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Playing with the physical description of characters:

 1 Aenima, Sun, 20th Mar '11 6:58:35 PM from Latinlandia
Random Abomination
hey guys, i don't post that often but i have this weird "innovative" idea which im not completely sure about, so i want to see what a third party would think. this will be kinda long, but i will try not to say anything unnecesary

so, in a story it is pretty much standard to have some manner of physical description. you may be descriptive to the point of telling how is the character's nose or you may just point if the character is pretty or not and his/her haircolor; but the idea is to let the reader have a mind-image of the character. it is something somewhat ignored, and indeed some people falt-out let the character be in their minds how they prefer it to be, but i think even this can be done bad (awkward, etc) or good.

the thing is, i've come to think describing a character sometimes causes the reader to expect certain things from the character, which isn't something bad, it is normal to expect the chracter described as beatiful to attract attention or the one that is extremely tall to be physically powerful. after this the personality of the character is presented, and i think it is a sign of good writing to play with the physical and emotional characteristics of his/her characters.

but i wonder, what if we do it the other way? introduce the story 100% without any physical description whtasoever, to the point that the reader may not be completely sure whether a lot of the characters are male or female, and while doing it showcasing the personality of all characters above all else. and then, after the reader knows them, the author describes them with a photograph level of details. i think this may cause the reader to find out a lot of the characters do not fit their appearances at all, and also it will make their personalities much more prominent in the readers' minds. of course, this by itself is pretty awkward (i was thinking in dedicating a chapter exclusively to physical descriptions, no idea how could i justify that one out) but i think it can be done right with a few plot maneuvers.

so (if you are still with me) what do you think? do you think this could work for the better or ruin it? im pretty sure this has had to be done, somewhere, have you seen it done?
Just awkwardly standing there, not explaining much necessary context.
It's an interesting idea, and I'm all for making characters who don't match their appearances.

But the character appearance chapter... it sounds very susceptible to turning into a ginormous infodump chapter. Which you don't want, because most people tend to find infodumps really boring.
Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
 3 Aenima, Sun, 20th Mar '11 7:24:53 PM from Latinlandia
Random Abomination
yeah thats the thing. i think it's all about making it seem natural, but we dont usually start conversations with "hey john, how are you, you blue-eyed dark-blond unusually tall with a piercing nose individual"

Just awkwardly standing there, not explaining much necessary context.
This has more to do with style than anything. Would that make sense with your setting?

Like, one of my own stories had a blind man as its protagonist, but instead of noting stuff like hair and eye color, he noted accents, people's voices, how they smelled to him, etc. I did that because that's how he would've described someone.

And to answer your question, it would ruin the story... if it was used in the wrong place. What is your setting, anyways?
Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
My teacher's a panda
I, as a reader, skim through the physical descriptions in stories anyway, so if you leave them out completely, I wouldn't even know the difference. For me, it's all about the characterizations and the personality, and outward appearances very rarely play a major role in my stories or for my characters. I never even consider things like hair and eye color, height or weight, clothes, accessories, etc, unless I decide to draw them. And even then, I realize it's only an aesthetic thing and would hardly affect the story at all. The only things I would ever find worthy of describing are very basic things important to character like gender, age, health, physical abnormalities, and maybe even their posture, as that tends to be an effective way to reveal a character or mood of the character. But most of the time, I let the actions speak for the characters, since that's the only part that's important to me.

 6 annebeeche, Mon, 21st Mar '11 3:40:49 AM from by the long tidal river
watching down on us
I prefer to use physical description to emphasize my characters' nature.

  • For example, Unferth's eyebrows always have that scrunched-up look that appears a scowl, and his tunic is so heavily dyed that it almost appears black. Unferth in general just has a very silent, but bold and uninviting air to him.
  • Jack Clive has a bright, white iris and, in the daylight, a tiny pupil that give him that sharp, piercing, curious gaze—spoiled only by that curious right eyelid that droops uselessly over his right eye, but he has painted it with black eyeliner as fully and wholesomely as the left.
  • [AB!] Beowulf's cheek is fair and lightly-dappled, and has the small, smooth, soft contour of youth. The light waves of his bangs play easily with what little wind there is in the air.

Do you see what I'm getting at here? I believe that without being linked to the character's nature, physical description is just unnecessary words that can be cut out. They don't tell the reader of anything interesting, unless it's Jack's unusual eyelid.

You can go through most of the book without physical description, sure, most books have done that, but you can't just dump a description on the audience without giving it relevance.

That and you can't make an accurate description without nature. Say I want to describe AB!Beowulf and distinguish him in the audience's mind from the Beowulf of the original epic. Just telling them that he's short, skinny and blond isn't enough because there are many ways to visualize a short, skinny blond. I would have to emphasize his youth, innocence in order to have the audience visualize the right short, skinny blond—a delicate-framed young man who appears very much a boy.

In fact, he may not even be blond for the audience to have the visualization I want—I can omit that detail altogether and just let audience imagine the physical frame, and add whatever they want to it. (They'll probably think of blond hair anyway since he's Scandinavian.)

Not every detail is important, only the keystone details of your character that highlight his nature very highly.

edited 21st Mar '11 3:47:37 AM by annebeeche

Banned entirely for telling FE that he was being rude and not contributing to the discussion. I shall watch down from the goon heavens.
 7 Madass Alex, Mon, 21st Mar '11 4:09:52 AM from the Middle Ages.
I am vexed!
Most fantastic books don't spend a whole lot of time on description of characters.

I mean, we get maybe four lines about how Aragorn looks in The Lord of the Rings, initially, and it works just fine. We get more as the story progresses, but only as conditions change.
Perhaps, instead of infodumping the physical description, include drawings of major scenes at the end of the book. So, write the book without any character description, then at the end, have pictures of, say, the climactic battle, everyone reacting to The Reveal, the introduction of an important character, etc.
If I'm asking for advice on a story idea, don't tell me it can't be done.
 9 Ralph Crown, Mon, 21st Mar '11 11:43:13 AM from Next Door to Nowhere
Short Hair
In my experience, if you've done your job properly, you don't need descriptions. I once wrote a story and deliberately left out anything about how characters looked. Someone told me, "The protagonist reminds me of Brian Dennehy." That's who I was thinking about when I wrote it.

Key word there is "once."

Bottom line: Readers will fill in your blanks for you.
Under World. It rocks!
 10 chihuahua 0, Mon, 21st Mar '11 12:38:22 PM from Standoff, USA Relationship Status: I'm in love with my car
Writer's Welcome Wagon
The problem with leaving physical descriptions out is that if a physical charactersitic is important to the plot, well...("Wait, he's black? I thought he was white! No wonder...")
 11 annebeeche, Mon, 21st Mar '11 1:05:34 PM from by the long tidal river
watching down on us
[up] I had that happen to me in Chuck Palahniuk's Snuff. I originally thought a character was black, but said character's lineage was revealed as a plot point and necessitated that the character be white.
Banned entirely for telling FE that he was being rude and not contributing to the discussion. I shall watch down from the goon heavens.
 12 JHM, Mon, 21st Mar '11 1:37:32 PM from Neither Here Nor There Relationship Status: I know
Thunder, Perfect Mind
I tend to use either minimal or excessive physical description of a character as a device, generally to identify the relationship between the character providing the base perspective and the person being observed. This applies even more so to their own reflection: How they see themselves is crucial to understanding how they see others.
 13 Aenima, Mon, 21st Mar '11 6:53:21 PM from Latinlandia
Random Abomination
the idea is mainly to play with it, i guess this alone doesn't describe it. as for the story, it is some sort of Teen Fic with a lot weirdness and philosophy.

for instance, there's this character that initially comes as childish but is eventually shown to be depraved, bitter and nihilistic; he is supposed to look 12-ish despite being in his late teens and this isn't referenced until after his true lights are shown, in a way betraying the way the reader could have imagined him, which is the point, though i admit it could be counterproductive.

there are more simple uses, of course. a character has a Gender-Blender Name and isn't revealed to be a woman until the end and another is of Ambiguous Gender with an all-around surreal appearance. the appeareance isn't supposed to be described until near the ending, after the reader already is thinking "WTF is with this chick or dude?" and it basically reinforces an air of otherworldness, or so i hope.
Just awkwardly standing there, not explaining much necessary context.
 14 theindefiniteone, Sat, 26th Mar '11 2:26:42 AM from the End of the World
I really do think that suddenly overloading the reader with physical descriptions is just a useless infodump. If not done well, then it would lower the quality of your writing. That, and the fact that it would suddenly jump up at them and be a surprise. (At that point, I assume that they already have formed their own image for the character, and expect you to not put in so much info on physical descriptions)

I don't really put in much physical descriptions unless they're important points. Things like "He wore neat clothes, his hair in place. His labcoat was white and unruffled, showing no sign of the previous chase." are all right, because they add to the description of the scene but don't go too far.

And if I really want to talk about a character's hair, for example, I just sneak something like this in: "He ran a hand through his curly blond hair and gave a small smile."

 15 storyyeller, Sat, 26th Mar '11 4:32:21 PM from Appleloosa Relationship Status: RelationshipOutOfBoundsException: 1
More like giant cherries
I, as a reader, skim through the physical descriptions in stories anyway, so if you leave them out completely, I wouldn't even know the difference. For me, it's all about the characterizations and the personality, and outward appearances very rarely play a major role in my stories or for my characters. I never even consider things like hair and eye color, height or weight, clothes, accessories, etc, unless I decide to draw them. And even then, I realize it's only an aesthetic thing and would hardly affect the story at all. The only things I would ever find worthy of describing are very basic things important to character like gender, age, health, physical abnormalities, and maybe even their posture, as that tends to be an effective way to reveal a character or mood of the character. But most of the time, I let the actions speak for the characters, since that's the only part that's important to me.

QFT. Often times, when a movie comes out, I discover that the characters were actually supposed to look completely different than how I imagined them, because I ignored or forgot the actual description from the books.
Life is simple: it has no nontrivial normal subgroups.
My teacher's a panda
^ Or the directors and/or producers chose to completely ignore the physical descriptions in the book so they can cast a big name actor or actually attractive people. But it still proves the point that physical descriptions aren't that important, since they can be completely ignored and/or altered by readers and film makers without completely altering the story.

I use physical descriptions a lot like annebeeche does. Firstly, several of my characters look very abnormal, so that would be unfair to leave up to guesswork. Also, because appearance does have an influence on who they are and on the plot, even if subtly. Doesn't what you look like shape you or what you do in any way?
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Total posts: 17
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