[What's Next?] How Do I Look?
Contributor
Written by
Cait Levin
August 2013
Contributor
Written by
Cait Levin
August 2013

Now that I’ve read through my manuscript a few times I’m starting to notice some little things that I never necessarily thought about during my first (or second or third) pass. I’m going through and carefully adding more layers to all of the characters so that they talk and feel like real people – complicated and varied the way we all know real people to be. During this process I can’t help but notice what may or may not be a big issue: I never described what my main character looked like.

I tell it from the first person perspective, which is I think what caused the oversight. Everyone else in the story has an entrance scene or a moment of reflection where they are described. But the main character? No such opportunity.

Now, I took diligent notes during school, so I definitely have the tools to describe my protagonist – she could be looking in a mirror, for (clichéd) example. But now that I’m really thinking about it, I wonder if I need to bother.

I have often toyed with the idea of not really describing what people physically look like unless it reveals something about that person’s personality or the way that he or she is feeling during a particular scene or time period. It comes from my personal desire to imagine whatever I want when I’m reading – maybe I want to envision a character with curly red hair and a limp! What’s that, you say? He’s 6’5” and athletic with frosted tips? Well, now I’m all messed up. I find that when I read I like for the personality to speak for itself, in a way – to paint the physical appearance of the character on its own. The #1 most upsetting thing for me when I see movie versions of films is that the actors often don’t look like my mental image of the characters they're playing - it really throws me off. Especially when the author of the book paints a specific picture of what that person is supposed to look like. (I mean, short Ron Weasley? I know they casted him when he was like eight years old, but still. I’ll never be over that one.) So I guess while I was writing I just didn’t get around to describing Grace, my main character.

And I’m thinking that it doesn’t really bother me. What she looks like just doesn’t matter. Not really. Maybe the little things – nails bitten down way too far, hair in desperate need of a trim, etc. – can be mentioned as manifestations of her anxiety and depression. But the color of her hair? Her height, weight, facial features? I don’t mind leaving that up to the imagination. I don’t mind everyone having their own little version of her.

So the question I’m hoping you will all help me with this week is this: Do you feel strongly one way or  the other? Have you noticed the physical descriptions in your reading? If you were to read something without a description of the narrator, would you be distracted by that? Or confused? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below!


Cait Levin is the Community Manager at She Writes. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Dawson’s Creek and actually writes more of a blog) here.

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Comments
  • Patricia Robertson

    Enjoyed this discussion. I've been thinking about whole question of how much description to include. While I tend to favor the "more is less" school of thought, I've recently been wondering if we are losing the art of description, especially as compared to some of the masters such as Dickens. This was helpful.

  • Cynthia Close

    Generally speaking, I feel the same as you do and like to build my vision of the character, but I also think references to certain key physical characteristics are very important (like the bitten fingernails you mentioned), or hunched over shoulders, or how someone smells, etc...when it helps to define an element of personality or reenforces an emotional connection to the story.

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    Thought provoking post as usual, Caitlyn.

    I love how the questions you raise challenge me to think about my own process.

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    I think it comes down to what serves the story...what the character notices (or doesn't notice) about herself and others says something about her. So I don't have a problem with the author choosing to reveal or not reveal what a character looks like as long as its in harmony with the larger narrative. For instance, in my book Oh Gad! the main character's struggles with her own place in things, her identity within her family is in part explored through the physical likeness and differences between her and other members of the family...that her mother largely exists in shadowed memory with a physicality that suggests an imposing persona is important to the narrative (and the understanding of that relationship) but what's more important is her hands so that's where the detail lies...that another characters' peculiarities are illustrated often by his 'strange' physical appearance becomes important in the telling (as does her response to that 'strangeness')...in general, I tend to give something of the physicality  because there's usually a visual in my mind from which these characters are drawn but I give to the extent that it serves the story. As a reader, I don't notice what's missing unless I need it and find it isn't there. But often when the author has done a good job of drawing me into the tale, my imagination does a good job of filling in the blanks.

    I'm wondering now if what happened to you with Ron is what happened with so many who were upset about the Hunger Games casting though.

  • catherine james

    I love it when authors leave a character's appearance up to the reader's imagination, but I don't know if a majority of readers agree.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    I tend to like imagining characters based on personality. It also give lots of leeway for casting if a book is later rendered as a movie on the big screen.

  • Kim Sisto Robinson

    I like to have clues & ideas about how somebody looks.  For example,  Lolita has apple red cheeks.  Then,  I want to make up the rest myself.

     

    Great post.  Love your perspective and words. 

  • Thea Constantine

    I'm for imagining the character unless there's a reason for it-like there's something unusual you want to get across pink hair, no left arm etc. I've also been weirded out by a later mention of blond hair when the character was already firmly ensconsed in my mind with long black hair.

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    Do most women care what they look like? Are they aware of a bad hair day? I think some are, but not all, and what they note or do not note speaks volumes re. their character. Men mostly different, but not always. What someone chooses to wear tells me more about them than a detailed description of facial characteristics.

  • Petula Lloyd

    As a reader I like quite a bit of description especially if someone takes notice of her. I want to know why they take notice. If there isn't a good description then I keep flipping back to the cover (if there is a rendition or photo) to see if she looks like what the story is portraying or directly saying.

  • Jessica Vealitzek

    I'm like you -- I like to imagine the characters myself. I naturally don't add a lot of descriptive detail but I think certain details are worth using, whether because they say something about the character, or they connect the character to something or someplace. Or just because you have a beautiful description to share. I actually describe so little that some of my first readers were like, "Add color!" 

  • Kierie

    I say sprinkle her appearance through it to build if she brushes her hair or reaches for something etc. . .

  • L.C. Mohr

    I've received conflicting advice from editors -- I write Middle Grade children's books and have been told to let the kids decide what your characters look like vs. giving more descriptive info on your characters.

    I try to find a happy medium.

    L.C.

  • Mark Hughes

    And it's not the reason he's the late Elmore Leonard...also, look up his ten rules. He references the passage I mentioned in Sweet Thursday.

  • The late Elmore Leonard said he doesn't describe any main characters.

  • Mark Hughes

    Here's something else I noticed (later than everyone else, of course, being somewhat slow): how even writers who provide a lot of character description quickly taper it off. Once we come to "know" the characters, we don't need to be told even how they're speaking a line. Because we know them, we know they're being sarcastic, or self-effacing, or blunt. When you see that done well (and notice it), it's swoon-inducing. Then you know these characters are under your skin--to stay.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Caitlyn, this is a great piece. I remember reading an article by a professor who teaches writing. One of his students was describing her characters in depth, namely eye color, hair color, hair texture, etc. The professor asked, "Why are you describing all of these details. Don't you want your reader to identify with the characters?" This was a great learning experience for me. So when I write, I try to avoid giving too much physical descriptions about my characters, unless they are important to the story line. Because my stories are a mirror of the world, I want the reader to identify with my characters, and they can decide what the protagonist looks like.

  • Cait Levin

    Wow everyone, this is so helpful! Mark, those are great examples that I never thought of, you're so right about Scout. This is all making me feel more confident about not getting too specific with my main character's description. Thanks all!

  • Selma Thompson

    Congratulations on getting this far with your book!  What an excellent "problem" you have.  As you may know, it's not uncommon, in early drafts of a story, for the main character to be the least fully developed.  Often that's because the author feels so close to that character--the writer already "knows" this character so doesn't spend as much time exploring/defining him/her on the page.  Sometimes this under-developed character is even the writer's alter ego: We don't spend much time describing ourselves to ourselves, do we?  Consequently, the main character may seem obvious to the writer in ways that are not that clear to the reader, and opportunities are missed for a richer, more engaging story .  If you choose not to describe your character, do make sure that's an aesthetic choice used to maximum effect  For example, Dickens's narrator in "Bleak House" is so unreliable that we never realize she is beautiful until the final chapter, a "minor" detail that sends us reimagining the entire book and feeling even greater empathy for out heroine...You might think of Dickens's choice as setting the bar.  If your reason is less compelling, less essential to the plot, consider going back through the manuscript to make one quick pass where you take an objective look at how much of your protagonist is truly on the page.  A lack of character description may be  a red flag suggesting another quick draft.  Since I haven't had the pleasure of reading your manuscript, only you know if this applies.  Again, brava, writer.  

  • Sheryl J. Dunn

    no green eyes, please, and simply saying blue eyes is boring. My two biggest challenges are character descriptions and meaningful body language. I sometimes spend hours trying to come up with something fresh.

  • Deb

    Long descriptions of what each character looks like are better left to the old masters, such as Dickens. However, I'd like some idea of what the main characters look like. It's distracting and frustrating to spend 3 chapters imagining a MC is blonde and blue-eyed, only to have the writer finally give a description that doesn't come close to matching what I've drummed up. I've also read several books told in first person where you don't even know the gender of the MC for a couple of chapters. Usually some clue is given, but in these books there was nothing to go on, so I had to choose in order to continue reading the book. Then I had to make a mental shift when I discovered I'd chosen the wrong gender!

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    I'm a visual person, so when I read a book, I flat out want to know what the character looks like. Our minds will always fill in the blanks, regardless. Tell me someone is blonde with blue eyes, and I will picture someone different than you. But at least it gives me enough to form a mental image to proceed. I've read enough first person narrative, and I've always been supplied with a description. I agree with the others, don't swamp people in detail, you can feed your reader slowly. She can twist a piece of her curly auburn hair around her finger, she can think of the size of her hips as she's squeezing into a pair of jeans, someone can have an eye color just like hers... Good luck on your revision!

  • Velda Brotherton

    I think you're absolutely correct. I like the little things, like pushing their glasses to the top of their head when they think, twisting a lock of hair, that sort of thing. Some authors describe everyone in the scene, but a little goes a long way. If my hero is really into this girl, then he might make remarks like he's always liked red hair, or tall women turn him on. Stuff like that, I think is much better. Nice post.

  • Juliet Wilson

    I agree with you, I like descriptions only when they add to the understanding of character or give insight into the time and place they're living in. Too much description is tedious.

  • Mark Hughes

    Caitlyn - John Steinbeck, at the beginning of his novel SWEET THURSDAY, has a character flat out say he doesn't want the author to describe characters, but to let us see them by the way they speak and act. It's a lovely passage I recommend to all.

    In truth, I'll be surprised if anyone on this site wants to see characters described much. Naturally, if it's a critical plot point that the MC has only one eye, then...

    Second reference: consider TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Scout doesn't waste a word describing herself, but don't we see her clear as day? She's someone cantankerous tomboy we know from our past, the closest approximation in our lives, and that makes her personal to us. Neat trick, huh?

    Lastly, here's my engineering side coming out: in writing, apply Occam's Razor. Don't include anything that doesn't matter and present the rest in the most succinct, musical, and unambiguous way.

    The soul of writing in one sentence. All else is gingerbread.