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Author Topic: A character's physical attributes - how do you elucidate?  (Read 4110 times)
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Woody
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« on: January 22, 2009, 06:09:12 PM »

When you want to get across what a character actually looks like in a story, what methods can be used?
It has been said that slotting in a mirror into the story is not the right way to go and in dialogue I would guess any sentence would seem forced, but what other ways are there?
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« Reply #1 on: January 22, 2009, 07:28:10 PM »

The advice I received at Borderlands about a character's physical description (and I agree with it) is it's a W.G.A.S. subject - translates as 'who gives a shit'. Unless it has a direct bearing on the plot of the story it's broadly irrelevant. If you must give a character a physical description then I prefer a shorthand description, such as saying a character is 'bear-like' or something brief, such as describing them as heavy, or frail. You can always add a little something like a character massaging the roll of fat on the back of their neck, or a wattle wobbling as a character speaks. Light strokes.

I cannot stand stories where the author gives you a list of physical description, like it's a police report or something. I always skip it when I see it. Chances are that by the time they get around to describing the character I've already pictured them my own way anyway, so their description is at odds with what I was thinking.

Usually when this topic crops up I point people to Hemingway's story 'The Snows of Kilamanjaro'. It's about 10,000 words long, the protagonist is never described and neither are any of his close companions. The only piece of physical description in the whole story is a bit near the end where he describes one incidental character as having a hooked nose. Less than ten words in ten thousand, and yet you read and you see all the characters on your own.
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« Reply #2 on: January 22, 2009, 09:05:28 PM »

mustn't have my stuff here, ed keeps it.
« Last Edit: February 11, 2011, 07:36:15 PM by Woody » Logged

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« Reply #3 on: January 22, 2009, 11:22:10 PM »

Unless it has a direct bearing on the plot of the story it's broadly irrelevant.

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« Reply #4 on: January 23, 2009, 02:41:02 AM »

I tend to agree with Ed, although most of the time if I want to get something across about a character I'll do it through the eyes and ears and voices of other characters. I always say I learned a lot of this from Elmore Leonard, but there are scores of authors who do it.

On the other hand, in novels, I think there is a need to at least ground our characters with something. Not a full-on description, but at least a broad brush approach that then allows us to subtly build up a picture as we move forward. However, 99% of the character building is about the inside not the exterior for me.

Derek

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« Reply #5 on: January 23, 2009, 03:38:53 AM »

I've often read novels and realised at some point that the author's description of them is at odds to how I see them, so I wish they hadn't included the description at all.

Pare it down to the absolute minimum, ie, just when the story absolutely relies on a small piece of physical description in order for the plot to function.

I'm a big Jane Austen fan, and I don't recall her giving any physical descriptions in any of her books. They're simply not important. One character might have the opinion that another is 'elegant', and that one word gives all the information that is required; most importantly, it tells you more about the person giving the description than the person they are describing. There are absolutely no descriptions of colour of hair/eyes/weight etc. Not necessary. They'd clog up the narrative; slow it down.

Same goes for all fiction and poetry, I reckon.
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« Reply #6 on: January 23, 2009, 03:46:49 AM »

What everyone else said ^^^ It's why the pictures are so much better on radio.
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« Reply #7 on: January 23, 2009, 04:18:18 AM »

Quote
... but it creates (IMO) the significant issue of not being able to include characters, in a story, that make judgements about another character solely based on the way they look - something that happens, all too often, in the nonfictional world. How is this reconciled in a narrative?

If you've got a scene where  characters are making judgements about another character based on the latter's appearance then you're home and dry. This is exactly what you want to be shooting for - not you as an author doing the describing, but your characters doing it for you. Of course, they won't provide a description per se, but they'll give you/your readers everything they need through their words and insinuations. This way you get triple value for your word count - you shine a light on the characters making the judgements, you give us some ideas about what the other character really looks like (in a manner that is less likely to clash with any preconceived images the reader has already created), and you do so in a way that makes for a far better reading experience than a paragraph of boring description. Winners all round!

Plus, of course, it's been scientifically proven that a line of dialogue is worth more than 375 times the  value of a line of description...  Wink

Derek
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« Reply #8 on: January 23, 2009, 07:14:27 AM »

I have to agree with everyone else.  Even when I write romance and when one character is attracted to another one, superficially, all descriptions are seen through that character's eyes and tainted with their personal bias.  I think the only description I've given in my current romance WIP (now at 45,000words) was "She is the ideal of Indian prefection and beauty."  Again this is through the eyes of another Native American Indian.
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Ed
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« Reply #9 on: January 23, 2009, 11:33:45 AM »



Plus, of course, it's been scientifically proven that a line of dialogue is worth more than 375 times the  value of a line of description...  Wink

Derek

That's a good point, too. I've heard it said that people will skim and skip any amount of description, but they tend not to skip dialogue.
« Last Edit: January 23, 2009, 11:34:09 AM by Ed » Logged

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