Monday, January 23, 2012

When do we need to know what a character looks like?

I used to think that it was really, really important to know what characters looked like. So important that I wanted to make sure that I described each one as soon as he or she appeared. I would draw pictures of each of my characters so I could understand what I wanted to describe.

Now that I've been writing for a while, I realize the answer to this question is less clear-cut. It has nuances.

Before I hit nuances, though, I will say this: it is not necessary to describe your main character on the first page. Sometimes you can get through an entire short story with only a very minimal sense of what the character looks like. So back away from the mirror scenes, folks, before you make your readers scream, "cliché!"

Right, then. When is it important to know what a character looks like? Here are some factors to consider:

1. In which genre are you writing?
If you are writing romance, the appearance of the main characters particularly is very, very important. Typically, so is the type of clothing they wear. You will also find the trend toward describing clothing and appearance in gothic and steampunk contexts, and sometimes in alternate history. In other genres, whether or not you describe appearance will depend on other factors. Which leads me to...

2. How much of the character's appearance can be supported using existing reader expectations?
If you are writing in mainstream genres or in genres (like historical) that access existing sets of technology, fashion, etc. then you can take advantage of that existing knowledge in your reader and evoke more than you describe. If you are working in science fiction, fantasy or steampunk where the presence of one thing doesn't necessarily imply the presence of another, you may need to put effort into describing more detail in order to defeat incorrect assumptions.

The next set of questions has to do with the nature of the characters in question.

3. Is this an omnisciently observed character, a point of view character or a secondary character?
This is probably the single most important question to answer. If you're using an omniscient narrator, the narrator is the one deciding what visual details of the main character and secondary characters readers need to see. If you're using limited point of view, then what details of secondary characters get described will depend on the mental states, perceptiveness and judgment of the point of view character. And what details of the point of view character get described will depend on how aware that character is of his/her own appearance.

4. If this person is a secondary character, will he/she appear in the story more than once and need to be recognizable?
A character who will need to be recognized later needs to have some characteristic that stands out and is noticed by the point of view character. This feature does not have to be visual, but it often is, and it must be included in the initial description. For example, you might have a character who will be "a guard with a crooked nose" the first time and "the guard with the crooked nose" thereafter.

5. If this person is a point of view character, what aspects of his/her personality lend themselves to a concern with appearance?

The only time you really want a person looking in a mirror is when that person has a habit of looking in mirrors to check his/her appearance. The reasons for checking the appearance will affect how the appearance is described, and they need not occur on the first page where a character appears, but should appear at the point where the concern with appearance is most relevant. A lady might be concerned about whether she looks right for a party and check her makeup in a mirror before walking in, or she might just touch her cheek with one finger unconsciously. I have a character who has to check his appearance constantly so that his boss won't freak out. His self-descriptions are quite detailed but have nothing to do with vanity or the public's opinion.

6. If this person is a point of view character, are there any aspects of his/her appearance which will affect his/her perceptions, judgments, or actions?
When you are using a limited - particularly a deep internal - point of view, and particularly if you're working with a character who doesn't really care about his/her appearance, then this is the question you should be asking. I have a character with very short legs who is taller than the people he's speaking to when he is sitting down, but shorter when he stands up - so I need to be clear about whether he's looking up or down at people at different points. My character Rulii from "Cold Words" is a member of the downy-furred race of the Aurrel, which is enormously important in the story, but not because it's a matter of how he looks. It affects his behavior, his fear of cold, his fear of shame, and his desire for justice (because his race is downtrodden). Those aspects of appearance which affect the way a character perceives things, judges things, or behaves, must be included - but the best way to include them is by demonstrating the effect they have on the character rather than stepping outside the character to observe them.

7. Are there any questions of appearance that readers are likely to get wrong?
This is a funny one. A character in one of my unpublished novels is very pale and has blond hair, but when my writing group first read it, many of them picked him as having dark hair because a) he is a mysterious character and b) I didn't make explicit mention of his hair color early enough. This is one that you might be able to take care of just by including the basics of eye and hair color that Western readers will be looking for, or it may be something that comes up in critique.

Finally, this seems like the perfect place to address Garrett Anderson's recent question:

"What sorts of strategies would you recommend in describing a character to an audience when the adjectives would not exist in your fictitious world? For example, if I have a character whom I want to look Asian, but there is no such place in my fictitious universe, what are some strategies to convey the appearance? Maybe that's not the best example, but basically, if you want a certain look, and you don't want to use real-world references."

I recommend a few steps. First, ask yourself if this particular appearance is absolutely necessary to your portrayal of the character. If it isn't, don't worry about it - just give a few basic characteristics like maybe dark hair and leave the rest up to your reader. If it is, keep reading.

First, create a sense in your mind of what the character looks like physically. Ask yourself what aspects of that appearance would be noticeable to a resident of your world. Those are the ones you will want to include in your description.

Second, and very importantly, think about why it is that residents of your world would notice these physical characteristics of your character. What is it about that person that stands out relative to all the people around? Does he or she resemble a person of a particular nationality local to the world in question? Does the character's appearance give observers a "vibe" like the one that an Asian appearance would give you? Where does that vibe come from? What associations are people going to make with that appearance when they see it? Those associations have to be grounded in the world you have created.

I actually have a character whom I imagine as vaguely Asian-looking. I don't describe him at all until the third page of his opening chapter. You'll notice (and laugh at me no doubt) because this is a mirror moment (not a whole scene, thank goodness). This description comes at the point when he's just finished showering and dressing before a job interview, and gotten into his black silk suit:

"He plucked up his favorite tailed comb and trained his dark hair into its ponytail, which thanks to Kiit's precise trimming, fell just outside his collar. At the mirror he shared with his bunkmate, he painted the small black circle between his eyebrows, cleaned his makeup brush and shut it into the box of implements atop his dresser."

Most of his "vibe" comes from his attitudes and his actions rather than his appearance. If readers don't see him the way I do, that's fine with me.

I hope this helps you all deal with the question of appearances!


  1. Juliette, this post reminded me of Glen Cook's Black Company books, where Croaker, the narrator, is never described, although he is very much a participant in the story. So the reader knows absolutely nothing about the way Croaker looks, and still the books work.

    Adding description would be incoherent, because Croaker maintains the annals of the Black Company, and you're actually reading "his" work, not Glen Cook's. Croaker sometimes interjects very brief descriptions of his fellow mercenaries.

    A similar situation occurs with Severian from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Again, the reader is provided with Severian's account of his life and deeds, so there's precious little about Severian's physical traits.

    Still, because there's a wealth of detail (linguistics, tactics, sociology, philosophy, politics, economy, you name it) to be gleaned from these narratives, the stories do not suffer as a result.

    Somehow the dearth of physical description turns these characters into these shells that the reader can inhabit. With Croaker and Severian, it's attitude that counts, not looks.

    Not being given a physical description might actually free the reader's imagination. You relate to the character's voice, not their bodies. You and the author wind up creating the character together.

    It's one hell of a rabbit to pull out of your hat, but if you can do it, hey, it pays off.

  2. Great post. In my short I didn't describe my main character except that she was bald and human. I did describe her husband who was alien. I didn't think about why at the time. This post puts it in perspective. =)

  3. This is such a good point. People often don't realize how much character description readers pick up from a character's traits or the setting itself.

    I once had someone compliment me on how well I did with the character description of my main character, how well they could picture him. They were surprised when I pointed out that the only thing I'd specified was that he lived in a grimy slum in Mexico City.

    That's a great breakdown of how much the genre affects how much and what type of character description is needed.

  4. John, thanks for commenting and providing us with such good examples!

    E. Arroyo, thanks. "Bald" is quite a distinctive characteristic, so I'm sure it worked... :)

    Leah, interesting example. I'm glad you liked my post. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I'm currently writing a super hero short story that may end up as a chapter in a novel.

    In this story, the character does look into a mirror. Cliche, you cry? The character is not doing this to describe her eye colour/hair colour/skin colour or lack thereof to the reader.

    The only physical description is of her injuries (two black eyes and a possibly-broken nose) and how the hell is she going to explain that when she takes off her mask and resumes her secret identity.

    No other description of her appearance is needed.

  6. LOL, David. Well, you'll notice that my character looks in the mirror in the example above. The similarity between the two is that each character looks into the mirror with a purpose - yours, to assess the damage, mine, to make sure he can paint his caste-mark properly. In both cases, the overall appearance of the character is immaterial. It's what is seen in the mirror, i.e. the injuries and the way my character has to paint the mark on his face as he gets dressed, that is the point.

  7. In the novel I'm writing right now, I don't describe the narrator at all. There are only hints (he's not bad-looking, he's probably in good shape, he's one head taller than the co-protagonist, etc.) Basic stuff like hair color and race aren't even mentioned, and I don't have any plans to show any of these.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Oh, had you read Divergent? Personally, it uses the mirror cliche well, since in the narrator's family, she rarely sees a mirror.

  8. Chihuahua0, thanks for the rec! My only issue with not describing is that when you don't describe, you are relying on default values. That means your narrator's cultural identity needs to show through actions and judgments.

  9. Great points, especially #5. We don't always notice how many conclusions we draw based on appearance.

    I had a hard time getting a descriptive balance right for my first book. Since it's set in a completely human-free world, some readers got agitated at the lack of introductory descriptions for each race. They didn't see "claws" or "antennae" as a clue to the being's overall appearance -- they saw it as just a too-small amount of visual information.

    I was completely opposed to adding head-to-toe descriptions. My characters notice feather colour or relative height but they're generally accustomed to their local races. They don't feel a need to note every basic detail, in the same way we don't feel a need to specify that human characters walk on two legs and have hands with thumbs on them. Explaining the races for the benefit of a human reader would have destroyed the story's sense of immersion, and those explanations just wouldn't make sense in any of the characters' perspectives. I could have added a beginning preface describing the races, but I'm sure we all hate it when a fantasy book dumps a bunch of dry exposition at the beginning.

    So I added a brief preface with a line drawing of the three sentient species. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all, so it's a quick way to get a lot of specifics across. I'm not sure if it's a cheap cop-out for a novel to use a picture like that, but at least my readers have a starting mental image to use. There have been fewer complaints of confusion since I did that.

  10. Heidi, your human-free context is one where you're "fighting the normal," i.e. we don't tend to remark on what is normal. A drawing can help, but if you want to attack the problem in description, I recommend doing three things. First, pick out the features that an observer of the native species would notice, and let them notice them *and draw conclusions based on them*. Second, identify places where the basic information can be included as background to a more specific detail that has a particular social meaning. Third, let your alien species use metaphors for appearance and form that will have meaning for human readers and help them access models that will be meaningful. Thanks for sharing the story about your work!

  11. Thanks, Juliette. I'll look for places to use techniques like those in my further works.

  12. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question in such detail. You have really given me a lot to think about with my characters and how I will portray them.

    Happy writings,

  13. You're welcome, Garrett, and thanks!