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:
- I see a person from a far.
- I get close enough to hear and talk with them.
- Getting closer, I may be able to smell them without trying.
- Relationship becomes close enough for physical contact such as handshake, high five, or kissing.
- 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?