Friday, May 6, 2011

How important is Character Description?

My editor was halfway through my novel when she commented, “I just realized that I don’t know what Kathryn looks like.” She doesn’t know, because I don’t say. The reason I didn't say was because most of the early chapters are from Kathryn’s point of view. And those that aren’t, well they are from a man’s POV.

Would a man really think about, or even notice, the color of a woman’s eyes or the texture of her hair if they weren’t romantically involved? What if they've been married for ten years, and he's clearly not in love with her, would he think about her looks? I don’t think so.

Do I need Kathryn’s description, or can I allow the reader to imagine what the she looks like?

If I need it, how do I slip it in? Her focus is all about the investigation, not about her looks. She looks in the mirror, but that is a major no no.

I’ve also heard that if you plan to describe your character to do it early, so the readers hasn't already formed a conflicting mental picture. The first possibility wouldn't be until the seventh chapter.

The plan for my novel is the big screen. Dream big I always say. In this case, is it better to not restrict the image of the main characters physically? I’ve seen movies, after I've read the book, and thought they ruined it because they didn’t cast the parts correctly—undoubtedly because of character descriptions in the book.

Does the genre make a determination in the necessity of character description? My novel is a thriller, and all about the action. How important is what Kathryn looks like, verses her character and actions?

I’m coming close to the end of my final edits. Battling “how too” squeeze in a description, without it being forced. The jury is still out if I need to or not. The agent who wants to read it again did not comment on this issue. Is it an issue? What do you think?

Thank you for your help!

Enjoy the journey~ 

~ Karlene


  1. I think it's important to mention brief descriptions. Even if it's 'she ran her fingers through her stringy brown hair'. I don't want to think the mc is a vibrant woman with red hair and find out later on she's a plain Jane.

    : )

  2. Lots of terrific books don't offer physical descriptions of the MC, and that's no problem. When you're in the MC's pov, as you point out, it usually seems forced if you try to describe how she looks. I've read your manuscript, and I can tell you that Kathryn was vivid in my mind! If the character and story flow w/o physical description, I'd say 'no worries.'

  3. I don't think it is a necessity, but if you want to add description, I'd suggest a couple of simple solutions...

    "Kathryn tore at her hair trying to figure out XYZ. Long/short black/blonde/red/brown strands stuck out from her clenched fist."

    In other words, add the description as part of the action. Make it a moment that your reader can visualize and connect more to your MC. Since your MS is a thriller, I bet there's a place where your MC would be ripping at her hair! :D

  4. I'm struggling with this decision also. I left the descriptions of my MC intentionally vague hoping the reader would more closely identify with her. I described other characters in detail, when it felt appropriate. I hate shopping lists of features, hair and eye color. When a POV character notices something about their own appearance, it "feels" more natural if it's a negative observation ... "she flopped backwards onto the bed and forced the zipper closed, refusing to accept the fact that her size four jeans had not shrunk while hanging in the closet."

  5. I think this is a personal preference thing. I've heard some agents and editors say they want to know and others say they don't care. I personally do want to know what a character looks like fairly early on in the story.

  6. I don't always need the character's description to enjoy a book. Little things here and there are nice, but I don't like a list or the character looking at themselves in a mirror.

    And sometimes, yes, my image conflicts with how the author describes a character, such as Roarke in J.D. Robb's (Nora Roberts) 'In Death' series.

  7. A really interesting post! My hub has a computer chip or some-such for remembering names and what people look like. When I asked him how he did this, he said to make a mental note of eye color, facial shape, height, and shoulder type for these remain fairly constant.

    On a personal note, I need some hint at physical description in order to properly "meet" the characters.

  8. I really like to just give the vaguest details--feeling (maybe wrongly!) that the reader will fill in the blanks. I think if the reader says, "Hey, this character reminds me of Aunt Mabel" or "This person is just like Kevin," then the character has come to life for them in a way my description could never do.

    Is this cheating on my part? Maybe. :) So far I haven't been asked by my editors to put in *more* description, so hopefully it's okay.

  9. When I'm reading a novel I always find that authors describe their characters. Hair and eyes colour, complexion, etc., etc., so I can have a picture of them. But, I find so interesting not to mention any characteristic, why? Just because that fact allows me to play with my imagination. In general, I don't see anything bad in not mentioning details about the characters. As Heather said: "... is a personal preference thing".


  10. Eliza, Thank you. That's a good point. It doesn't need to be a lot. Maybe less "is" more in my case anyway.

  11. Linda, Thank you. That's a good point. It hadn't even occurred to Christine until later in the book either. I wonder what triggered that thought, and which read through it was... interesting.

  12. Tina, thank you so much! Yes, there are many places my MC wants to rip her hair out. Or maybe her husbands. That's an excellent idea and way to do it!

  13. Charlotte, thank you for the comment. You are so right...especially for women. If we think of ourselves, it's in a negative manner more often than not and this is an excellent idea. I love your idea.

  14. Thank you Heather, I don't mind not knowing because I paint a picture in my mind early on, but you are like so many people who want it. Definitely personal preference. And as you said, different agents want different things. But if we put it in, I definitely think we need to do it early.

  15. Hi Jessica, Thanks for your comment. I'm glad to hear you don't mind not having the description. And that list of character descriptions doesn't work for me either. It feels so unnatural. Excellent example too! While I hadn't read Water for Elephants, everyone who read the book said they couldn't see the cast in the movie. I saw the movie and thought it was great. I will read the book and see how much of that was due to character description.

  16. Elizabeth, that is NOT cheating but excellent writing. If you can show what they look like instead of telling what they look like, you've got it! Vaguest details with filling in the blanks works for me!

  17. Mario, Thank you so much! Yes... Heather hit it on the head, personal preference. And... is that a personal preference for ourselves or the readers? I'm thinking thrillers and action books... the readers prefer the action. YA... young girls love to know what the handsome boy looks like. Literary work... definitely description. Fantasy... definitely needs description. Thanks for your thoughts!

  18. Kittie, Thank you for your comment. We should all have a commuter chip like your husband's. I'm thinking some need a little, some like a lot, and some don't care. But, this has all helped a ton!

  19. Karlene, everyone has great comments, but figured you might like another. I like it best when the writer splashes in. Like showing that the character is short by having her look up at someone. I think eye color should be saved for romantic scenes. Hair, as mentioned, can be pulled off in action for length and I only use color if it seems important, like for a comparison with another character or something like that.

    I did read somewhere these things could be used to distinquish characters apart. Each character should have three to five traits, but this doesn't have to be physical characteristics.

    Hope something here helps you in your decision.

    Best wishes,
    Cher Green

  20. Most of the time, I forget what the character looks like, and have developed my own image of her in my mind--unless the description was strong to begin with, and there're subtle reminders along the way.

    Of course, if the guy is good looking with dark hair, I never forget that. :D

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