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Visual character description and detail

Discussion in 'Creative Zone' started by Negative Zero, Jul 3, 2018.


How much visual detail do you like to read of characters?

  1. If I don't have a virtual photo of these people, then what am I even imagining?

    0 vote(s)
  2. I like to know what the author has in mind, even if there's not a clear purpose for everything.

    6 vote(s)
  3. If I can pick this person out in a classroom, that's enough for me.

    5 vote(s)
  4. The body is a shell and clothes are an illusion. I need not know about the soul's meat-puppet.

    2 vote(s)
  1. Negative Zero

    Negative Zero The most positive negative number you know!

    Level 73
    Mar 17, 2015
    How much visual character description is enough? Or too much? I think I myself get unusually bothered by very specific visual character descriptions, and try to stay away from it. As an off-the-cuff example I can brew up right now to show what I'm talking about as very-specific visuals:

    "Our story starts with Guy Goodlookin. Guy is 19 years old, European-Spanish, has green eyes and blond hair shaved on the sides, and is about 6'3" and 180 pounds lean. He wears blue denims with holes worn out at the knees and frayed at the cuffs where they meet his red Converses, along with with an original vintage Led Zepplin black T-shirt. He has a scar on his right shoulder, going from the clavicle halfway to his elbow, and he's wearing his favorite sunglasses that have an emerald studded on the hinge of each side. He's waiting for his sister who is 5'3"...

    And I'm going to stop there, because I think I've made my point without going overboard or getting sarcastic or exaggerating. The question I'm asking is, as a reader, do you find this specificity of visual description helpful, harmful, or just more neutral content that fits into the story? Do you like to have a very clear visual of exactly who the author had in mind, or do you want to imagine and cast your own actor? And on top of that, as a writer, how do you tend to write? Do you lean heavy into specifying your exact impression of these characters (after all, you created their entire world, you may as well convey that to the viewer), or do you leave it all to the imagination?


    I definitely go minimalist with my character visuals, perhaps even to specifically differentiate myself from the writer I imagined above. For example, this is the entirety of the visuals I give for the three most important characters of my current (un-published) fanfiction, copied directly from the file I haven't edited in over a month:

    "Hesitantly, Audrey removed her black canvas baseball cap and shook her head slightly to settle her hair."
    That's literally all I gave about her. The main character sometimes wears a hat as part of a security personnel uniform, and has hair long enough that a hat can mess with it. (Maybe this one is too minimal)

    "One woman sauntered in, mid-20s, dressed in a slinky lavender ballgown, and with long straight bangs covering half her face in a wave."
    ... and later as the security officer from before mentally recites some descriptions as part of her security job when confronting this character...
    "175 cm. Strong arms. Dark eyes. Affinity for the color purple."
    This character has an age roughly given, and seems to enjoy looking fancy (or sneaky and concealing her identity?). It's enough to point her out in a crowd.

    "A young man the same age as Audrey said nonchalantly over bared, folded arms. His hair was shaved on the sides and short on top, almost militaristic; though his posture, voice, and arrogant smile were more street than anything else. He was dressed in a close-fitting grey tank and loose olive cargo pants, which left his military or street background even more ambiguous."
    This guy seems to think he's a badass, is the same age as the rest of the main characters, and appears to be a tough-guy, though tough in which way is unspecified. Is he ex-military? Is he a street thug? Stay tuned to find out!

    Every other character that gets a speaking line and a name or title at all (The Supervisor; this guy waiting for his daughter; this girl's classmate), got similar treatment or less. Identified gender, implied age, maybe a description clothes to imply class/interest. A miner's uniform, a blue suit, a striped polo of unspecified color or fit. Minimal is how I go.
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  2. Laserdragon14

    Laserdragon14 Dragon Maverick

    Level 8
    Jan 16, 2018
    Poké Ball ★Trainer Card - Cave ThemeLucarionite ★★★★Legendary Triforce ★★
    As long as I can imagine something that makes them different from other characters, then I'm fine, but it is nice if there is a little bit more information than that.
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  3. Arod

    Arod Dededegree in Trigonometry and Gordo Physics

    Level 70
    May 29, 2018
    Now I see where you're getting at. I thought it was more general.

    Like, when introducing your character you say, a Spanish kid came onto the scene, he was tall, stocky, and had dark hair. He wore a cowboy hat on top of his head, a plain white T-shirt, blue jeans, hiking boots, and a pair of sunglasses. He had a stick in his hand that he was using as a walking stick and was accompanied by a Croconaw.
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  4. Tokoyami

    Tokoyami Revelry in the Dark

    gen 4
    Level 11
    Aug 5, 2017
    Park Ball ★★★
    It's certainly important to find a balance. I feel like if you're using OC's, however, it's fine to be detailed, although there isn't much use going into the smaller details like describing their face shape or anything like that. However, I think that it's okay to describe, say, a scar, if said scar kind of... has importance when it comes to that character, if that makes sense.

    Her pale blonde hair, kept tied into a ponytail, bounced against her shoulder. Her bangs swept across her forehead, with a curly strand of hair framing her face. She was an average height- not to tall, or short, but just average. Her bright blue, catty eyes...

    Maybe that's a bit too detailed, but I also did use extra words to try to lengthen the chapter overall. Alternatively, there's stories I've stumbled upon where the only thing described of a character was their hair and eye color, if at that. Sometimes, those things weren't even described at all, and descriptions were mostly left to the reader's imagination.

    I feel like lack of a description for a character can make it hard to relate to them on a certain level because (for me personally) I can't put a face to that character. It's like when someone tells me about someone, and I know the name, but I don't know the face, so I can't exactly understand the context, if that makes any sense at all. I suppose it really all depends on your writing style, but I don't mind some extra detail, especially when it comes to describing people.
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  5. Gazi

    Gazi Bird Keeper

    Level 2
    May 27, 2018
    I like to have at least some character description, though if there's going to be any descriptions going on, I would prefer it to focus more on the clothes, for some reason. I feel like clothes can say a lot about a person. For example, I may or may not point out that a character that I write about has slightly spiky dark hair, but I will definitely say that he wears a blue and orange striped shirt with matching fingerless gloves, dark ripped jeans, and a leather jacket. He's a unique character, and he has a unique style. If it gives the readers a better idea of who they're reading about (especially if it contributes to their personality), then I don't mind physical description just as long as it doesn't go too far.
  6. BZRich64

    BZRich64 The Mustachioed Machamp

    Level 26
    Jun 12, 2017
    I like enough description to have a general idea of what a character looks like, as well as any important details, but to much description is distracting and I'm probably not even going to remember any of the trivial details anyway. I also prefer to have character descriptions be drawn out over time as different details become import, rather than a full physical description all at once.
    For example, have a character walk into a room. He has to duck down when going through the doorway, showing that he's really tall. He gets into an awkward conversation which causes him to adjust his tie uncomfortably and pull on the bottom of his suit jacket. This shows that he's well dressed. After that he takes off his hat and has to run his hand through his dark hair to make sure it isn't messed up. This gives more description to how he's dressed and also shows a bit of what his hair looks like. All of these details and more could be spread throughout a scene to add more and more detail for the reader to fill in their mental image of what's going on while its happening, rather than breaking it up to give a detailed description that might not make as much of a lasting impression as the rest of the scene unfolds.
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  7. Mandriel

    Mandriel Valor Knight

    (Giratina Egg)
    Level 5
    Feb 3, 2017
    Red Orb ★★★★★Tapunium Z ★★★★★Love Ball ★★★★★GS Ball ★★★★★Galladite ★★★★
    All I need is a few prominent details for me to construct an image of a character. I don't mind a more lengthy description, as long as it adds to the story somehow. I just can't stand it when the author grinds the story to a halt so they can tell the reader exactly what a new character looks like.


    The tough-looking girl was tall, with short brown hair and green eyes. She wore blue shoes, an old red jacket and a tank top.


    She towered over everyone else in the room. Her worn jacket was stretched tight across her broad shoulders, half-concealing a shirt that had been practically torn to pieces. Her filthy, scuffed shoes squeaked as she continuously shifted her weight from one foot to another, her piercing green eyes darting from face to face like a predator seeking unsuspecting prey.

    There's more or less the same information being conveyed in both paragraphs, the difference is in what they tell the reader. The first paragraph just describes the girl; she has brown hair and green eyes. Even though the second paragraph's longer, it feels less boring because constructs a character and sets a mood by giving specific details. The audience questions what Scary Girl wants, what she's thinking, what happened to her, etc. They don't need to know that her hair is short and brown.

    Additional information on a character's appearance can be slipped in throughout the text. Maybe the POV character later comments on how Scary Girl's brown hair had been hacked short, or notes that her nails have been chewed on. It's tempting to try and give the reader every detail about a character at once, but it's usually best to give a handful of important features first, and reveal extra details later.

    Sorry about my rambling, this has just become a pet peeve of mine. I just finished reading a story where whenever the characters changed clothes (and that happened too often), you got to hear what they were wearing down to their every accessory and... I mean, unless the colour of their clothes can ward off wild animals and their bracelets are sub-machine guns in disguise, I don't care.
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  8. SyWry

    SyWry Bird Keeper

    Legendary Egg
    (Ho-Oh Egg)
    Level 24
    Jan 16, 2017
    Have to admit, while I was reading your list of character details my eyes glazed over until I reached the end. For starters, that happens a lot unfortunately, but I also just hate lists like that. There's no way that I'll remember the character's looks from one singular uninteresting list of words. Generally the only thing I need about the character is what makes them stand out from everyone else. That can be facial structure to simply eye color. However, just saying their eye color isn't my style either. For better or for worse, I like to weave features and ideas into the story. This means that I generally don't say something or show a particular character detail unless the story/situation calls for it or allows me to show it. Since I write first person characters, these moment don't come often.

    Also I don't hold onto the image of a character the first time I see it. As they say, repetition is the key to memorization. Now I'm not saying that I like the author listing off the character details multiple times or reminding us in in poorly written ways, but instead I like it when the traits of a character are portrayed in subtle ways that often have double uses. For example, "He grabbed his thick greasy black hair and held him in close" or "Her sharp lavender eyes forced him into submission." Most of the time, this is how I remember what a character looks like rather than a list at the beginning.

    I honestly haven't written very many character descriptions because I have a very hard time imagining the face of whoever I'm writing about and I haven't written many characters. So I don't have any example from my writing to show here. However, when I write, I write minimalist when it comes to character details and I try not to distract from the story with the visuals.
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  9. Negative Zero

    Negative Zero The most positive negative number you know!

    Level 73
    Mar 17, 2015
    After reading some other people's strategies, I think I'm going to adjust my approach, go for some less-minimalist descriptions. I'm going to try to keep it in the limitations of describing a classmate to someone else before class on the second day of school. "You remember Guy, right? He was the tall-ish one in an over-priced polo. The guy with a short fro who wouldn't stop fidgeting with his watch, it seemed like he was always timing something. He was sitting behind Gal. Gal, that goth girl with the bleach-silver hair and the platform shoes. I don't know why she wants to look like that, maybe it's because she's afraid of not being noticed while reveling in not being understood. He was talking to that short, heavy fellow in the Lakers jersey. That fellow talks like he's from Portland rather than LA and honestly looks like he doesn't spend much time on a court-- yeah, you know the dude now." That level of depth is what I'll aim for. The stand-out details that you might remember a full day or two after seeing the person, not much more and not much less. That's my new intention, at least.
  10. GlaceonSilver

    Apr 18, 2015
    This is more or less the approach I like to take within my writing. I find it better to incorporate character description throughout a scene so it flows more naturally. For example, instead of saying outright that "Sally had messy red hair", I'd fit it into a scene where it makes sense to describe. Working with the same example, I'd probably write along the lines of "Sally frustratingly tried to tame her ginger hair, which was knotted and messy from the party she had been at the night before." This type of description I usually reserve for the protagonist, as it flows nicely into scenes and more description. The key is to give enough to guide the reader's imagination without being too intrusive.

    When it comes to describing other characters, I try to use my regular approach where possible and stick to brief description otherwise. The old professor at the university doesn't need too much description if he only shows up once to deliver a line and is never heard from again. With such basic characters, I usually try to create one feature that sticks out for them, such as a big nose, odd hair colour, or maybe a unique mannerism. This method makes them interesting enough to be important while they're around, but not important enough to steal a scene (although sometimes it can be fun if they do!)
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  11. ChocoChicken

    ChocoChicken A Screaming Chicken

    E G G 2.3
    (Kyogre Egg)
    Level 14
    May 28, 2018
    Misty's EmblemLegendary Triforce ★★
    I usually just show them through bits and pieces from a character’s actions. Such as “Frazzled, Nathaniel slammed his head into the wall, his dark curls slightly cushioning the fall.” Description is the last thing I do.
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