Authors: How much does it REALLY matter what your characters look like?

How much does it matter what a character sees when he or she looks in the mirror???

How much does it matter what a character sees when he or she looks in the mirror???

As I continue to edit (or try to edit) “The Esclavan Abductions,” I got to thinking about character appearance. How important is it? How much does its importance vary from genre to genre?

Do YOU generally care what a character looks like? Whether or not you get a full, detailed description of a character’s appearance?

I don’t read romance, so this could be off base, but I’d have to think what a character looks like is much more important in romance than in other genres…. I’ve even read blog posts lambasting tropes of physical appearance and tirading against description stereotypes in romance.

If I’m wrong there, feel free to share your thoughts about this. It could be an interesting discussion! (Just be respectful of everyone, please).

THIS IS ON MY MIND RIGHT NOW THANKS TO ONE CHARACTER IN PARTICULAR

I’ve been thinking about character appearance because of one of the two protagonists in my WIP: sorcerer Zate Polve.

Zate’s parents feature in one of my previous books.

  • His father has muddy brown hair and dark eyes and moderate acne as a young adult.
  • His mother is auburn-haired. I picture her as a redhead.

While writing the first draft I described Zate as having auburn hair in the first scene, as well as his father’s acne issues. He’s got some bulk to him but not too much.

Here’s where it gets weird…. Has anyone else during edits pictured a character differently than what you described him to look like? Cause I have!!!

Whenever I picture Zate mentally I see:

  • brown hair, like his dad. Kind of wavy. Cropped a bit shorter than all the nobles he works for, who tie their hair back.
  • Greenish eyes.
  • I don’t see acne, at least not anything I would take note of.
  • He kind of suffers from what I describe as “resting jerk face” but he’s not a jerk at heart. A bit rough around the edges, but not cruel and not selfish.

I find the situation really, really odd. Why in the world do I picture Zate differently than I described him to begin with? Have I simply gotten to know him better, and I see now who he was always meant to be?

I could change the descriptions throughout the work to match how I view Zate now. I very well might end up doing that. What’s interesting is that I’ve never changed a character in a finished draft that substantially before.

I tend to edit the situation a character is in rather than change the character. (I’ve written a post about that).

Still, I’m intrigued by the thought of being flexible in my writing process and doing something new for me: completely changing the way I described a character. Maybe Zate has always looked his not-so-dear ole dad!

On the other hand, it could also be fun (and worthwhile) to try to reconcile my inner view of the character with the way I first laid him out on the page.

I feel as though I described Zate with red hair for a reason, right? I imagined him looking like his mother for a reason. I must have.

Zate turns out to be a really cool character. He does some heroic and crazy stuff. Even badass stuff. For some reason that I don’t feel that my original description of his and his physique matches that somehow.

Which is strange. I don’t understand why that is. There is absolutely no reason someone with reddish hair couldn’t be a really awesome sorcerer, right? Of course not!

In some ways I feel that appearance is pretty arbitrary, but in others, I suspect I have gotten this totally arbitrary and meaningless thing wrong.

?????

Yeah. Paradox. Appearance doesn’t really matter…. And yet, it does.

So, what do you guys think about this topic? Have you ever ended up picturing a character differently than you pictured him or her at the start? Do you think something as minor as a character’s hair color or eye color (if those aren’t related to a specific ethnic heritage that matters for the character) are big deals???

I hope this post is somewhat thought-provoking, because it’s really got me reassessing things and contemplating whether or why appearance matters (in fiction).

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50 responses to “Authors: How much does it REALLY matter what your characters look like?

  1. Pingback: Weekly Candy: Dark Paradise, & Books that Remind Me of TV Serials | dirtybinary

  2. One of my characters started out as a teenager. He didn’t approve. He wasn’t interested in waiting to grow up either. He preferred to be in his thirties. He got his way.

    • hahaha! WOW! that’s AMAZING!!!! Great example of changing a character in a substantial way!!! That change will definitely affect appearance and wardrobe as well as life view, goals, and even personality. Sounds like a crazy fun challenge!

  3. As human beings we like to put people in categories, fit them neatly into our preconceived conventions. Sometimes when reading, a character can be described one way but by the end of the book I’ve decided they don’t look that that initial description at all. I’ve made them my own. It’s why book to screen adaptions feel a bit odd.
    I tend to not go overboard on my descriptions, as I leave a little for the reader to concoct on their own. I want them to own the characters too. Don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but that’s my take on it.

    • I like to do the same thing for the most part, Pippa. I like giving the reader some creative power. I do give a basic description but leave some blanks, for sure, for the reader to fill.

      You are SOOO right about screen adaptations. Sometimes I’m just left thinking, THIS is what you got from the book? He or she doesn’t look like that at all!

  4. That’s interesting. Maybe it’s really because you’ve gotten to know your character better?
    I’ve never experienced this via editing, but during writing process (I’ve been working on my WIP for a while, so characters had a lot of time to physically change πŸ˜‰ ). I’ve had a few characters who went through minor changes, like hair color. Nothing special, it has never been a big deal to change these things, if necessary. The only thing that really gets me thinking is when a character suddenly has scars in my imagination. Because there is always a reason when people have scars on their face that haven’t been there before πŸ™‚
    But I have to says that appearance indeed isn’t as important for me, neither for reading nor for writing. Actually, I loved how people still argue whether Legolas has blonde or dark hair, because Tolkien simply never mentioned it πŸ™‚ It’s great when descriptions are there, but remain so vague that your mind can really make its own image. And as for writing, I usually describe characters when they are introduced, and then I only hint back to a few distinguishing traits once in a while.

    • I like when descriptions are vague too. And you’re definitely right: it’s not a big change either way–either in work involved or in significance to the story–to change the way the character looks. I’ll probably end up doing that, but I do want to give him as he is now a fighting chance first, if that makes sense.

      And I didn’t realize Tolkien never describe Legolas’s hair!!!!That’s crazy!!! I’ve read the books and never picked up on that. I saw the movies first (unforgivable, I know) and just pictured Legolas as blond as a result.

  5. To be honest, there are some things that I need to know what my characters look like specifically because it puts them in a certain group, which is important to the plot.

    However, in my current WIP, I have no idea what my protagonist looks like except that she has a strong, athletic build, and the only thing I know about my (antagonist’s?) appearance is his bright, icy blue eyes. None of the other characters are really described, at least up to this point, because my protagonist is very inner-focused and doesn’t notice. The only problem is she’s now starting to notice and describe people and things in better detail, but I haven’t been taking notes on what the characters look like, so I’ve no idea what I’ve described up to this point.

    Oh well, I guess I’ll handle that when I go through to edit this!

    In general, though, physical appearance is only important sometimes, and there’s definitely something to be said for leaving someone’s appearance partly a mystery. I really don’t like when authors describe in such detail that I can’t imagine any aspect of the character. Imagining is part of the fun!

    • I totally agree! imagining is DEFINITELY part of the fun! And you can definitely worry about all that stuff during editing. That’s what I do, because I write the same way! πŸ˜›

  6. I think it’s important to some extent. At least at the beginning to give the character a clearer form for the reader. I know the eye color and hair color of my characters include build. I’ve started choosing one characteristic that connects to them for description purpose. For example, the character Nyx in my second book has violet eyes. That one differentiating trait can help with dialogue so you’re not always writing their name.

    I have noticed cover art always has a difference with character appearance. It’s never exactly right because the artist has his or her own vision and the author can’t transfer it exactly.

  7. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of use of appearance being genre-related before. True, in one of my romances, physical attraction – and thus, appearance – is important, but I think it’s also possible for romances to be too held up on that alone, where what a character does might be more important in the end of attraction.

    Hmm, my own characters don’t change so much unless I make them. I think one character went through three different hair dyes in two books because so much of her life felt apart! I myself tend to pay attention to physical attribute when writing, but I would say it’s book- or author-specific rather than genre specific. In the first book of my trilogy, most of the characters have black hair because they’re all related (the MMC’s parents are cousins) and there I use appearance as a theme, rather than simply a character-tool.
    On the other hand, one could argue that mysteries rely on appearance more than most genres – ‘a black haired, seven-foot man hurried away from the scene’ might be crucial to one character’s appearance. Then again – it might not! πŸ˜›

    ‘Resting jerk face’??

    • The idea that someone unintentionally looks jerky when his or her face is in neutral/expressionless mode. I’ve also heard it called “resting bitch face” but I try not to use strong language in my articles πŸ™‚

      I agree with what you say about actions taking precedence. For sure. And I LOVE the idea of a character dying her hair as a coping mechanism. So true to life!!! It speaks a lot to someone’s personality. I don’t dye my hair when I need a new outlook and feel stressed but I do go get a haircut at those times πŸ™‚

  8. I think some description is important. I don’t need all the details, but I like something to get me started on forming my image of the character. I find that I do tend to describe my characters–eye color, hair color & length, some idea of height, etc. I know my readers won’t see them exactly as I do, but I still want to put some of what I see out there.

    It’s interesting that your image of Zate has changed so much, and I would guess that you’ve just gotten to know him better, or he’s letting you know more about him. I think there’s this balance between controlling our stories and our characters and letting them flow through us. Since the new appearance is how he is consistently showing up for you, it may be worth redoing your descriptions.

  9. I actually have never been able to picture characters, or anything else for that matter. I’m unable to ‘see’ the picture in my head, which makes it much more difficult for me to describe a character. I really couldn’t care less if their eyes are blue or green, but I have to keep a list just so that it doesn’t change throughout the book. However, I am told that readers like to see what kind of a person they’re following, so I guess I have to amp up the description a bit.

    • I’m like you in some ways: I really don’t often form crazy clear pictures of characters that I read about. The characters that I write, that’s different someone. I have images of them in my head. I don’t always describe everything about them on the page, but I see them much more clearly than I do other characters.

  10. My editor pointed out that with every person I introduced in my book, I at least mentioned their hair color right away. If nothing else, my readers knew what their hair color was. Which was fine, but after awhile, did get repetitive and noticable, at least when I was paying attention.

    That being said, I’ve had friends criticize Stephanie Meyer for not ‘describing’ Bella with great detail. She said in an interview that she did it on purpose, because readers like to picture themselves in that place. I agree with her. Lots of readers do that, and so do lots of authors.

    Whether it’s a good thing or not, I’m not sure. Whether this is even on the original topic you intended, I’m not sure of that either πŸ™‚

    • I love what you say here: readers really do like to put their own personal touches on characters. I think that’s a lot of fun!!! I love doing that. Love your point as well about varying your “MO” of character description. That’s a great tip!!! Thanks for sharing!

  11. “There is absolutely no reason someone with reddish hair couldn’t be a really awesome sorcerer, right? Of course not!”

    You should read “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s a first-rate fantasy, and the main character has flaming red hair. An excerpt from the cover blurb:
    “The Adem call me Maedre. Which, depending on how it’s spoken, can mean The Flame, The Thunder, or The Broken Tree.
    “The Flame” is obvious if you’ve ever seen me. I have red hair, bright. If I had been born a couple of hundred years ago I would probably have been burned as a demon. I keep it short but it’s unruly. When left to its own devices, it sticks up and makes me look as if I have been set afire.”

    It’s a great book, and a great blurb if read in its entirety. Here’s the link if you’re interested.http://www.patrickrothfuss.com/content/books.asp

    Anyway, I like to leave most of the character description up to the reader. A few traits for symbolism or as foils for the personality or to show backstory, and that’s about it. Most people can fill in a lot about a person’s looks by getting to know their personality.

    • Hahaha!!! Thanks for the recommendation that sounds like an awesome book!!!! πŸ™‚ I agree, I don’t usually give a full, very detailed description. Just some basic details (such as hair color)

  12. You’re not alone, Victoria. In my WIP, I stopped my second draft midway through and started on the third draft partly because one of the secondary characters informed me that I had her all wrong. Not her physical appearance so much as her mannerisms, but that’s still part of her personal description. It turned out that she had a larger part to play in the story than I’d realized in the outline, the first draft, or that partial second draft. In the third draft she likes how I describe her and I like her better too.

    When it comes to physical appearance, I’ve mentioned in previous comments how I use character sheets. I list eye color, hair color, height, build, any distinctive features or typical clothing styles. If anything comes up later, I add it to the character sheet. But more than that, I decided which actors and actresses I would cast to play my characters if my story were made into a movie. I paste images of those actors and actresses into the character sheets. So when I envision my characters, I see the associated actors and actresses playing out the scenes in my head. I do this with all the major characters, and some of the not-so-major ones too. I don’t always go with the same eye and hair color for my characters as the associated actor or actress has, or even the same height, but those things are rather minor considerations anyway. My written descriptions trumps what’s in the pictures. It’s just fun for me to determine my cast and envision those actors and actresses in the roles of my characters.

    While I have lots of details about my characters in my character sheets, I only include in the story those details that the POV character pays attention to; thus the descriptions that go into the story help characterize the POV character. Until the very end of the story, the POV character in my WIP is the protagonist. It’s only when he has reason to think about some part of his physique that it’s described in the story. In contrast, the protagonist is really taken with some women he meets, and those women are described in detail, down to every visible stitch of clothing. Someone asks the protagonist to describe the floor of the building where he met one of these women and he can’t do it, but he could describe her boots.

    • glad to hear you are getting to know your character better!!! and are happy with her πŸ™‚ Love your last paragraph here…. linking description to what the protag would notice is solid all the way around.

      And I too have thoughts about a dream cast, hahaha!!! So glad you mentioned that! I think all writers have that. I never would have considered it a tool for description but it totally could be.

  13. No matter how an author describes a character, I always have my own picture of that character. I find that general descriptions work best spread out over pages, rather than everything crammed in one big paragraph. That technique feels clunky to me.

    I describe my character in passing, and then only later if the subject comes up because of a plot point, i.e., my main character seems someone with hair color similar to hers.

    • I too like the idea of a description spread out over a few pages, a tidbit of info here and there where it makes sense for the narrator to give it. That’s solid writing for sure. Too much all at once feels clunky, like you say. It’s also too much at once for someone to remember.

  14. Appearances should have a purpose I wrote a blog post about this but in a nutshell it has to do with the Law of Conservation of detail; if it isn’t relevant, don’t include it.

    In regards to appearance and romance, I imagine that it’s important there but no more important than in any other genre. Someone that goes to far with appearance/beauty/ etc would be lampasted no matter what they wrote becausse it would be excessive.

    • You nailed it!!! Everything you put into a book should have a purpose and that includes description. You should have a reason for giving this detail or for saying that. For sure πŸ™‚ Thanks for your insight, Brian!

  15. I haven’t changed my character’s description.much after I’ve written it. Usually I see the characters very clearly in my mind and then the story forms around who I see and who they are. Maybe the walk-on type characters I change a bit here and there, but not my main characters.

    I think once I read a whole book thinking their hair color was brown, when it was actually blonde. The cover art for the book had brown hair so I’m sure that’s where I got it.

    I like some description, but not too much. I have no idea what too much is though. But then I find myself so attached to my characters that I want readers to know exactly what they look like. Hypocrite! So I have to keep myself in check. I guess I really don’t have to, I just do.

    • I like your theme of balance. I think that’s the key. You want to give the reader a guide but to allow them to do some creating too. Visualizing is the right of the reader πŸ™‚ I totally agree!

      And wow, that’s a crazy oversight if the book cover gave a character the wrong hair cover, haha!

  16. Pingback: AUTHORS: A Quick Guide to Character Description | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  17. I tweaked the appearance of one of my characters in my WIP. I’m not one to go into too much detail. I like to leave a little to the reader’s imagination because that’s also what I prefer as a reader. I like to hear their voices though and I imagine that more than I fill out their appearance.

    • that’s cool that you say that!!! I think I’m a bit more of a visual person. I don’t really hear my characters all that much. I do real dialogue out loud to make sure it flows, though, and at that point I get to thinking a bit about voice acting πŸ™‚

  18. As a reader, I prefer as few physical descriptors as possible – the ones I want are key things, that still leave a lot to the imagination. E.g. a man can have dark eyes and strong features, and I’m pretty sure every reader will picture someone else, someone they find attractive or loathsome (depending on the character). And I want to have that right. I get pretty annoyed as a reader when authors are trying to control exactly what I am picturing in my head.

    As a writer, I try to stay with that – but there is also the point that appearance influences us as people, influences the way society sees us and reacts to us.
    So as a writer, I try to know exactly what they look like but focus more on the effect of their looks on the people around them than on the looks themeselves. I also am more likely to describe imperfections than how pretty people are – I’m bored with pretty people, the perfect hair and nails, perfect make-up etc. in the written medium.

    • “So as a writer, I try to know exactly what they look like but focus more on the effect of their looks on the people around them than on the looks themeselves. ”

      That is brilliant! That’s exactly how character description works best, I’ve always thought. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree, I’m over the perfect!

  19. I’ve changed a couple of the main characters substantially within my debut fantasy novel, right up until the end of my final draft.
    I typically end up describing my characters in great detail, as I do with most things in my fiction. I love reading descriptions of nature and people and sights, and thus it transferred over to my own writing.
    I just started reading Ernest Hemingway (outside of required reading all the way back in high school, that is) and am amazed at the lack of character descriptions in his novels when it comes to appearance. I still know nothing about the appearance of Thomas Hudson in ‘Islands in the Stream’. I was admittedly put off by the lack of character descriptions at first, but I now see the benefit in allowing the reader the visualize a protagonist or antagonist as they see fit.

    • That’s so true about Hemingway!!! He’s big on that lack of description. Pretty much a minimalist in every sense, and like you say, it gives the reader free creative reign, which is kind of cool. It can be a lot of fun!

      • Indeed! But with landscapes and environments I still crave a lot of description. And Hemingway does pretty well at describing an environment.

  20. As a reader and visual spatial, it does matter to me because without it, the character feels less important, like the author didn’t view the character important enough to describe. I don’t necessarily need to know the vitals like hair color and eye color, but rather just that the writer stopped to pay attention to the character with a quick snapshot of something.

    One of the problems in NOT describing characters is that there’s a default. People are asking to see more of characters who reflect our diverse societies. A friend co-edited an anthology and she put out everywhere that she wanted diverse characters. She got almost nothing. What she primarily got was the default — people not describing the characters, which meant they were white. One of the biggest things I’ve been pushing myself to do is describe the skin color of every single character in the book.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Linda! I like what you say here: there IS a difference between an author giving a very loose guide of description and giving nothing at all. A big difference for a reader.

      I don’t personally get the impression that an author doesn’t care when he or she doesn’t describe characters: I get the impression that the author deliberate chose to leave that up to the reader. But I can see how you would get that impression, and it’s good for all authors to know some readers will interpret their approach that way. (And who knows…. maybe some of them honestly aren’t caring enough to describe the person!)

  21. There are some intriguing points in time in the following paragraphs but I don’t determine if I see these center to be able to heart. There exists some quality but I will take hold view until My partner and i look into that further. Piece of content , thanks and that we want much more! Added to FeedBurner too

  22. Before I write any story, I have to know what my characters look like, even if it’s just a simple list of description to get me started on a story, but even if I have a complicated list of description for every one of my characters, I rarely get into that much detail while I’m writing the story. It’s similar to how some authors have to think of a title, even if it’s just temporary, before they can start writing. It just makes me feel better to know what my characters would look like. As for reading stories, while I would like to know what they look like, it doesn’t have to be all at once, or at the beginning, and it doesn’t have to be detailed. It just has to be enough to give me a rough picture. Otherwise I just see a formless, faceless blob, and while that’s fine in the beginning, if they remain a faceless blob to the end, it just annoys me.

    • I love your point about us authors needing information that doesn’t necessarily belong in the book when it’s finished πŸ™‚ That is so true! I used to think I needed to write every detail in the story. It’s not needed, as you know.

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