Nancy: Characters: Do Looks Matter?

Casting Call for Your Novel

When is the last time you stopped to think about the physical appearance of your characters? And how have you conveyed that appearance to your readers, especially that of your 1st or deep 3rd POV characters? I’ve been pondering the best way to do this in my current WIP after realizing that nowhere in the first (and second) draft did I describe Ellen, the main protagonist.

Part of the problem might be that I don’t consciously visualize a character when I’m developing or writing her (or him). I tend to have a very general, nebulous image of the character which only becomes clearer to me as I write her story. By the time I’ve gotten through a few chapters, I have a really clear image of each character. By then, I’m past the point of character introductions. Dropping in a physical description that late in the game is likely to pull the reader out of the experience, especially if she’s been envisioning the character entirely differently.

I develop my mental images of characters in books I’m reading the same way – by learning who they are and what they’re doing. Even when the writer gives a detailed description of her characters, I’m likely to take away only the most fundamental points like hair and eye color, height and size, and anything really remarkable like a scar or a limp. If those descriptions come after I’ve developed my own mental image of the characters, which often happens within the first few pages of meeting them, I’m likely to eschew even those details if they conflict with the picture in my head.

But for most readers, there needs to be some physical description at least of the main characters to help them identify and relate to the people in our stories. They want to know what the author had in mind when she pictured each character. So as the author of My Girls, I owe readers at least some amount of physical description of Ellen, but the first few chapters are in Ellen’s and her best friend’s POVs, respectively. Finding a natural, non-stilted way to have either of them pondering Ellen’s physical description is proving harder than I expected. So, do you have any suggestions for clever ways to work in a character’s appearance when writing from deep in that character’s POV?

12 thoughts on “Nancy: Characters: Do Looks Matter?

  1. I’m suddenly into Pinterest. I’ve been pinning clothing, hairstyles, portraits (mostly clothing, though), so I can use it to describe what my characters are wearing (kinda important for me because I’m writing historical).

    I read somewhere (I never remember where) that one author (maybe Stephen King?) only uses the most basic descriptors for his characters so that the reader can form their own mental picture. Maybe that’s all you have to do, and it’s something done later…during revision, not necessarily when you’re writing.

    As for how/when, I’d say as soon as a character interacts with another. In your case, when Ellen is describing the two other girls in the bar (pardon, their names escape me right now), perhaps she just makes a casual note of how their hair is done, or their flashing green eyes, or something of that nature. More slipped in, rather than an exposition on how they look.

    Maybe Ellen’s best friend describes her relative to her hanging onto the steering wheel, or how she blows the blond hair out of her eyes as she’s trying to shuffle the bride (Sarah?) into her car. Or perhaps she wonders at how Ellen, petite thing that she is, can manhandle another full-grown woman into the back seat of a car. She’s built like a gymnast. That sort of thing.

    IDK, maybe these are all bad ideas. 🙂

    • I do have the brief slide scripting of Maddie and Sarah in the first scene, but since that whole scene is in Eileen’s POV, there is no way to get someone else’s description of her in there. I could at least get in the fact that she’s short when they are taking the much taller Sarah to the car. Not sure how to work in the hair color, or to Kay’s point, the age. If I can figure out how to get in those few things, I will be happy about that for the opening scene. It’s easy to add a few more details about her in later scenes that are from the other women’s POVs.

      • Age you could do in her internal monologue or dialogue – either a reference to something she did when she was Sarah’s age or there’s something she can’t physically do any more or it’s not as easy as it was – or the way the world has changed since she was Sarah’s age. It doesn’t have to be much, just a subtle detail.

  2. Some of the best character descriptions I’ve read are fairly minimalist and include some thought or action that seems to define the character, allowing the reader to fill in the details. Generally I need a bit of physical description, but I like it best when it’s worked into the narrative in a way that doesn’t simply tell me what they look like, but who they are, or even something about their current situation .

    I found two passages from two authors different as night and day — both use description differently, but both get the job done beautifully:

    From SEP (“Natural Born Charmer”) introducing protagonist, Blue:

    “It wasn’t everyday a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road…she was definitely a girl beaver because her head was missing, revealing sweaty, dark hair pulled into a short, scraggly ponytail…she hit him with a pair of grape lollipop eyes, one of the few curvy things about her. Most of the rest of her came to sharp angles and delicate points, from a set of fragile bladed cheekbones, to a petite, arrow-tipped nose, to a chin keen enough to cut glass. But after that things got dicey. A razor-edged bow marked the center of a wide and startlingly plump top lip. Her bottom lip was even fuller, giving him the disconcerting feeling that she’d somehow escaped from an x-rated nursery rhyme.”

    And this from Marisa de los Santo’s “Belong to Me”:

    “In trying my hardest to describe Piper without exaggeration or editorializing, what I come up with is this: trim, tan, and long waisted, a white polo shirt with matching teeth and nail tips, blue gingham Capri pants with matching blue eyes and espadrilles, and the kind of bobbed, butter-blond flawlessness that proliferates among newscasters and sorority women of the Atlantic Coast Conference.”

    In both descriptions I have a sense of what the character looks like, not simply from their physical description, but from the clothes they’re wearing, and the way they’re being described by the POV character.

  3. As a reader, I prefer shorter physical descriptions, in part because I think they’re subjective (what’s “tall”? what’s “athletic”?), but also because I think that for the most part, they don’t benefit the narrative. (One good example of when physical description is important to the narrative is in Jennifer Crusie’s “Bet Me,” with Min’s larger size and everybody’s food issues. In a Lee Child book I read, the fact that the woman was blonde became important because a sniper spotted her in the dark because of her hair color.)

    Kat’s examples are really good to show how general description doesn’t work for me: I think SEP’s a brilliant writer, but in that long description of the woman in the beaver costume, what’s funny and important is that she’s in the beaver costume. “Grape lollipop eyes” sound like unpleasant (and possibly diseased) bug eyes to me, and everything else is boring. That would be the part I skip. In the description by Marisa de los Santos, although the narrator says she’s not editorializing, my own filters say that Piper is a privileged, selfish, pain in the neck. Is she? Because if she isn’t, then I’ve just been thrown off track by that description, too.

    Personally, I go for as little description as possible. Most or all of what I need to know about that character (race, class, profession, age, etc.) can be done through setting, pretty much. What they look like, the reader can decide. But that’s just me.

    • Kay, your philosophy on character description sounds similar to mine. Frex, I don’t mind the first few sentences of the SEP passage, but If reading the book, I’d start to wander around the time of the ‘sharp angles’. I’d skim the rest of the paragraph pretty quickly and probably not retain it.

    • I agree that less is more – I like to be given a sketchy outline so that I can fill in my own details. If I get too many and I don’t like them I’ll change them in my mind. I like it when we get the impression through the filter of a character’s POV – so in Bet Me, Min’s perception of her body was different from her mother’s, and Cal’s was different again.

      I also like it when I get an idea of what a character is like through physical action – so if Ellen is the bar owner (hope I got that right), is she tall enough to reach the top shelf, or does she stand on something, or hire tall bar staff who can do it for her? Is she strong enough to wrestle beer kegs, or does she try even though she isn’t? Does she wear practical shoes because she’s on her feet all night, or beautiful ones even though she knows her feet will be killing her before the night is over? And so on. Those details give an idea of what she looks like without having her assess her looks in the mirror (bleurgh), but they also give an idea of who she is.

  4. This is horrible, but I prefer to get my character description from the cover of the book. I don’t like reading long descriptions, and I don’t like writing them. I realize I’m on the far end of the continuum, and there are many readers who need physical descriptions, and people who absolutely revel in a page of it.

    But, I am super-partial to redheads and women with short, curly hair.

    And I think the best writers may be conveying information very subtly — in the first few paragraphs, their characters may have to reach to the top of a shelf (showing how short they are), or squeeze through something.

    It’s so hard. And if it’s important and it has to be done, it has to be done very early, before the reader paints her own pictures in her head.

    Another landmine is conveying race.

  5. Pingback: Nancy: Character Redux | Eight Ladies Writing

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