Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Writer's Reference - Character Descriptions

Source: http://itsnucleicacid.deviantart.com/art/HAPPY-2K15-503457764
Today, I would like to talk a little bit about the importance of Character Descriptions and how their presence or lack their of can greatly influence how a reader interprets the character in question.

While wandering the internet the other day, it was brought to my attention that there are a group of individuals that feel that Hermione from the Harry Potter series is a young, black woman. This grabbed my interest as I always associated Hermione with Emma Watson due to the movie series. As such, I decided to dig into it a bit.

What I found was that there are a number of arguments for why Hermione (and even Harry Potter himself) are individuals of color, unlike their portrayals in the movies and a large majority of artwork. The ideas are related not only to a lack of direct description but a number of very small asides in the stories that might be taken in a different context. This, coupled with a cross-examination of racism and bigotry (mudblood referring to an individual of dark descent versus simply half-blood wizard), inspired me to tap up this article.

Character Descriptions as a whole can be incredibly important. What is or is not present will either paint a picture or leave a character up to the reader's imagination. Based on how you introduce them, how they are revisited, and how others react and interact will lead your readers in the direction you want them to go.

The style that you utilize will depend on whether or not you have any kind of an agenda for the character or story in question. To use myself as an example, I have a tendency of leaving my character descriptions exceptionally open except for base, important details. Things like notable strength or speed and maybe one or two defining features like eyes or hair make up the majority of physical description. Instead, I favor social and psychological interaction to allow for more engaging characters. This is not necessarily a good OR bad means of writing, just one type.

Instead, where problems arise is when there is either too much or no description. Let's take a look at the first:

"Tony walked up to me. Looking at him, I had to marvel. He was easily 6'5, white, clean shaven, and built like a fullback lineman. Based on his appearance, he was was about 24.  He wore a leather jacket over a red shirt with blue jeans and military boots to match. On his neck hung a silver pair of dogtags and a glittering gold ring on his right, middle finger. His pearly white smile shone through and his periwinkle eyes glittered in the sunlight. Running his hands through his blond locks, he laughed at the expression on my face."

Now, this is EXACT. You know exactly what you are looking at and there is little to no room for interpretation. The obvious problem with this is that a description like this slows the story to a halt in favor of over-consideration of what a character looks like. It doesn't leave any wiggle room and often makes the story boring or tedious for the reader. On the flipside...

"Tony was a male."

Yea. Not much better. Now we have NOTHING to work with. Ok, he was male. How old? How young? Is he athletic? Overweight? White? Black? Obviously you don't have to answer ALL of the questions, but a reader should have some kind of an impression of your character. Let's revisit Tony one last time...

"Tony walked up. He was clean shaven and heavily muscled. Everything about him screamed military service from his crisp clothes to the way he carried himself."

Now, as a writer, I picked out a few ideal things that seemed important to me to portray for "Tony". It's all about First impressions. Everything else can be built up through the remainder of the story. Was the ring in the first description important but not something you'd really grab in a first impression. Bring it up later in the story. Do you want to make sure your character has blue eyes? Address it. You have an entire story to bring the strings together.

The last thing to consider, and this rolls back to the Hermione as a young, black woman point, is with regards to race (or other defining characteristics). IF it is important to you that a particular individual have a particular description whether it be race, gender, sexuality, or otherwise than SAY IT. You don't have to be blunt and go "Hermione was white, so there!" but simply work it into your description somewhere in the story (first impression or otherwise). The more wiggle room you leave for readers the more they will interpret the story their way. If that's a problem for you than correct it, otherwise you're going to get a whole host of fantastic new ideas as more people read your story.

People will bring their own life experiences and expectations to the stories they read and it's that imagination that allow them to enjoy the tale laid out before them.


  1. Thank you.
    I am in favour of some detail - and rather a lot of wriggle room.
    That wriggle room is one of the reasons I rarely see the movies of books I love. The images (and the voices) don't match the ones I have built in my head.

  2. Never knew there was such a discussion. Unfortunately unless you are exact in every way, people will twist the characters how they want them to be. I get enough in so people get a general feeling, then let them interpret the rest, usually.

  3. Good points.
    Remember Pelican Brief? I read it before I saw the movie. I found nothing in the book that indicated to me that the protagonist was black.

  4. I prefer not to see cover models--or maybe just a profile or part of their face--on books because I like to visualize them the way I want as I read. Description should be moderate, because some authors go overboard weighing a book down with it, while others give little for readers to work with.

  5. I think characters should have some description, but not spelled out completely. That's an interesting conversation about Hermione. I guess I'd never thought about her race.

  6. Interesting. Like most, I associate the Harry Potter characters to the actors who portray them. I agree though, too much description would muddy up the works. Great advice and analysis! Thanks for the tips...and I can totally see why a little wiggle room can be a good thing. Too much, and you have opened up your story to complete misinterpretation.

  7. Like Medeia mentioned above, I don't really see color. I do find it interesting that there is so LITTLE diversity in literature throughout history, people feel the need to force diversity. That is the real problem. I have an African-American main character in my current book and it's tough to make it clear that she isn't white. I plan to make sure my editor knows (IF they buy the book!) before they design the cover...maybe that will be enough.