Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Writer's Corner: Description Disasters

Most of my regular readers will have caught on by now that I'm currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo. See THIS POST for a snippet of what I'm writing. I've been using the placeholder technique that I learned from BJ at Dark Side of the Covers like mad, but one thing that still stops me in my tracks is character description.
      Apparently, I suck the big one at describing how people look without making it sound like one big list of vital statistics. Hair, eyes, build, sense of humor/lack thereof. In that order. Every time. It's like I can't go on to write anything else until I've gotten those few details out of the way. They're not even done in any creative way. They're just handed to the reader, as simply as possible and then I can move on.
       Now I'm not the most analytical reader but even I know this kind of listy character description is jarring to read. There are certain book I've read which do the description thing so well. They liken someones features to something in nature, the colour of their hair or eyes to the seasons. All I can come up with is green eyes looking like a forest something or rather and even that has me gagging.
        Sometimes, I'll look at some pics of actors I think will be great to be cast as one of my characters, but even then it's not that helpful. Besides, Ben Barnes can only play so many characters at once.
        So this week, I want to know how you guys come up with the various ways to describe your characters? For you avid readers out there, are there certain ways you like/dislike your characters described? Do you like for a characters vital stats to be given to you right away or for their physical attributes to be slowly divulged? Until I get some insight, it's back to 'black hair framed his sharply angled face where forest green eyes sat staring at me.' Puke.

Oh and for you guys doing NaNoWriMo this year. You've got to check out this post by Ashley at Book Labyrinth. It's got all the info regarding a YA Novel Writing Comp where you can win the opportunity to submit your work to a top NY literary agent plus heaps more! I'm going to enter for sure!


  1. I think you can overdo the "she ran a hand through her long blonde hair" thing. Whenever I read this sort of thing I tend to sneer just a bit:"Yeah, someone's been taking writing lesson advice about 'show, don't tell!'" Sometimes you do need to tell.

    List-y is not good either. Me, I keep my initial description short and let the reader gradually discover, as the story goes on - and, if possible, imagine the character's appearance themselves. There's something irritating about stopping the action to go into a long description of a character.

    When I do describe a character, it's for a reason. In Wolfborn, the Baron, my villain, has to be described in some detail (an entire paragraph) because he has to terrify the wife of the werewolf knight - and the book's hero. The werewolf characters are described as hairy, first-off. But they get more description as they go, as it's needed.

  2. Sue: I like being able to deduce some characteristics as well, but it's just not easy for me to try and describe characters without it turning into a whole bunch of cliches.

  3. I wish I could help, but people never come to me when they want a description of someone. Its always "oh what did they look like Sherre" me: "Umm taller than me, brown hair, brown eyes, black shirt-" them: "Oh never mind. You just named like everyone within a 5 mile radius!"

  4. To be completely honest, I like when there's no description at all. I find myself picturing them exactly how I want to and get so set in my ways that I can't believe the author didn't put a description in. I'll even flip back through the pages thinking, "I know she said he had black hair."

    I just hate when there's to much description. Go ahead and mention hair color if it's important and I guess eye color, but if it's not important...who cares; let the reader make up their own image.

  5. "Black hair framed his sharply angled face where forest green eyes sat staring at me..."

    I don't think this is a bad description at all. I think you should do something like this when you first introduce a character and need to create a basis for what they look like to the reader. When describing smaller less significant features, slip those into the whimsy of the prose here and there.

    According to this example of yours, I don't think you're doing anything wrong!

  6. I have to say this is hard for me. I'm not really sure how to go about my character descriptions... mostly because every time I would describe my main character, it would probably be just a description of me, lol. I always want to be the main character. And then describing the love interest... I'm always failing at that. I never know what the guy should look like.

    I like the idea of having some sort of description. Each person has their own way of describing people. Perhaps just weaving it into the narration. Kind of like an afterthought? "She ran her fingers through her long blonde hair and stared at him with her bright blue eyes." This way you're not describing her outright, just adding it in there.

    It's just a thought... I'm not that good at this!

  7. Lan, the nice thing about computers is that you can write what you want and then change it. It's called "first draft". ;-) Write it the way you want, then go back and tighten it up if necessary. In fact, if this is for NoNoWriMo, you really do need to just get on with it. [g]

  8. I agree with Sue. I have the same problem you do, but in the draft I don't worry about it because I know I will go back and tighten it up. When I am reading I like any type of description to come out naturally. In first person you can put a lot of personality into how the person seeing another one sees themselves and others, which is fun.

    Beth ^_^

  9. LOL LAN! Ben Barnes!! He's my Ash from The Iron Fey series, even though I've actually never watched him in anything before! x) He just really looks the part!

    I actually don't mind not having a bunch of description! Sometimes writers put everything in one paragraph, down to the colour of shoes that they're wearing, and it's too much. And it only ever makes sense if the POV is from a character who's into fashion or something -- because I honestly don't notice what my friends and such are wearing half the time LOL! But maybe that's just me! x)

    But I like being able to know whether my characters are blond or dark-haired near the beginning, or whether they're tall or short. The rest I like to imagine! :)

  10. As a reader, I tend to like it when the character is being described from someone else's perspective. Then it's the person's first impression of the physical features of the other character, and it can get a little list-y but still feel pretty natural. I do like it when the description gets done pretty early in the book. I hate having to read about a character and not having any idea what they look like!

  11. I'm terrible with descriptions. Mine goes from being overly so to almost none at all! I can't find a middle ground -.-

  12. Like Sue said - go ahead and write it in for now; you can take it out later. :)

    I find it's helpful to remember think about what we tend to notice first when meeting somebody in real life. We usually think in broad strokes first - tall and broad, petite, skinny - then slowly fill in the details as we interact. The sound of their voice when they say hello, the feel of their skin when we shake hands, the way their eyes crinkle at the corners when they laugh, the way their hair keeps falling in their eyes so they keep tucking it behind their ear.

    Write with all the senses, not just sight, and the description should blend in more smoothly.

  13. I totally get where you're coming from! One way that I've found I love is comparing one character to another. Pointing out their similarities and their differences. Or, in my last book where I had to describe the MC in first person, I had her guess what someone else was thinking when they were looking at her.


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