What Say Ye?: In Your Face!

We had an interesting conversation in my book club a few months ago. The topic was characters’ appearances and how much each of us as readers envision the characters in our mind when we read. The responses ranged from very detailed and realistic, to a body with the character’s name in place of their head.

For me, I like enough detail about a character that I can envision them, but I don’t need every single detail given to me. With that much detail, I’m going to miss something. However, I don’t mind if there’s too many details given, rather than not enough. I really do “see” the characters in mind’s eye( and what not), and want to have some idea of what they look like. Unlike last topic with details/texture, I don’t mind “random” bits about how a character looks, because to me those are necessary for me to get the most out of my reading experience.

In my own writing, I try to follow that same idea. Just enough detail so the reader knows what the character looks like, but leave a little to the imagination (’cause I’m a tease like that). However, in RED SKY, there’s a point where the protag describes Graham, her best friend, in great detail:

His arm curls around my shoulders and pulls me closer. I can smell the traces of spearmint gum on his breath. I look at his perfect nose, his thin lips, unattached earlobes, high cheekbones. Everything but those disconcerting, clear eyes.

I did this on purpose: to show how well Audrey knows his face, and to show how closely she’s inspecting him right now (which fits with the scene).

Something else I try to do with every character I describe is include something unique about their appearance. This advice came from my professor, Marlin Barton, and I’ve really latched onto it. If a character looks interesting, then I’ll be more likely to flesh them out and make them three-dimensional, no matter how small the character. This isn’t something I can do in the first draft–heaven knows FRACTURED RADIANCE is littered with flat minor chars right now–but it’s more a job for revisions. My next prof, the fabulous Leslie Pietrzyk, even made the comment (without knowing Bart’s advice to me) that even my bit characters were vivid and lively.

So what about you? What kind of details of a char’s appearance do you like to read? Do you need a complete play-by-play, from hair length to the grooming level of his nails, or would you rather have a blank slate, so your mind can play?

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I write speculative fiction inspired by mythos from around the world, complex family dynamics, and my own experiences living with mental illness. After earning my BA in Linguistics from Brigham Young University in 2008, I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in 2012. I live in Denver, where my husband and I spend countless hours chasing our three young sons (and sometimes catching them!). I collect tarot decks, dye my hair mermaid colors, and procrastinate by decorating my home. My debut novel, Feathers Sharp as Knives, releases on May 2, 2023.

10 thoughts on “What Say Ye?: In Your Face!

  1. Because I write in third, I tend to stick with pretty minimal character descriptions because going into detail feels forced. I cover height, eye/hair/skin colour and age. I may go into clothes, but it depends on the situation.

    1. I go into clothes sometimes too, but like you said, it depends on the situation and protag. I find that with more minor chars, if I give them something else to see, I often won’t give their eye color because, to me, that’s less interesting then their high forehead and short nose (true story).

  2. Interesting. This post has made me realize that more than a few times in reading I have been troubled by characters that had blank spots on their person, like I just couldn’t get a clear picture of their build or facial features. I think what I’ve done to compensate is simply ignore that part, like looking at someone’s hair instead of into their eyes. I think I prefer more detail.

    1. I read a book recently in which all of the characters had fairly detailed descriptions, except one. NOTHING was given about what she looked like, and I was left to even assume she was a young woman. I even re-read all of the chapters she was in to make sure I hadn’t missed it. DROVE ME NUTS!

  3. Dangit, I typed my reply and then WordPress asked me to “log in with my email address” and deleted the comment!

    Anyway, as a reader I tend to prefer some details, like hair color or unique features–even comparisons like “pixyish” are okay. But as a writer, I tend to deliberately not detail my MCs features very much. In fact, in my current WIP, I didn’t give a physical detail of the MC until 11,000 words in! Even I realize that’s too little, too late! But I did find a fairly detailed description of one of my other characters, like your example:

    I pulled the chair to the bedside and leaned forward for a better look at my almost-boyfriend. The lower half of his face was obscured by the breathing mask and tubes, but around the edges a dark stubble roughened his skin. It looked like only a few days growth, so they must have been shaving Daniel up until . . . until the brain death diagnosis. Why bother now?
    His eyes were closed, and I fought the urge to peel back his eyelid. Would his grey eyes still have a spark, if no one was looking back at me through them? I noticed the stutter in the eyebrow hairs above his right eye, from when we were ten and he jumped off the loft, cutting his brow on a hoof pick lost in the hay. And there was his chicken pox scar, right where a third eye would be, darker than his pale forehead now.

    1. That’s so frustrating! It’s why I cut and paste every comment before submitting it. Been burned too many times.

      What a great excerpt! And I agree that it totally fits the situation–of course we’re all hyper observant when someone we love is hurt!

  4. I like having more detail than less, not only because I like being able to visualize characters, but because the details a POV character notices reveal a lot about his or her personality.

    e.g. A rich woman noticing the poor quality fabric of another’s dress will reveal her attitude toward those of lower social standing. Is she disdainful or sympathetic?

    A selfish man noting few details of anyone’s appearance will reveal his self-centeredness. If he then notices something more about a particular woman, it could indicate he will fall in love with her or have some other connection to her in the story.

    A detail-oriented and observant character will probably notice lots of details beyond the standard eye/hair/skin color. If they are meticulous in describing everything but people, though, that would reveal a certain attitude, too.

  5. Hm. I’m going to have to be the odd one out here and say that, while I don’t mind reading details of a character’s physical appearance, I don’t always need them. And then I get frustrated when they come out, usually forced, and are against what I had been led to believe, based on the character’s actions or the attitude of others toward them. I’m a big fan of the “one concrete detail” thing. Have you read the Chaos Walking trilogy, by Patrick Ness? I always site that series as king in minimal character descriptions. The main characters’ hair and eye colors don’t even make the cut. It’s bizarre, but brilliant.

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