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

Another month, another authors’ Round Robin. And another through-provoking question in our writers’ group…

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor
What do you define in your writing about your characters and what do you leave to the reader’s intuition? Is there anything you never tell about a character?

There’s a LOT to these questions but they got me thinking in particular about how much – or how little – detail writers need to give about a character’s physical appearance in order for readers to develop their own mental picture.

What constitutes a ‘good picture’? 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 from the author’s? Does it matter?

Take Anna Karenina, for example. How do you picture her? Do you think of Keira Knightley in the 2012 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 is that Anna 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 it seems Tolstoy may not have had that sort of image in his mind at all.

helena fairfax, lizzie bennet

How about another great heroine, Lizzie Bennett? What picture do you have of her in your mind? Keira Knightley was cast again 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?

In romantic fiction, having a mental image of the hero and heroine is important, because physical attraction is part of falling in love. But how much does the writer need to convey? My feeling is readers like to have some description of the hero’s looks, but that too much can potentially kill the romance for them.

Cover model Fabio. (The exception to the ‘don’t mention the abs’ rule)

I’m an editor of romantic fiction and as an editor it’s important not to give the writer advice that might alter their individual ‘voice’. Lots of writers seem to think they need to go straight for describing the hero’s hot abs and sixpack as soon as he appears. Everything is subjective, but my feeling is this is too much, and some readers may even find this a turn off. And if the hero does a regular job but he’s so packed his muscles are the first thing you notice, why is he spending so much time in the gym? Is he massively vain?

My feeling is a regular good-looking guy can be far more attractive to readers than someone magnetically handsome. But do you actually need to say all lot about his appearance, in any case? Maybe not a great deal. Colour of eyes, colour of hair, perhaps a particular distinguishing feature. The reader will fill in their own idea of what makes this character hot. I think facial expressions can say so much more about a character than their appearance. A smirking character is a lot different to one with a warm smile.

Creating character and backstory

I’ve concentrated on conveying a character’s physical description in this post, but our topic this month is about all their characteristics. Just like real people, characters in a novel have a whole backstory. How much of this do readers need to know? Who the character’s parents are? Where the character went to school? Their best friend? Their favourite food? Their deepest, darkest secret?

helena fairfax, freelance editor
My dog’s ideas generally involve her food bowl. Or walks.

This is a question I’ve found impossible to answer here, as so much depends on the actual story. All I know is that most characters need at least some background, as they can’t just have dropped into a story from nowhere, and their background also defines the person they are at that particular point in time. How much of their history and even of their personality the writer needs to portray, though, depends on how much the reader needs to know – and since every story is different, I’ve found it too hard to give a simple answer in just one blog post!

This has been another interesting topic. If you’d like to find out how the other authors have answered our Round Robin question, please click on the links below!

What do you think about physical description? 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!

Robin Courtright

Skye Taylor

Diane Bator

Connie Vines

Bob Rich

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

  1. Really enjoyed this fascinating post, Helena. I prefer only a few hints of character description (as a reader and writer) as imagination quickly takes over during their dialogue and interaction with the heroine etc. I do think, however, that film and TV versions have a lot to answer for!
    I first saw Mr Rochester portrayed by Timothy Dalton and he became my ideal for that character (I like him in other roles too). Same with David Suchet as Poirot, Jeremy Brett as Holmes, and Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Darcy and Lizzie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosemary, it’s amazing how much our minds can fill in with just a few details. One thing that really puts me off is when a character is described as being the spit of a famous actor. Then all I can see is the actor!
      I like your list of film/TV fictional characters. I now always think of Poirot as David Suchet! I think the Harry Potter films had the perfect cast, too.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment!

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  2. Thank you for an informative post, Helena. I agree with you. What we need to do is to induce our reader to bring a character’s personality to life. For that, this fictional person needs to be like the reader’s conception, not necessarily the writer’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Bob, it’s really interesting how we can fill in a lot of the details ourselves, in our own minds. Readers don’t need a lot of information to put their own description together. I’ve enjoyed this topic. Thanks very much for dropping in!

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  3. Great examples – good point about how much does it really matter if the reader and the author have a different image in their mind. How a person looks is, in fact, only a small part of who they are, possibly the least important part unless their overwhelming beauty gives them an attitude about others, or their lack of inches means they didn’t qualify for a ride on the big bad roller coaster. For me personally, I was so disappointed with the movie Reacher because of who was chosen (actually he paid for the rights to make the movie and cast himself as the hero) to plan Reacher. Tom Cruise is an arrogant little jerk that in my mind just did not fit the character I’d enjoyed in all the books and I couldn’t separate them on the screen in spite of how good the movie was. I much prefer Alan Ritchson in the role. But having read his (Ritchson) take on Reacher having read the books, he tries to put himself into Reacher’s head instead of showcasing himself. Maybe that’s the difference. Anyway, perhaps trying to put too much specific description gets in the way of the reader’s imagination. Imagination is a wonderful thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Imagination really is a wonderful thing, Skye! I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of the Reacher novels (or seen the films) but one thing I do find a turn off in books is when the character is described as a Tom Cruise lookalike, or a Hugh Grant lookalike, or the lookalike of anyone from film or TV. That’s just ruined my imagination! Also, a Tom Cruise lookalike from the first Top Gun film is very different from the second film, so I always advise my editing clients not to pick real life people. The mention won’t date well.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your great comment!

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      1. So true about the aging thing. But for me Cruise is a no-go just because his actual personality, which is offensive in my opinion, always manages to come through the character he plays. Sometimes to the advantage of the film – like Rainman – but not so much in others like the Reacher movie. But other actors, whatever they are like in real life, they put themselves so completely into the part they become that character. Like Sam Heughan as Jamie Frazer in Outlander. I’ve seen him in First Light as a very young pilot in WWI, as a prince in another film and more recently in The Spy Who Dumped Me and he was entirely the part he played.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. An interesting question! It’s one of the things that comes least easily to me and that I’m therefore most tempted to skimp on. Beta readers are quite often asking me, ‘But what does she look like?’ I don’t think I have a terribly visual imagination – possibly because I grew up without a TV in the house and listened to a lot of radio instead – and if an author doesn’t attach much description to a character I don’t really miss it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s really interesting about growing up listening to the radio, Kathleen. I heard once that some people are visual learners, and some auditory. I learn things much better if I see them written down rather than hear them said. In the same way, I’m sure some people are visual writers, very good at description, and some auditory, excelling at dialogue. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot after editing a book full of great dialogue, but missing visual clues. Thanks for your interesting comment!

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  5. Hey, Helena. What an interesting post and the comments, too. I write heavy dialogue and then go back and paste in clothes and descriptions, especially if I’ve been reading a book with lot of clothes descriptions. I like descriptions, but anything can be overdone. I give a general physical description of my H & H usually through someone else’s POV. In my current WIP, one of the sisters is older but she is shorter than her younger sibling. The same is true of their mother and her sister. The issue is how old the mother is, and is she too old for the Hero? The answer, of course, is no. LOL Loved this post. Really made me think and I shared. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marsha, I like how you give the physical descriptions through someone else’s pov. If there’s something you want to say about the heroine’s appearance, it’s not easy if the story is in her point of view. Having her look in the mirror is a bit of a cliche. I also like the idea of just writing the dialogue and then going back in to write descriptions/beats if necessary. I find writing the dialogue beats can be a chore sometimes. Good idea to let the talk flow and then go back for what I think are tiresome fiddly bits.
      I’m really looking forward to your new release. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment!

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  6. Bit late replying because I was stuck on the ferry between Bainbridge Island and Seattle!

    But apart from my weird dalliance with Drusilla, who seemed to get inside my head and (to me at least) looked a little different from the actress who played her, I probably tend to give just enough description to get a reasonable impression of the character and just enough background to flesh out their personality enough either to intrigue or repulse (or possibly both) my unfortunate readers…

    So without further ado, another few excerpts from that evil and unpublished manuscript of mine:

    “His tie, I noticed absently, was askew and he himself looked like a harmless if peevish middle-aged academic, an image somewhat marred by the Remington hunting rifle dangling casually in his left hand.”

    “Not bad, I thought. My day and life might be going to Hell by way of the Wold, my hair may be lank and my body encased in a grotty orange bathrobe, but at least this bloke knew his definitions.”

    Both quotes, from the point of view of Jill the female lead, hopefully give the unlucky reader some idea of the way both my main characters looked, not that you’d like to meet either of them on a dark night…

    And this winsome little ditty gives a very clear (and of course deeply disturbing) insight into Jill’s winsome character:

    “I’d shone at school, but not in an academic sense. Easily bored, impulsive and short on empathy, I’d formed a girl gang called Jill’s Juvenile Jackals. We’d contented ourselves with torturing spotty computer nerds and torching teachers’ cars. Protests about us never came to much as I was also shagging Mister Smithers, the assistant head, during my many hours of detention.

    The first time we’d met, he’d been so terrified of the brute brunette in black leather he’d have to take charge of he brought a pair of handcuffs.

    We made good use of THEM.”

    I think I’d better go off and terrify my therapist now…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Excellent character sketches, James. I hope your therapist is impressed!
      That sounds like an exciting trip to western USA. I’d love to visit Seattle sometime, and explore the whole of Washington State. So much to see in the world, so little time. I hope you had a great ‘vacation’. Good to see you back!

      Like

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