The Physical Description: A Necessary & Surprisingly Difficult Piece

I think we can take this for granted.  Physical descriptions come off a little like a ‘duh’ concept.  We need to know what our characters look like to some extent.  Otherwise, every reader gets their own visual with no similarities.  Not necessarily a bad thing until people begin fighting over it.  You also lose a dimension if you avoid it entirely.  Yes, we have a personality, actions, and words, but there can be a sense of lacking if we don’t have even a basic appearance.  This goes for places too, but we’re going to focus on characters for this week.  So, why is this?

Readers have these things called the five senses . . . Oh, that’s going too far back into the details.  We all know this.  We also know that an author should try very hard to hit as many of them as possible.  This is much easier to do with places, animals, and objects if you’re going be instinct.  One can imagine themselves examining such things in reality without any problems.  We wander cities, smell flowers, eat food, hear birds, and touch water.  We register our environment through a 5-piece sensory system that is always operating.  Everything is taken in as much as possible with no restraint except for one piece of our surroundings: Other Humans.

For good reason, we pump the breaks and stop primarily at sight when it comes to examining other people.  Hearing can get into the action if we’re close enough to catch their voice, but it’s not polite to eavesdrop.  Smell requires being really close and you can’t go out of your way for it.  People give you looks if you’re sniffing them.  Touching is a big no-no without permission and taste is probably worse.  Now, this differs depending on how close you are a person, but you need to work your way up the chain as such:

  1. I see a person from a far.
  2. I get close enough to hear and talk with them.
  3. Getting closer, I may be able to smell them without trying.
  4. Relationship becomes close enough for physical contact such as handshake, high five, or kissing.
  5. Taste . . . either a good thing with kissing/sex or a bad thing with life in prison.  Yes, we’re doing cannibalism jokes here.

Because of how we operate in reality, we can unintentionally carry this over to fiction.  An author may stay at the first two levels since that’s a habit.  It may require focus and thinking to delve deeper into this character because it isn’t like reality.  Readers aren’t meeting these people from afar and easing into their lives.  They are being dropped next to them if not shoved into their perspective.  In some styles, the characters are vehicles or skins for the reader to ride, so you need a level of intimacy that comes from a deeper physical description.  Mention how they smell, the softness of their skin, and anything other trait that can give them some creative flesh.

Now, there are many schools of thinking on how much to reveal.  My preference is to give a full description with the initial introduction and then pepper more or repeated information throughout the story.  I have a think about using hair color to identify characters.  That and I try to have at least one physical trait that is unique to the character such as Sari’s blue hair, Nyx’s violet eyes, or Clyde’s corn-shaped necklace.  Yes, items of clothing can fall into this too.  Of course, this is a very detailed method.  Some authors are detailed once and leave it at that while others do the same with a basic framework.  Others gradually describe the character as the story progresses.  Another way is to say very little beyond gender and let the reader come up with their own thing.  You have a lot of stuff in-between too.

So, with all of that being said, there is one way to write a character’s physical description that is correct.  The others are wrong.  I’ve thought long and hard about this.  Pretty sure some people will be upset as well.  Can’t please everyone.  The answer is:

Whichever method you’re most comfortable with for your story.

Seriously, this is a big area where it depends entirely on the author’s style, the story, and the combination of the two’s goal.  Never let anybody step up and say that they have the only way to do it.  Never let them tell you that your way is wrong if that is what works for your story.  If people do ask too many questions or imagine your characters in a way that doesn’t match your own image then you can change it.  That’s a big danger here that we never consider.  If you don’t do a thorough description then you can’t get angry that people assign incorrect appearances to your characters.  Sorry, but if you want the image to be the way it is in your head then you need to make sure that’s on the page.  Not sure if I undermined my previous point or not here.

So, what do you think of physical descriptions?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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32 Responses to The Physical Description: A Necessary & Surprisingly Difficult Piece

  1. L. Marie says:

    “Whichever method you’re most comfortable with for your story.” Good advice! 😀 I don’t tend to use a lot of description, but I appreciate it in books. We all know about Harry’s scar, his hair color, and eye color. I’ve seen some contemporary young adult novels, however, where the cover illustration didn’t match the character description. 😵

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  2. I’m in the Elemore Leonard shool of thought. Less description allows the reader to make up their own visuals. Sure some basics are necessary but after that very little. This post was great. I thought your answer to the rightness and wrongness of descriptions was perfect.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. As a reader, I prefer limited descriptions because I prefer drawing the picture in my mind. I know a good majority of readers prefer the opposite. As a writer, I’m still “working on it!” LOL! To me, too many stories revolve around physical appearance and it grates on my nerves. Also, as an earlier comment brought out, too many covers do not match character book descriptions. Perhaps author and designer never got to exchange notes, but it does give me pause to read another book by that author.

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    • It’s difficult to find a good balance. That cover art issue is one reason, but I wouldn’t blame the author. I’ve been told that most authors don’t have input into the cover art when it comes to traditional publishing. So, the artist is simply working off whatever information they have been given by the publisher.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s difficult to find a good balance. That cover art issue is one reason, but I wouldn’t blame the author. I’ve been told that most authors don’t have input into the cover art when it comes to traditional publishing. So, the artist is simply working off whatever information they have been given by the publisher.

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  4. jomz says:

    This is good advice! For someone who is terrible with physical descriptions (I sometimes do not describe my main characters too much, or none at all), I appreciate this post! Although you are right, if I want to project the image I have of the characters in my head unto another person, I have to have them written down.

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    • Something that helped me was writing 2-3 sentences outside of the works to deceive the character. Nothing extreme. Hair, eyes, body type, and any distinguishing marks like scars and tattoos. Not everything went into the story and spread the info out over their intro.

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  5. I think less is better than more. Most of my novels are in first person, so I can have the narrator give a quick first impression of other characters. But how to give a picture of the narrator themselves without the forbidden looking-in-a-mirror thing? There are ways of dribbling out the essentials in dialogue (“Is that red your natural colour” etc.) or offhand remarks about being tall/short/fat, etc. in context. One thing to avoid is stopping the action while you put your character on a turntable and give a complete head to toe rundown, including whatever clothes they’re wearing. A pretty good mystery I read recently did that, and it definitely took me out of the story.

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    • Not sure why a mirror is forbidden since it’s a practical way of doing it. Most people use a mirror at least once a day. As far as the action part goes, that is an easy thing to avoid. You can add the description into the action such as eye and hair color. Movements can help denote body type. It depends on the action too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • V.M.Sang says:

        I think the mirror taboo comes from stories in the first person. I don’t think you need a mirror in third person. The argument goes: You don’t look in a mirror and comment on things like hair and eye colour. You might say ‘Gosh, my hair is a mess,’ or ‘My eyes look a bit bloodshot’, but you wouldn’t say ‘Gosh my black (or even raven) hair is a mess’ or ‘My brown eyes look a bit bloodshot.’ That just sounds silly.

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      • I can see it problematic in first person, but I guess it depends on the narrator. If it’s established that the focal character is aware of their narrator status then they would say something like that. I’ve read many first person stories where the character describes themselves for the sake of the audience. I think it can be subtle though. A mention of gray hair mixing with the black can be done. Commenting on body weight and appearance is fairly common when done internally too.

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      • jomz says:

        I can actually see this mirror thing working for a first person perspective. However, it has to be a slowed-down scene. In your example, how can we show that the narrator’s eyes is brown?

        I took a quick glance at the mirror. My eyes, which was normally brown, was red and bloodshot. Last night must have been crazy.

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      • Maybe it’s opening a book with a mirror scene that’s frowned upon. I’ve noticed a lot of these “no-nos” derive from publishers’ or agents’ reading of writers’ submissions.

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      • Always seems to be a large no-no list. I feel that it depends on how it’s done, but that’s just me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Me too! My first response to some “rules” is often “But sometimes it works.” The trick is to figure out what makes it work.

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  6. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this informative post from Charles Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere blog with the topic: The Physical Description: A Necessary & Surprisingly Difficult Piece

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  7. I’m all over the place here. Two of my more popular characters are Lisa Burton and Lizzie St. Laurent. Lisa usually gets a lot of description. Lizzie has almost none, but it has trickled out over two books. I believe less is more, unless the character requires it.

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  8. Pingback: The Legends Of Windemere – Charles Yallowitz – Physical Description Posts – Writer's Treasure Chest

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