262 – Describing Characters
In real life, we have our eyeballs to tell us what something looks like. But in prose fiction, we’re not so lucky. Be it novels or short stories, we only have words on a page to communicate visuals, so how do we do it? That’s what we’re talking about this week: how to describe your characters without any pictures or illustrations whatsoever. We discuss how much description is too much, what should be described first, and what happens when you neglect to describe characters at all. Plus, the truth about using mirrors to say what your protagonist looks like!
Generously transcribed by Cindi at YourPodScribe.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening theme]
Chris: This is the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is
Chris: And we all have deep eyes with gold flecks, and amazing hair.
Wes: Lustrous hair. [laughter]
Chris: Lustrous hair. [Laughter]
Oren: Yeah, let me shake it out a bit, now that I’ve taken off my glasses.
Wes: Woo. Dang. We better slow down, this podcast is not safe for work. [Laughter]
Chris: [Laughter] So yeah, we’re talking about describing characters, which is always a fun thing to talk about. Obviously description is important, it appears everywhere, but character description is some of the most iconic and sometimes some of the most silly description you can get.
Oren: Yeah. It’s also hard and I don’t want to do it.
Wes: Can’t I just show you a picture? But also I don’t want to draw it. [Laughter from all]
Oren: But I’ll pay an illustrator to draw what my character looks like and put that on the side or whatever. It’s fine. I can just do that right?
Chris: So speaking of “can you just do that?” Let’s start by going over the purpose of character description. Obviously, the first one is to establish the character, what kind of person they are, and what sort of visual you should imagine for them. In which case, having an image accompanying a book, if I would only do that, it would accomplish those purposes.
I also use it to focus the camera during interpersonal interactions. Basically, you can think of it as a closeup shot on a show where when you start describing details, the idea is that’s where the point of view character’s attention is focused. That’s what the audience is kind of looking at.
And so describing the face and often not just what the face looks like, but the specific expression on the face too, is doing that close up, which is particularly important for a romance, but also anytime characters are having a serious conversation, if they’re staring at each other in the eyes, describing something about the eyes sort of creates that effect, can create that intimacy.
Oren: Describing someone’s eyes, gives an impression that you are looking really closely at them. Seeing someone’s eye color isn’t a casual observation. Most of the time when you see someone, you don’t immediately clock what their eye color is.
Wes: There’s a proximity there. If two characters are interacting and like Chris said, the golden flecks [Chris laughter] in the deep dark irises. You need to be close to somebody physically, and that can then suggest the spiritual closeness or romantic closeness or what have you. That’s important.
Chris: But it could also be much more casual than that if the scene is supposed to be less intimate. We can have their lips thinning as they make a tense expression or brows furrowing. There can be crinkles about their eyes as they laugh. So you can focus on the face without getting quite into the gold flecks of their eyes level.
Which brings me to the other thing where describing a character can help set the mood of the scene. For one thing, characters change clothes, they can change.
Wes: What? Noooo! [Laughter]
Chris: I know right? If you’re writing a novel, a character’s probably not wearing exactly the same outfit throughout the entire story.
Wes: This is a total tangent, but do you guys remember that animated Lord of the Rings that also had the live action Ringwraiths in it?
Oren: I am aware of it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
Chris: Animated with live action Ringwraiths for reals?
Wes: It is so creepy. They cut in live action Ringwraiths. It was like after they did the animated Hobbit and then they did an animated Lord of the Rings.
Chris: I think I’ve seen that, but it’s been so many years.
Wes: It’s so weird. But I’m bringing this up because Legolas, Gimli, all of them, they all have one outfit for everything. I remember going from scene to scene to scene, well that’s definitely how they drew that character [laughter]. They’re definitely not going to draw it differently.
Chris: But depending on character’s clothes can tell you something about what the characters intent was and how the scene will go.
And then last, description of characters can also be used to set expectations or give important information. Like if you have an alien character with weird features, readers need to know that they have your features as soon as possible so that it’s not weird when they pull out that fourth hand [laughter] or something like that later. It becomes very jarring if you don’t know that they have weird features.
Wes: That reminds me of a Goosebumps book. Huge throwback, and the main character basically ends up meeting and being able to talk to this other figure that no one else can see, so he’s questioning the reality throughout the entire story. The twist at the end is that he can see it and realize that it’s monstrous because it only has two arms and two legs as opposed to his own non-Euclidean Lovecraftian body. [Laughter] Oh R.L. Stein, you just keep these things coming. [Laughter from all] Way to not describe anybody until the last chapter. So maybe don’t do that, but it was funny.
Chris: Yeah, what somebody can get away with a short story like that is probably more hilarious than scary, but. Maybe we should go into how much description do you need?
Oren: All of it?
Wes: Or none of it?
Oren: This is a pretty basic thing, but you should all be aware that if you describe a character in a lot of detail it will sound like they’re important. You want to be careful with that. You don’t want to make some random NPC sound like your main character because you’d like to describe every facet of what they’re wearing. That’s just not a great way to do things.
Wes: I enjoy description, but I’m not here for paragraph dumps of description. You can continue to describe your characters if you’re doing it throughout, and like Chris said, if it’s driven by action and it’s helping focus the scene, then I’m fine if it continues to add something. But if your inclination is, it’s time to introduce this character and describe this character, so here’s a paragraph. Echh. I’m gonna to get bored by that. I want more from it.
Chris: Right. And I want a little bit mixed in action sometimes. I’m not going to say that a paragraph description of a character is always too much. It depends on a lot of factors, like how funky looking is this character? How novel is this description? When Dumbledore shows up at the beginning of the Harry Potter books, Rowling spends a while describing him, but he’s also a weird wizard showing up in the middle of suburbia. And he’s doing funny things.
So when the character’s important, or when their appearance is really novel, when there’s really good reason to focus on them, I’m not going to say that that’s always too much, but generally some level of restraint and balance is needed. Working that description in with the action as the character does things is often a good tactic.
Wes: And I like that example with Dumbledore because this is a magical person in a non-magical area doing magical things. All that description there is warranted. It’s serving a purpose. I like two or three paragraphs of description, but in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I think it’s chapter five, is when he’s recounting how he brought the creature to life. He’s simultaneously describing the creature but also his reaction to it. He’s talking about how he assembled all the parts and he meant it to be beautiful, but he’s also kind of in horror. I thought that that was good, because you’re not just getting a description of this thing that doesn’t really sound that bad. But then you’re learning that Victor’s reaction to it is so strong. So you’re learning about both things at the same time, like who he is and what he sought to do and how he’s reacting to it, and the knowing what the creature looks like as well. I thought that was a good example of how you can have someone tell someone else about something and describe it in detail and move it forward and learn a little bit about both.
Chris: I think the length of the story also matters. For my short stories, I generally just don’t bother to describe the appearance of most of my characters. Definitely not my point of view character. Often I barely described the other characters because the story is short and it feels more appropriate to leave it vague and let readers fill in what they want.
But if you have a novel, the thing about description of a character when they’re introduced is more burden on the beginning of a story. It’s more like startup costs. Here’s the main character. First, let me describe the main character before we can move on to the action. And so that sort of cost is also just heftier for a short story than it is for a novel where it makes more sense to invest in those extra words in the beginning because the novel lasts a really long time. You’re gonna to have this character in a lot of different scenes. It’s just more important to have, I think, a more specific impression of what the character looks like if your story is going to last a long time. And maybe I’m just being lazy with my short stories, but personally, I think that again, if you’re going to stick with a character for longer, there’s just more reason to invest in knowing what they look like.
Oren: I mean, that’s certainly the pattern that I’ve noticed in other short stories that I’ve read that are not produced by one of us, is that they tend to spend a lot less time looking at what a character looks like except for if it’s, as you pointed out, a very high novel character. If it’s an alien or a weird fantasy creature or something. Because then we need to know as opposed to this is a human, they look like [Wes laughter] what a human looks like. Imagine it. Do, your best. I’m not entirely sure how to do this, but Chris, I would like to know if you have any thoughts or if do Wes, on the hierarchy of what should be described first. Because there are certain things that I’ve noticed I feel like you can describe as the scene goes on, but other things, you can’t. One that really stuck out to me was in Chris’s critique of the short story Beyond Lies, the Wub. There’s a scene where the captain enters the scene and then later puts his gun away, but it never described that he had his gun out. It was really jarring to me that it waited until then to tell me his gun had been out this whole time. [Chris, Wes, laughter] That seems like a clear example, but I’m not sure what this hierarchy of things are. Whereas I feel like it would’ve been okay if they’d waited until later in the scene to tell me that his boots were scuffed.
Wes: Chris will certainly add more. What I’ve noticed is common initially, is, I hate using this word, but any objective outliers in terms of physical appearance, so if the person is tall or short, shorter than average, I think that gets called out. A gun or shiny boots or anything out of the ordinary, that’s a straight up physical thing. Once you get into eyes and hair, those start taking on connotations that can have other meaning, but a muddy jacket and a sabre, other than that, then I’m, okay, that’s enough. Chris, what else?
Chris: Well, I think it’s good to think of it this way; If you walked into a room what would call your attention to it first? What would make the biggest impression to you? Somebody having the gun out? [Wes, Chris, laughter] You’re going to take note of that because they have their gun out. When you walk into a room, the things that make the first biggest impression are overall size or layout, and that mostly matters if big things randomly appear in the scene later. Like in my Eragon critique, there’s this big rock pillar that was never described.
Oren: It’s just there now.
Chris: The big overall shape of things, if there’s a huge boulder, if it’s a big room or small room, if there’s a cliff nearby and your attention goes first to the people, pay attention to people. If they’re carrying weapons, we’re going to have to pay attention to that. So honestly, it’s a lot guided by what you as a person would naturally notice and care about and pay attention to. And then after that, it’s about expectations and things that will be jarring later like, hey, that’s an alien.
Now it can get kind of fuzzy when you have a point of view character who that alien is totally normal for this point of view character, but not for the reader. And so that gets into techniques that are similar to, we can talk about how you describe your POV character, because they end up staring at themselves most of the time. It gets into techniques like that. But if you need to describe that, you might come up with something else that’s notable. What if you need to say that this alien has six hands, even though for the point of view characters that’s totally normal, say, hey, all six of those hands are holding weapons or something.
Now there’s an obvious reason for the point of view character to take note of it. And sometimes with demographics of the main character, the point of view character, people will make assumptions about your character for instance it’s white or something.
You want to try not to wait too long to introduce major demographic details about important characters. But yeah, using what would your attention go to when you first walk in is probably one of the best kind of guidelines in general.
Wes: That’s a really, really good guideline. And I like also how it applies to if your POV character is the one that’s doing the noticing. That says a lot about that character too. That works so well. It’s really good advice.
Chris: Yup. Yep. It does. You think about it as you’re in the point of view character’s viewpoint. What you describe is what they are looking at. In my recent critique of the Witcher, there’s this funny section where we’re in Ciri’s point of view and she wakes up and for some reason Geralt is right there, his hand is even on her cheek, but the narration doesn’t describe him at all.
It’s the weirdest thing ever. Because if you woke up and there was somebody right next to you talking to you, you would probably look at them first. Instead we start describing the trees and the sky and the campfire and the sword resting next to the campfire. It’s like Geralt is invisible. [Wes, laughter] Like he’s a spirit or something. Even his dialogue is unattributed. There’re no dialogue tags. He says a line and there’s a voice coming out of thin air.
Wes: You can’t miss Geralt. He’s huge.
Chris: So that’s what happens when you don’t describe what the character would normally notice. That’s a very noticeable example of how it becomes weird and feels like it’s distorting reality. So that’s a situation where you would definitely want to describe a character. But for most minor characters, I try to go for a few evocative details that tell you something about who they are as a person, like, she’s got a warm smile and she’s wearing a fuzzy Christmas sweater.
Wes: That’s great. That’s really good. Yeah.
Chris: A couple evocative details. You don’t need to describe every bit about their appearance, just something that gives you a feeling about the person.
Wes: Do you find that as far as clothing or accessories go that some, some of them are more telling than others? You said Christmas sweater. I’m like, oh man, that is particularly evocative because I can conjure up so many wonderful and terrible Christmas sweaters. But I don’t know if that’s the same to describe somebody who’s wearing an old ball cap, whereas a scarf speaks volumes to me.
I guess maybe it depends on the person, but I just wonder if some clothes and accessories are more evocative.
Chris: They can be. I think in general, I like to often focus on the parts of a person’s appearance that they have control over because it says more about their personality. And I think that in general, style is a really great way to do that. Especially when we have a very icky culture around people’s bodies and attractiveness.
Focusing on the personality and the parts of the body that they can control is a nice way to take that emphasis off of the body. And so, certainly some clothes will make more of an impression than others. It’s hard. It’s one of those things where clothing is now so complicated, it’s hard to give a guideline for what clothing makes more of an impression than another, I would just say that you can use clothing to strike a particular impression. Or an example I like to use is somebody who’s wearing pants with grass stains on them.
Wes: Great example.
Chris: We can tell that there’s something about the person in their activities from what they are wearing. That would be something I would look for. Where if you’re describing clothes and you realize that the clothes don’t actually say anything in particular about this person, then why are you describing the clothes? Describe the hat instead, or the hairstyle or their expression on their face. Something like that.
Oren: A strategy that I like to use as an excuse for why I need to describe my main character, is I describe them in contrast to other characters. Just because that’s a good way to feed two birds with one hand as it were, where you can describe this person was taller than the main character who was usually considered pretty tall. Okay, so now we know that the main character is pretty tall and that this person is really tall. I do that a lot in my stories. I find it’s a good economy of description.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. So about the POV character and describing the POV character was a really common question because that’s tricky. I will say that looking in the mirror is generally considered a pretty cliché way of describing your point of view character at this point. I would still say though, if you have a good story reason for the mirror, it’s okay.
What feels really forced is if your character just happens to be doing something, and then she walked by a mirror and she looked at herself and then she kept moving on. The mirror doesn’t matter, we just shoved it in there so we could describe her. But if you actually have a reason for the mirror related to the story, I’m not gonna say never use mirrors. It’s something to avoid shoving in because it looks cliché at this point.
Oren: The real reason to never use mirrors is the thing that lives on the other side. [Chris, Wes, laughter] The actual reason.
Chris: I think pictures are a good tool. Still, you want a story reason, but I think it’s really easy usually to have story reasons for a character to look at a picture. Often because they will be other people or important places or unearth other things that are meaningful in the picture.
You can use pictures to work in a little bit of essential backstory. Short [laughter], not long. A short backstory, but also, do that while supplying what the protagonist looks like in the scene by looking at a picture.
Oren: That’s why I start all of my medieval fantasy stories with the main character sitting for a portrait. [Wes, laughter] That’s just my new, my new strategy. Now it takes a while. That’s a whole three or four chapters. Those portraits took a while to paint.
Wes: You do bring up, a great example of that is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is good because the picture gets painted at the beginning and then you know what Dorian Gray looks like. Then as the story goes on, the whole point is that he’s not aging or changing. He still looks young and youthful, but then his secret is revisiting the picture as it’s changing to reflect him aging and doing heinous things and stuff like that. So that’s a good purpose picture portrait story.
Chris: And I think the last thing, besides Oren’s tip on comparing their appearance to other people is a really great one, but they can also have a scene where they are doing something with their appearance. It can be anything from they’re getting dressed, they’re doing their hair, they’re putting a Band Aid on their skin because they’ve got a cut. Maybe they’re disguising themselves in camouflage.
Anytime the character’s doing something to manage their appearance. It’s easy to work in details about their appearance naturally. So those are some basic different ways to describe the or your point of view character from their perspective. Generally if it’s another character the character’s used to, it’s a lot more natural if I see my boss every day, I’m not going to stop for a paragraph and look at every detail of my boss that I’ve seen all the time, but hey, maybe my boss looks really tired this morning.
Wes: Or maybe your boss is, for some reason, wearing a red blazer when you know she normally wears blue sweaters or something like that.
Chris: And she’s got dark circles under her eyes today, this morning, clutching her mug of coffee because she’s tired.
Oren: Maybe she’s actually a pod person, [Wes, laughter] and the only way to tell is by looking very closely and listing every item of clothing and descriptor you can think of. [Chris, laughter]
Wes: Maybe that’s why there’s generations of extreme detail cause everybody was obsessed with hunting out the pod people. [All, laughter]
Oren: Should we talk about describing characters having some kind of marginalized background? Because that is its own topic to a certain extent, but I think we should at least touch on it.
Wes: You mean pointing something out so that we don’t just assume that they’re just white, right?
Oren: Yeah. Basically. I mean that’s the first rule you have to learn is that if you don’t say it, most of your readers will assume that your character is white. They will default to the most privileged trait. And in general, it’s good to repeat it a few times.
Most people don’t realize that the biologist in the Southern Reach is Asian and the psychologist is part Native American. The reason they don’t recognize that is because it only gets mentioned once or twice. So it’s really easy to miss. So you need to reinforce that a few times if you want people to remember it.
I’m also a fan of actually describing when someone has a privileged trait as well. You need to use judgment. You don’t want to describe the race of every single side or background character. But if you describe some characters as being black, it’s good to describe some other characters as being white because that makes it so that white is less of the default.
If you’ve pointed it out a few times, people are less likely to consider it as, well, everyone you don’t say is white.
Wes: Yeah. That’s good advice.
Chris: But we get a lot of questions like how do I specify that my character is black, for instance? It’s okay to just say your character has brown skin.
Mainly, you don’t want to use any food metaphors to describe people in general. That’s bad. For instance, almond shaped eyes; that is considered racist. So do not specify that your characters are of Asian descent by saying they have almond shaped eyes.
There are some races or ethnicities that physical description is not enough. You want cultural details in there which at least if you’re in a modern earth setting, or close to near future SyFy, that’s going to make the character better representation anyway.
Oren: If you’re in a story where Chinese people exist, you can usually just say your character is Chinese. You don’t have to try to come up with a way to subtly describe that through appearance. It gets a little more complicated if you’re in a fantasy setting and you have a fantasy stand in for a real world group of people, that can be more complicated. But in real life you can say this is a black person, this character is Chinese. In this case, it’s good to be clear, and not go for subtlety.
Chris: Right. But also you don’t need to beat around the bush. You don’t have to do anything fancy. You can say it, it’s fine. So that’s something that’s good to know.
Oren: It’s also useful to mention, we’ve talked about this in other areas, but I always just reinforce, don’t describe makeup as bad. This is a common thing, well she was wearing so much makeup. I read one story where the main character runs into this lady who’s into him and it describes her makeup like she’s some kind of Eldritch horror with this makeup on as opposed to the naturally hot love interest and I was, oh my gosh.
No, please don’t do that. It was very upsetting. I didn’t love it.
Chris: Yeah. And for women in particular I think it’s really good to make their appearance reflect their effort. It goes back to trying to focus on the parts of the appearance besides a very general demographic, like height and things. Focus on parts of the appearance the character controls and if they spend time on their appearance with makeup or, whatever else, that should make them look good.
If you have a character who puts no effort into her appearance, well maybe her hair is frizzy, or her clothes are wrinkled. Get away from this whole, they have to not just be attractive, but naturally attractive without knowing they’re attractive and pay no attention to their attractiveness.
Oren: I specifically have a character who spends several hours perfecting the Hollywood all natural look, which is anything but. And so I be very careful to make it look, to make myself look stunning when I get out of bed in this ratty sweater. That’s a lot of work to pull that off.
Chris: Yeah, we can use more descriptions of characters that are not conventionally attractive, then it’s also not a big deal. Have a woman with hairy legs and we’re not making a big deal about her hairy legs. That’s just one trait of her appearance. I would like to see more of that personally.
Oren: Oh, also, this is a smaller thing, but people in general tend to like to look nice. And I noticed this is the thing that happens, especially in fantasy stories where we like to describe the dismal peasant village and we describe all these people as wearing muddy burlap sacks or whatever. I think it’s worth pointing out that even when people are poor, they will often try to find ways to look better and develop their own fashions and what have you. And that doesn’t mean that peasants are going to be wandering around in court dresses, but you can do a little bit of research and see the color that medieval peasants would have worn.
Because they did have access to some colors and stuff like that. And I just think that’s helpful and it makes your setting feel a little more alive as opposed to everyone is brown. I mean everyone is wearing brown clothing, is sort of the thing I think we could do to get away from.
Chris: Yeah, and I have to say if you’re describing peasants or villagers as dirty and not caring, there’s definitely something very inherently classist and possibly racist about that. That’s one of the issues with the Dark Crystal and the Podlings. It’s like, no, they just want to be dirty, we have to go bathe them. Oh my gosh, that’s not good. That is not good.
Oren: Yeah, I did not love that, and that wasn’t even a literary work. That was just a TV show.
Oh, one more thing I want to mention since we’re pretty much out of time is metaphor is fun, but be careful with metaphor when you are describing what a character looks like. [Wes, laughter]
If you describe a brooch they’re wearing that’s a jade dragon as looking like it’s about to come alive, people might take that as foreshadowing, that it’s going to come alive later and be disappointed when it doesn’t.
Wes: Yeah. Especially in speculative fiction, it’s like come on. Know your audience.
Chris: Yeah, and especially towards the beginning of the story were expectations for how the elements are going to work is still being set. Later, once people get a handle on the world, it’s a little bit easier to work in metaphors like that.
Oren: Yup, that’s true. And with that, we will go ahead and end this podcast for today.
Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com but before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com
We’ll talk to you next week.
Voiceover: If you’re stuck on your next draft, we’d love to help. We offer consulting and editing services on mythcreants.com. [Closing theme]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.