Her blond hair

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
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I decided to forgo this month’s optional question, because I’ve already talked about my reading preferences in several previous posts. Instead, I want to concentrate on character descriptions.

Many writers describe their characters in exhaustive details. Some put a character in front of a mirror. Others make those descriptions from the omniscient author’s POV. The best, especially in romance novels, use another person and describe the heroine as seen through his eyes. But is any of it necessary?

Let’s talk about the mirror scene. How often do you stand in front of the mirror to brush your hair and think: my blond hair is curly and my blue eyes twinkle? I would guess the answer is never. Well, maybe once, before your prom dance.

Besides, what does it matter? How does your blond hair affect your life? It doesn’t, except for one possible scenario: when you’re an actress, going for an audition, and the role demands a blonde. But even then, you could use a wig, right?

Other writers, not just me, care about this aspect of fiction writing. In their joined blog, two bestselling authors, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, touched on this topic very convincingly a few months ago.

Bob: One thing I have a hard time with is character descriptions. It’s not like we’re writing a personal ad. I like to keep any physical description to one line at most. Beyond that, I prefer to let the reader come up with their own mental image from what the character says and does.
Unless there’s something specific and different about the character I don’t care what they look like. Which is interesting, because if you think about a movie, casting is everything.

Jenny: I don’t care about physical descriptions at all, and I’m skeptical that readers do, since they tend to design the characters in their minds as they read. I wrote a character with a mustache once, and I got letters that said, “In my version of this book, Jake does not have a mustache.” Won’t make that mistake again.

Jenny: Eye color has had exactly zero impact on my life. Why do I need to know what color my protagonist’s eyes are?

The need to describe a character only arises when the outer parameters of a character affect the story. In the latest T. Kingfisher’s fantasy novel, Paladin’s Strength, the heroine is a big and strong woman, and her size makes a difference to the story. Some of her actions would’ve been impossible if she were a dainty waif, so the description makes sense. And to answer the inevitable question,  the author described her through the second protagonist’s eyes. No mirrors.

Lately, I’ve stopped describing my characters, unless it is somehow related to the story. In my short story included in the upcoming IWSG anthology, Dark Matter: Artificial, I didn’t describe my protagonist because her eye color or hair length have “zero impact” on my story, just as Cruise said.

Do you describe your characters? What method do you use? Why is it important to you? Tell me in the comments.

This entry was posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Her blond hair

  1. I have never liked writing descriptions very much, which is one reason I like writing middle grade and YA. I love Bob Mayer’s advice to keep the description to one line. I try to weave in a character’s description rather than just describe them. I think it’s more interesting that way.

  2. I don’t put a lot into describing my characters, either. In my recent manuscript, one critique partner noted I needed more but the other three didn’t. So I don’t think most readers need much. I never do – I can use my imagination.

  3. I prefer not to have descriptions in any detail. It gives me a part to play as I read.

  4. I keep it vague, leaving it up to peoples’ imagination. Sometimes making them think things like “Oh, if only I had black curly hair instead of this straight common-coloured haystack”, as I think that not being happy about your looks are common ground, and make you identify with the hero/heroine. But a distinctive feature, a big beard for that man, a green dress for that woman, makes it easier for the reader to distinguish the persons in the story. Sometimes the looks also have a meaning.
    One of my pet peeves and put-off’ers are inconsistencies in peoples’ looks and even worse pictures on the front of the book having people dressed in green, where the book clearly states red or blue.

  5. L. Diane Wolfe says:

    Now that you mention it, you didn’t describe the main character. But I didn’t even notice and it didn’t affect the story.

  6. patgarcia says:

    Hi,
    Yes, I do character profiles on each of my characters and within that profile is the character description. The profile itself is circa 14 pages.
    Have a great month of March.

    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  7. cleemckenzie says:

    It’s more effective, IMHO, to make the character’s actions and manner of speech describe them. Although, when I’ve left out description, some editors and reviewers have criticized me. Can’t win 100%, I guess.

  8. Loni Townsend says:

    I do describe my characters, though I also spend a good deal of time depicting them in art too. Many of the outward features get described by other POVs, though I do add tidbits, such as the main character bending down to place a memorial rock and a red curl falls into his face. Then, with a sad laugh, he reflects on how he always did feel like the red-headed stepchild. I suppose I go into eye color more often than I should, but sometimes I just can’t help it. 🙂

  9. Thank you Olga. I think that characters come through best in actions, dialogue and body language.

  10. So, I am more often than not disappointed in film adaptations of novels I have read, and never read the novel after the film, only occasionally rereading if I enjoyed the film and it corresponded to what I had imagined. I think the joy of reading fiction comes from imagining or finding resonance with our own thoughts.

  11. Widdershins says:

    Minimal descriptions, unless, and until, the reveal is necessary to the story, … or I’m feeling particularly wicked and throw something into the story just for the hell of it! 😀

  12. emaginette says:

    I do describe them to a degree, but I’d prefer the reader put their own spin on them instead.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  13. Lee Lowery says:

    This is so interesting. I hadn’t really thought too much about it, but I don’t do a lot of character description. And you’re quite right, the hair color doesn’t matter, unless we’re describing a killer, and then, it could be a wig. I guess I prefer to use my own imagination when I’m reading a book, so I prefer to let my own readers use their imaginations, as well.

  14. Jenni says:

    Overly describing characters, especially the physical characteristics, is a pet peeve of mine. I’d rather know more about their inner characteristics–or only the physical if it shows the inner. Like a scatterbrained character might have messed up hair and their buttons off or something. But I think it’s really hard to do physical description of the main character well.
    Interesting post!

  15. I’ve noticed that in stories I critique–that characters talk about themselves or others in terms only a narrator would. It throws me right out of the story.

  16. Jemi Fraser says:

    I don’t do a lot of character description either. I tend to mention ethnic backgrounds or at least hint at that with names. As I write romance, there is often mutual attraction but that’s more about the personality than the appearance.

  17. Erika Beebe says:

    I do use descriptions at a bare minimum and usually in a comparison scenario with someone else he/she is thinking about. Since I wrote YA I always was comparing myself with others, wishing I had this or that. That’s how I decided to write it in the way i do. I also love to write in colors quickly, like red boots. They matter
    To my character. And as for description, I’m one of the weirder ones who loves to know bare bones details. I have to see a character in my mind first before I’m swallowed in action.

  18. Good question, Olga. I try to show what my characters look like through the narrative of the protagonist and how s/he reacts to the character. The protagonist, same thing, I generally show him through the reaction of those s/he come in contact with. I seldom use visual descriptions. I think it’s more fun for the reader to come up with their own ideas.

  19. cav12 says:

    That is a really good question. Some of the descriptions I’ve used are to signify a particular feature of a character, but tend to limit it to the interaction between characters.

  20. 3mpodcast says:

    I learned a harsh lesson at my first writer’s conference, when agent Andrea Brown read the first page of my first attempt at a novel and said something along the lines of, “Who gives a damn about his hair color? I don’t care about any of this.” I think I turned bright red, so even though it was anonymous, anyone who looked at me would have been able to tell. :p (Shannon @ The Warrior Muse)

  21. jlennidorner says:

    Why is character description important to me?
    There are a LOT of books that negatively portray Native American characters. Or as shifters in the paranormal books.
    I’d like to say that the “default” of their being no description is that the character could be any ethnicity. But that doesn’t come off as true. For whatever reason, the “default” is that characters are white until proven otherwise. Actually, cis white upper-middle-class male, until proven otherwise. Perhaps because the big publishers have mostly pumped those out for a long time. I haven’t researched it. I’m sure someone has. There’s probably a chart somewhere. https://discover.submittable.com/blog/dear-white-writers-please-stop-doing-these-things/ Here’s an article that mentions it.
    Granted, giving this reason doesn’t mean there will be Native American characters. Or that they’ll be well written, or actually from different tribes. (Teepees and totem poles don’t go together, and we’re not all named with a verb and animal.) But the number of novels with a Native American main character in a positive light is still abysmal. So I will vote PRO DESCRIPTION for everyone who still has never encountered an original character in a book that reminds them of themselves.

    I’m getting ready for the April Blogging from A to Z Challenge. And hoping to honor the wonderful women in my life on March 8 for International Women’s Day.

    J Lenni Dorner~ Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge, Debut Author Interviewer, Reference& Speculative Fiction Author

  22. Rich says:

    I don’t disagree, but I’m reminded of when the first HUNGER GAMES film came out and some fans of the book were crying because there were POCs in the story which went totally against how they imagined them. I made sure the POCs in my book were recognized as such.

  23. You know, as I was reading, I realized that I add character description out of obligation. I don’t care about it as a reader either. I also care very little for in depth setting descriptions.

  24. lissa says:

    I like to give descriptions but mostly, I wouldn’t give much away because like you said, it has no impact on the story but I suppose some readers like know what characters looks like.

    As a reader, I also sometimes likes to know what a character looks like but I also sometimes ignores the description especially when the description kind of annoys me. I guess it also might depends on the situation or what type of book it is.

    Have a lovely day.

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