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Appearance is everything – or is it? How much character description should a writer give?

Recently I came across this interesting article on Wonkomance about how readers “see” the characters in a book in their imagination. It got me thinking about how much – or how little – detail writers need to give about a character’s physical appearance in order for readers to develop an inner picture.

helena fairfax, anna kareninaWhat constitutes a “good picture”? For example, does the reader need to “see” a character in exactly the same way the author has imagined her? What if the reader’s picture is totally different to the author’s? Does it matter? Take Anna Karenina, for example. How do you picture her? Do you think of Keira Knightley in the recent film version? Or maybe the fabulous Vivien Leigh in the 1940s version? Both actresses are slim and gorgeous. Is this how Anna Karenina ought to look?

We all have our own image of Anna Karenina in our minds, so it might surprise you to know that nowhere in the novel did Leo Tolstoy describe her appearance. There are a couple of paragraphs in which the young girl Kitty is envious of Anna’s elegance and stylish dress, but elegance and style aren’t just reserved for thin people. The only description in the entire (long!) novel that Tolstoy gives of Anna is that she has “plump hands”. That’s it. And “plump” definitely doesn’t describe Keira Knightley! So as readers (and film producers) we’ve assumed that Anna Karenina is a slim, conventional beauty, when in fact Tolstoy probably didn’t have that sort of image in his mind at all.

How about another great heroine, Lizzie Bennett? Do you have a picture of her in your mind? Keira Knightley was cast helena fairfax, lizzie bennetagain for this role, in the 2005 film. Personally she didn’t fit my imaginings at all. Again, there is little description of Lizzie in the novel. Darcy famously comments on her “fine, dark eyes”, and that her figure is “light and pleasing”, although lacking symmetry (I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that!) Bingley’s sister bitchily points out that Lizzie is sadly brown after her walk over the fields, which suggests Lizzie tans easily.  The author comments that Lizzie is shorter than Kitty Bennet. So from this very little description I have a picture in my mind of a small, slim, dark-haired girl with flashing dark eyes. Is this the same picture you have? And does it matter if it isn’t?

I’ve been pondering on this subject a lot recently, since I’m just finishing my present WIP. Another romance author –  who  kindly critiqued the opening chapters – commented that I’ve given no description of the heroine apart from the fact that she’s blonde. This omission wasn’t deliberate on my part. I have a very precise image of the heroine in my mind. She has a curvy figure, for example, and is definitely not thin, but another reader commented that she would find it hard to relate to my heroine because she’s “slim and attractive”. She’s not slim in my mind, and nowhere described as such, and it’s interesting that this reader has assumed that she must be.  (As far as being attractive goes, of course my heroine is bound to be attractive to the hero, since he falls in love with her. All heroes find the heroine attractive in romance novels, in the same way Count Vronsky falls passionately in love with Anna – but that doesn’t necessarily mean all romance heroines are conventionally beautiful. Maybe the reader will just assume a romance heroine is slim and beautiful, unless the writer specifically states otherwise?)

What do you think? Do you expect the author to describe everything about the characters’ appearance, or do you prefer to have just the merest details and to form your own picture? And do you ever watch films and think the actors look nothing like you imagined them in the book?

If you have any comments at all I’d love to hear from you!

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40 thoughts on “Appearance is everything – or is it? How much character description should a writer give?

  1. Helena – I always think of someone called Elizabeth as being very fair-haired which is why, in the Colin Firth version of P&P, I think the actresses playing Elizabeth and Jane should have been cast the other way round.

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    1. Oh, that’s so interesting, Kate! I’ve never thought of Lizzie as fair-haired, but perhaps she was! You’ve put a totally different image in my mind. I also wasn’t keen on Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie in that version. She’s a great actor, but in my imagination Lizzie is much younger. I may have to wait forever for the perfect Lizzie Bennett!

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    1. I absolutely love War and Peace, too, GP! It’s such a brilliant and dramatic read, and one of my favourite books ever. I also do love Anna K., but find it quite painful to read. It depresses me too much, even though there are parts that are positive an uplifting. They don’t uplift enough to outweigh everything else :) Thanks for your comment!

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  2. I think a good amount of description is needed, especially for main characters, but if writers tried to do it in the tiniest detail it would get a bit much. I think a good helping of description, and then just let the reader fill in the rest to their preference so as not to overload it :)

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Harliqueen! I agree, it’s good to let the reader form at least some of the picture by themselves. I like to do some of the work myself and not be spoonfed too many details by the author. Thanks very much for your comment!

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  3. Hi Helena,
    I absolutely need a good description of a character when I read and write as well as their movements. I like to imagine it all going on in my head! xo
    Nice post!

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    1. That’s interesting you say so, Chrissy. So far people I’ve asked agree, saying they prefer to have more description, rather than less. I’m thinking it’s time to add a little more description to my WIP! Thanks for coming, and for your comment!

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  4. Aloha Helena,

    Ooh, what interesting thoughts you have. :-) I like. I often worry about this. I think I never give a ‘full’ description of the character in some ways. Just my style. I think actually, my two male heroes are both given reasonably good descriptions in some ways. But you get them at different times in the book. Although, just about anyone who reads Henry, DOES get what he looks like immediately because I make a casual reference to a well known black actor. Cheating? Maybe, but that’s who Henry looks like in my mind. Charlie, I give more of a ‘full’ description of in terms of his looks, build and personality. All we really know about Izzy is that she has red curly hair, pale skin, is nearly a foot shorter than Henry, like’s to have fat in her diet. :-) I suppose, thinking about it, I leave some things to the readers imagination. Although, I have a clear idea in my mind what they look like.

    Miss Isadora, I myself, don’t have a super clear picture of what she looks like…But the readers know she is a Creole, tall, lean, uses a cane sometimes, doesn’t look her age at close to a hundred, wears black curly wigs…smokes in a holder. Is that enough? I don’t know. When you first meet her, she’s wearing her favorite flappers dress that hangs like a sack on her and purple lipstick. You know she’s a dark skinned Creole, without me saying, because she’s Henry’s Aunt. I think I drop bits and pieces of the character as I go along. LOL. I once wrote to Jeffrey Deaver, asking him if Lincoln Rhyme was black, as portrayed in the movie, because from the minute deals on his looks, I thought he was white. He was very nice and wrote back to me to confirm he was white in the book. LOL. I treasured that email.

    I think when you read someone like Evanovich and her characters, she doesn’t give masses of details, but we ALL have an idea of what Stephanie, Joe, Ranger, Grandma Mazur, Vinnie, Lula all look like. When they cast the movie, the amount of chat things about it were amazing. EVERYONE had an opinion on who would be the perfect looking person for each part. I think the only one most of us agreed on for the movie was the person who played Lula. LOL.

    Anyway, sorry, in the end, I think it’s personal style. I like the description of ‘plump hands.’ I also like my heroine curvy and I suppose I do always find a way to work that in. LOL.

    Okay, enough waffling, but interesting as always Helena. :-)

    Aloha Meg :-)

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    1. Aloha, Meg! I’ve picked up a great visual picture from your character descriptions. Love Miss Isadora and her purple lipstick! Little touches like that are great! It’s not often I watch a film of a book and think the people cast were perfect. Maybe something like The Princess Bride – those actors were all just right! Writing that a character in a book looks like a certain film star can help a reader get a picture – but sometimes it has the opposite effect. I once read a romance in which the hero “looked like Robert Redford.” The heroine was only 22. I did a double-take, and then realised the book was published in the 80s! Well, I looked a lot different then, too! :)
      How kind of Jeffrey Deaver to write to you! I love authors that take the time to engage with their readers.
      Thanks so much for your lovely comment!

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      1. Aloha Helena,

        Thanks on the visual picture. :-) I appreciate that. Miss Isadora’s a trick. :-)

        I haven’t seen the Princess Bride.

        LOL on Robert Redford. Mind you, I think he’s got that ‘quintessential’ ‘Robert Redford’ look to him. LOL. If you know what I mean, no matter his age. The person I’m thinking of is Morgan Freeman. Who always looks like…Morgan Freeman. LOL. Or you could say something like ‘classic Tom Sellack.’ That moustache automatically comes to mind. :-)

        It was very kind of Jeffrey Deaver to write back to me. :-) I was absolutely tickled pink to get it. :-) I put it in my special wee file. LOL. You can tell the readers and writers. We don’t get excited over a sports stars autograph. We get excited over getting something from another writer. LOL.

        Thanks as always Helena. I love your blog posts. Always very interesting!!

        Aloha Meg :-)

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  5. I like just a bit of description of the main characters, and the rest of the picture to be left to my imagination. However, I find that in MG/YA books, there tends to be more detailed character description. This makes sense, since kids might want a bit more help in visualizing the people they’re reading about. Not that they need it (I know my son sure has imagination in spades!) but it might help some of the more reluctant readers get into the book.

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    1. I hadn’t thought about that, Heather, until now, but when I remembered YA books I’ve read recently, or children’s books I enjoyed, they did describe the characters’ appearance in a lot more detail. Thanks for pointing that out. How interesting!

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  6. I think that conventional portrayals of women in media have created a sort of archetypical female image that I unknowingly see every time I mentally construct the characters in my mind. I only alter their bodies if or when supplementary descriptions of them are added in by the narrator. I do the same for men as well. Thank-you for this post!

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    1. Hi bygonegirl, that’s a good point, especially in romance novels. We have a conventional view of what’s attractive, and unless the author says any different, we just assume the heroine is slim and the hero is tall. It’s so easy to make these assumptions, we don’t even think about it. This conversation is making me realise that as a romance writer I perhaps I should give more detailed descriptions of my characters. Thanks so much for your comment!

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  7. Very interesting post, Helena. I like a little description to get an overall feel for the character – as in tall, short, dark, fair – then I tend to fill in my own picture of them in my imagination. I really liked Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet but not Keira Knightly. And I still think of Colin Firth as Darcy and definitely not for the wet shirt scene (can’t understand why that’s so popular) – I like all the different moods he brought to the character.

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    1. Hi Ros, I also wasn’t keen on Keira Knightley as Lizzie, and definitely not as Anna Karenina. Colin Firth was great as Darcy, though! And I quite liked the wet shirt scene! :) What a daunting task it must be for these actors to take on a classic role like that, with the weight of all our imaginings and expectations. Thanks for your comment, Ros!

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  8. I think this is a tricky one for authors to balance. Too much description and there’s nothing left for the reader’s imagination. Too little description and the reader has nowhere to go with her imagination so the intimate ‘bonding’ with the character is at risk.

    I have stories in which I don’t mention the characters’ hair or eye color. I have other stories with probably way too much of that sort of detail. *shrugging*

    When I write a story, I have a particular actor or actress in mind (because I’m a lifelong Hollywood junkie lol), but just because I envision my hero to be Gerard Butler, doesn’t mean the reader shouldn’t have enough left to her imagination to envision Hugh Jackman instead. ;-)

    I think that’s part of the magic of reading.

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    1. Hi Kaye, that’s a great comment. Using our imagination is part of “the magic of reading” – I love that thought!
      Like you, I also have a particular person’s appearance in mind for my main characters – whether a film star or just someone I know. It helps me keep close rein on the character’s physical details (and stops eyes turning from brown to green half way through the novel, for example!) But I’d never let on to the reader who I have in mind. I find if an author writes a character “looks just like so-and-so” it does detract from my own imaginings when I’m reading.
      Thanks for your great comment. It sums up a lot of what I’ve been thinking!

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  9. Wow, Helena, what a great post and I love all the comments here. If anything, it shows how different we all are. :) So maybe there’s not right or wrong way for us as writers. Whichever way we choose, will fit some readers somewhere. When I first started writing, I didn’t use pictures of actors. Some class or workshop I attended pointed out how helpful that could be. So several books ago, I started doing that. But I gotta say, even with those pictures in front of me, when I’m in my head writing or reading it during rewrites and edits, the person is much blurrier. When I’m reading someone else’s books. I just want general stuff, height, hair and eye color.
    Love Kaye’s comment:
    just because I envision my hero to be Gerard Butler, doesn’t mean the reader shouldn’t have enough left to her imagination to envision Hugh Jackman instead. ;-)
    I concur. I have a friend who would always picture Gerard Butler! Great post, Helena. I’ll be sharing.

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    1. Thanks very much, Marsha! I loved Kaye’s comment, too. It sums things up for me: have a clear picture of your protagonists yourself, but give just enough details for the reader to form her own image in her mind. Thanks for coming, and for your brilliant comment!

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  10. I don’t have an easy time describing characters. Since my novel started as a spoof between me and two friends, I made the three women and their love interests beautiful people. I honestly don’t believe a lot of description is necessary. The more I wrote, the less I described people.

    I agree that we automatically assume the hero and heroine are attractive. One thing I’ve wondered… Do a persons eyes really darken when they are sexually aroused? lol

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    1. Aloha Leona,

      Yes, the eyes do darken in sexual arousal. :-) Your pupil, or lens, the black spot in the middle of the eye becomes larger or dilates when sexually aroused. The Iris (the colored part) contracts. And the eye will look darker with more of the pupil showing.

      Like a lens of a camera, opening up the shutter to take in various amounts of light for the film. (cast you mind back to ‘ye olde days’ for the word ‘film.’ :-)) That’s why when a doc looks in your eyes with a bright light, he’s looking for a pupil change. When you shine a light in someone’s eyes, their pupil should contract or get smaller, letting in less light.

      Aloha Meg ;-)

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    2. I find the same thing, Leona – the more I write, the less I describe! Sometimes I go back and fill in a few details, but quite often it isn’t necessary to be over-descriptive.
      And loved your reply regarding the darkening pupils, Meg! Thanks for the scientific explanation!!

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  11. Helena, I found your article very interesting. I, too,have a WIP. Actually, I call it a RIP (Revision In Progress). In it, selima, a slave girl, is Native American, as am I. I make a very brief reference to her long black hair. At another point I mention brown skin. And still further on, I say something about brown eyes. Nothing more. I don’t think it necessary.

    Some find it necessary to go into excruciating detail on the physical appearance of a character, and pay almost not attention to the character inside. That is where I work the hardest. To find the flaws that allow me to drive the story forward is hard. But, it serves a far greater purpose than how tall they are, or their inseam, or the cup size.

    Thank you,

    Silent

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    1. Hi Silent, I love the term RIP! That’s brilliant. I think I’ll adopt that for my present RIP! :) I’ve got an image in my mind now of your Native American slave girl, from the few details you’ve given. You’re right, I don’t need anything else to picture her for myself, and it’s far more interesting to discover her personality and the “character inside”, as you say. It sounds an interesting story.Great comment!

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  12. Nice post, Helena. I enjoyed it. I describe my characters but not enough for my readers to still picture/imagine them the way they want. And I specify no people on my covers to the cover artists. Lots of time movies are ruined for me because the characters aren’t anything like what I imagined from the books. I was just in a discussion on goodreads about this.

    Curl up with a killer – Cozy Mysteries
    The Ginseng Conspiracy by Susan Bernhardt

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    1. Hi Susan, that’s another interesting point – whether readers like to see the characters on the cover. Personally I don’t mind. I was quite surprised – almost taken aback! – at first by how my cover artist envisaged my heroines, but now I really love my covers. They’re not how I imagine my heroines, and maybe not how a lot of my readers picture them, but I think most readers disassociate the cover from the actual book once they start reading – especially so with e-books, of course, as you don’t “shut” the book once you’ve started reading. Great point – thanks for your comment!

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  13. Susan and Helena – Regarding the depiction of the characters on the covers… I’d give A LOT to have Fabio on one of my covers even if I’d specifically described my hero as 5 feet tall with jet black short hair. bwahaha!!!!!! *almost swooning at the thought* ;-)

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      1. Helena,

        I just went through the Fabio slide show. Full-blown swoon here. *fanning self* #23 Pirate, #28 Rogue, & #38 Dangerous… Oh My Giddy Aunt (and I’m not even British) bwahahaha! Thanks for the eye candy for my Monday morning.

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  14. You are garnering so many comments on this subject. Adding my two cents or would that be 2 tuppence, I like the characters descriptions sprinkled throughout the first couple of chapters, not an onslaught of every miniscule look of the person in one exhaustive paragraph.
    One thing I’d like to point out as told to me by an educator-children, because of so many movies, TV, videos, have problems imagining what a character, scene, etc looks like. They don’t use their brain to create the picture they read about in a book because they don’t need to do so with videos.They are losing that wonderful imaging in their heads. Isn’t that frightening?.

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    1. Interesting comment, JQ, and quite concerning if it’s true what they say about children’s imaginations. A lot of the video games I’ve seen do lead children into a rich imaginative world, and the TV in the main is pounds better than the TV I watched as a child. Have children stopped being able to visualise things for themselves, though, I wonder? That’s a whole new debate, and an interesting one, JQ, and it sort of ties up with Heather’s comment above re description in MG/YA fiction. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. This has been an interesting topic.

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  15. I like to have a few pointers from the author, but not too many details as I like to imagine the character as I see them. That said I like to know eye and hair colour and an idea of how the characters carries him or herself.

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    1. Hi Tina, those are exactly the details I like to be give, too! I like to know the hair and eye colour. Although having said that, Lizzie’s hair colour isn’t mentioned at all in P&P, as Kate Blackadder pointed out in her comment, and yet I have quite a clear picture of her in my mind. It’s amazing what details you fill in subconsciously! Thanks for your comment!

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