That opens two clarifying questions. First, what are you going to describe? The features that are in some way relevant. These fall into two kinds: One, features that are necessary for telling the story (such as a scar from an injury connected to the plot, or the fact that the character that just arrived on the scene is wearing a guard uniform). Two, features that you include for flavour (giving the reader a general impression of the character; if you want to show us the lad is cute, mention the freckles on his nose). Either category may also be empty, even both at the same time.

Second, what's as soon as plausible? You're probably writing from the protagonist's point of view, so make it the moment the protagonist would make note of those features. Most likely when the two first meet, but if something is not visible at the moment, or the protagonist is too preoccupied to look, save it for a little later.

The character's description shouldn't be too long; two or three features mentioned are usually more than enough (and keep in mind that sometimes the best number is zero) - though this depends on the style of your piece; if you're flowery in all descriptions, then it's fitting to do the same with characters too. In any case, leave out details that would only be boring, and mention everything about the character's looks that stands out as conspicuous.

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There are many ideas about description.

Some authors love to bring you this huge amount of description, particularly the main characters. It's like one of those paint-by-numbers things with every little detail filled in. Some authors make this work.

Other authors want to do a little cartoonish description. Three strokes kind of thing. A shock of tousled red hair over a lean lanky body with indifferent posture. And not much more description. Some authors make that work.

It depends to some extent on your desired audience. There are many different types of writing. There is a thing called "bodice ripper." It's a romantic adventure sort of thing that is not intended to be the absolute tip-top of literature. There are things like the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series, again, written for a particular purpose. There are also straight adventure novels. Things about army snipers getting the absolute monster bad guy. Or sci-fi novels where the hero saves the world from drooling hideous space aliens. Each of these needs a different type and level of description of the main characters.

Style in such issues changes over time. I am recalling a classic novel from China called Three Kingdoms. The main characters are often described in two to three page chunks with such details as how big their ears are, how long their nose is, and so on. This is done, partly, to make the large number of characters distinguishable and memorable.

I am also remembering a novel by a writer I usually find quite wonderful. In one of his last novels (he died in the 1980s) he had a character that was not described in detail. We did not find out until nearly the end that he was black. Even the illustrator who did the cover art did not notice he was black. Though there were some hints. It was kind of jarring. And every time I re-read the book, I find it jarring. Even knowing it's coming.

The only hard and fast rule is, don't be boring. And the problem with that is, two people who read your work will have different responses. So try to get an idea of the audience you have, and the purpose you are writing for. Then that should give you a basic idea of the amount of description.

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There is no right answer to that question. It would depend on so many factors such as the prominence of the character, are they the main character versus a minor supporting character. How the does person's physical description contribute to the story? Is it just added details, or it there something about them that can be predictive for the reader, a clue about something later . . . How quickly do you want your reader to fully see and know your character? Do they get a clear image of them from the start so they can quickly bond and join in the adventure, or are they more mysterious and both their physical and mental traits slowly revealed to draw the reader into the character. Good luck with your book.

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I suggest that you read Isaac Asimov's short story, Segregationist, where the description of one of the characters is postponed to the end. Also notice that the description of one other character on page 2.

The man in the chair looked over his shoulder and watched them go. His neck was scrawny and there were fine wrinkles about his eyes. He was freshly shaven and the fingers of his hands, as they gripped the arms of the chair tightly, showed manicured nails. He was a high-priority patient and he was being taken care of. ... But there was a look of settled peevishness on his face.

IMHO Asimov supplies the exact right amount of description here, and in his other stories.

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This is not a good idea.

The reader will not be able to understand what the character looks like. If you scatter descriptions all over the text, the reader will be confused and won't be sure which description to use. Also, there is a chance you forget what the character looks like and then change the look at two portions of the text(with the exception of the character deliberately changing his look).

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