Jun 112014
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What does your protagonist look like?

How much of a character’s physical appearance should be explicitly described in a story?

When you read a book or short story, do you like to find a detailed description of the protagonist’s physical appearance or do you prefer to develop your own image over the course of the story.

The small writing group I belong to is divided on this subject. When critiquing a story, one member might say, “I can’t get a picture of this person. What does she look like?” Another might say, “I don’t need her physical appearance described. I need to know what she feels and how she acts.”

During a writing workshop he delivered, author Giles Blunt said major characters often don’t need physical description. Reactions are more important. Minor characters can be described more vividly. He went on to caution about how vividly minor characters are depicted. One vivid item is good, five is probably too many. You don’t want the main character upstaged.

At a different workshop, author Steven Heighton said a physical characteristic needs to be significant to mention it, either something unusual or significant to the story. Consider physical quirks, gestures, and posture. He finds describing something a character chooses, such as attire, to be more interesting as it provides greater insight into the character.

In a conversation with my brother-in-law about an author we’d both read, he commented that there was too much verbiage about what the protagonist wore. I hadn’t noticed this, so it appears the attire descriptions didn’t affect me the same way.

Whatever your feelings about how much of a character’s physical appearance should be spelled out by the writer, there are times when those characteristics are important to the story and the reader needs to be aware of them. For example, size, stature, and strength matter if the protagonist will need to survive a scene through use of his or her physical capabilities.

However little or much information about appearance is provided, the way in which it is conveyed is important. Paragraphs describing how someone looks can slow the story down. In Carol Shield’s book The Stone Angel we get a description of the protagonist’s mother’s physical appearance in the first few pages. The description is beautifully woven into other information about the mother (she likes to eat) and the setting (a hot July afternoon in Manitoba). In a paragraph talking about her mother’s worry over her health, we find this sentence: “One day she’s persuaded her liver’s acting up, and the next day her kidneys – she’s only thirty years old, but kidney trouble can start early in life, especially for someone of my mother’s unorthodox size.”

Explicit physical descriptions need to occur relatively early in the story. Imagine getting to the final quarter of a book imaging the protagonist as a thirty-year-old, blonde, brown-eyed, tall man and coming across a description of him as a middle-aged, dark-haired, blue-eyed man with permanently hunched shoulders.

Readers and writers: What are your thoughts on explicit physical descriptions of characters in the stories you read and write?

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  26 Responses to “What Does Your Hero or Heroine Look Like?”

  1. I enjoy reading about a characters physical description early in the story. I do however appreciate a description that allows the reader to take the characteristics described by the author and then add to them themselves as the story goes on.

  2. I think the physical description of a hero or heroine tells us much about the author’s overall approach . Do they associate certain physical attributes with certain character traits or do they want us to do so? Do they want to challenge preconceptions by revealing behavior that doesn’t fit the mould ? I don’t resent being spoon fed if it is done well and explicit details suggest something about lifestyle or history but usually prefer to develop my own image. It is interesting to me when film or television directors show a markedly different appearance than my preconception. For example the Camelot TV mini-series cast the wizard Merlin as a relatively youthful and rugged character with a shaven head and a troubled, menacing aspect. Quite different from the twinkly eyed grandfatherly type in a pointy hat with silver mane and beard often shown in illustrations but not essential to the text.

    • You raise an interesting concept – that the physical description may say something about the author. I try to avoid stereotypes of linking physical attributes with character traits, but we all have some preconceptions even if we’re not consciously aware of them. Seeing someone you’ve imagined in a book cast differently in a film or on TV can be amusing and upsetting.

  3. I do not think the main character of any story requires a physical description. My imagination fills that in given what that character does, how he or she feels about situations, where they go, how others react to them, whether they are obnoxious or laidback, etc. The environment in which they live tells what my imagination needs to know and then I construct an avatar to suit the character in the story. That is why movies of books rarely live up to the book as imagination is removed from this formula.

  4. For me it really depends on the story or perhaps I should say, it depends on the author. I think the description you included from, The Stone Angel is a perfect example of the author getting it right. Too often the flow of the narrative seems to come to a halt while the author unpacks characteristics or descriptions that are of little interest to me. I read something not that long ago in which the character was wearing next to nothing and yet the passage turned into an excrutiatingly long descrition… why? Great question and post.

  5. I think I could go either way (that’s why certain writers appeal to certain readers), but I definitely agree that if you are going to describe your character, it should happen early in the story, before the reader develops their own ideas. I like your example, how she put into very few words a description that was important to the story.

    • Thanks Meredith. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said “description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else”. Finding those few descriptive details is an art.

  6. Hi Donna – I think much depends on what is demanded of the hero/heroine and the way its presented. Case in point, the description you quoted from the Stone Angel is perfect. It flows with the story, rather than interrupting it.

  7. Hey Donna, I have not dwelt much on describing my characters as much as the story I have told. But you got me thinking about this issue. It is actually interesting how people develop different views of the same person being described. I have often been pleasantly or unpleasantly so surprised when meeting someone for the first time after a lot of mail or telephonic exchanges. I create a picture from this communication which may not be the one to be revealed. Personally to answer you, I am not big on character descriptions, but it is a big part of a good story.

    • Thanks Welli. I agree that physical character descriptions are not usually a big part of a good story. It is interesting how different readers develop different images. Does it matter if the reader’s image differs from the writer’s? I think not, if the reader connects with the story.

  8. Great topic and I often discuss this with writer friends as well. Sometimes just the way a woman holds her head can give the reader insight. I also use clothing descriptions to give the reader an idea of the how the character looks. As a reader, I like to sort of form my own description. I’m sure I am not the only one to be disappointed when a book goes to movie and the leading actor bears no resemblance to the character’s appearance that I had invented in my mind!

    • Aren’t our imaginations wonderful! We’ve had some interesting discussions in my writing group when we’ve reviewed someone’s piece and discovered that each of us had very different images of the characters.

  9. Donna – I like to read the details when I am reading a book so I would fall into the Group who needs to know what the character looks like and also what they wear and also a bit about their nature. I like to know what colour eyes they had and right down to whether they have a preference for any scents, makeup etc…

    • Thanks for your input Mina. One of the women in my writing group is of the same mindset as you. She handles description (of both characters and setting) wonderfully in her own writing.

  10. How much information I like really depends on the story, In general I like to enough details to get a sense of the protagonist but I must say it is his character rather than appearance that draws me in. Unless there is a good reason for a specific detail in a character’s appearance, like in Cyrano de Berjerac where his nose was important.. or if the story is set in a time period where extreme detail was given to appearance, in which case I like the author to paint vivid imagery for me.

    • I agree that it’s the character that’s important. It’s interesting that you raise a point about time period influencing how much appearance detail is provided.It’s something I hadn’t thought much about, but I can see that being relevant from two perspectives. One is to give the reader a stronger sense of the period (dress, how people did their hair, etc.) and the other is that writing styles from that period may have included more description. Thanks for your comments.

  11. I think the author uses a certain physical description about their character to emphasize psychological traits. It’s a way to communicate the reader more about the personality. They’re little but important details that any good observator would use to build an idea of the character in their mind. Just my opinion!

  12. My first thoughts are I could go either way, it all depends on the author/writer. In the end it will depend on what appeals to me, as it would others. I find that I describe my characters early in my stories. To me, by doing so, I set the stage preventing misinterpretation of my intent. Your example was great and demonstrates how you can do that effectively.

  13. Interesting post. I never thought too much about this aspect of writing. Honestly, I write more about places than people, but I must say that as a reader I would like to know more about the physical appearance of a character.

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