Wednesday, April 11, 2012

FTT: Maggie -- How much description?

I've been mulling over this for a few days now, and since I'm late to post my From The Trenches, I figured now's a good time to get it out.

So, character descriptions. They're what let us know what a character looks like. (Duh!) I'm a visual person, so to me, they're extremely important. I like to know what to imagine when I'm seeing the scenes play out in my head. Who's throwing that axe? What do they look like? Who's saying that while waving their arms? How does this group of people look together?

While I think you shouldn't over-describe your characters (just like everything else, too much is too much!), I actually need the details. Height, weight, skin color, eye color, hair color. All those things are really helpful to me when I'm reading.

I've read a few books now that have gone quite a few chapters before they mentioned what their protagonist looked like. When they finally did, it was jarring, because I'd had to fill that blank, visual-less space with an invention of my own. Particularly when the novel's first person, we're right in our MC's head, it's SO easy to avoid how hard it is to describe them without the use of a mirror. But for me, I really need it to happen, within the first few chapters, if at all possible.

I need that visual.

Some of you may disagree. And that's what I'd like to know. How much should characters be described? Which parts do you think should be left to the imagination? How soon in a novel should a writer mention physical appearances?

Discuss in the comment box below! See you there!


  1. Honestly, all I need is hair color, eye color, and maybe basic height(short, tall, average). Maybe a specific skin color is good, but I can usually figure it out from the other information—I assume a character with blue eyes is white unless otherwise noted, lol. And even then, I'm leant to come up with my own picture, completely at odds with the book's description. I'm a terrible reader. XD For example: The first time I read Divergent, I thought Four was black. The whole time. Then I was talking to Renée and my whole world came crashing down. I'm still a teensy bit disappointed. =P

  2. For the protagonist, I try to give something in the first chapter. A little something. The basics (hair color/texture, eye color, height maybe, other such noticeable feature). For major characters, I try to limit myself to 3 at the max when they are first introduced. And for minor characters, just one distinguishable trait that I can refer back to to remind the reader 'oh yeah, it's that person'.

  3. I think characters only really need the basics described. Like Amanda and Amanda said, hair colour, eye colour, and height are enough. My mind fills in the blanks and creates a character from that.

  4. I'm a reader who needs to know what the characters I'm reading about look like in the beginning of the book. There's nothing I hate more than getting halfway through a book and then finding out that the characters look nothing like they do in my head. It's jarring.

    That being said, I think the way a character acts can build up a picture of the way they look as well. Sometimes it can even do a better job of this than actually saying it outright. So I think how much or how little description you use depends on the character you're writing about.

    As a writer, though, this is something I struggle with. I tend to get carried away with descriptions. I have to continuously remind myself that I don't need a whole page describing the sky. :]

  5. I'm with Brittany on this one. Though, admittedly, by that point my mental image of character is so ingrained that I'll just ignore what the author is telling me that contradicts my impression and keep going on my own. It takes too much effort to rewrite every time I pictured that character's actions; I'd rather just keep the story going. Unless it's actually relevant to plot or understanding, I just say that I'm getting a view of the book that no other reader will. :-)