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Q&A

Should you write character description points in bulk or spread them out?

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I've heard a lot of people saying they skip descriptions if they are written as one bulk list, but others say it's important that we let the reader know what the character looks like and include all the intended details we want to reveal about their looks as soon as possible.

So, when describing a character, should you write their description in one bulk of text all at once, or spread the points out with other stuff happening in between like in the following example?

Sweat dripped down her amber skin.

Text

text

text

She shook her head, gazing at him with her blue eyes.

text

text

text

She moved a lock of her dark hair from her face.

What is the best practice? And also, would the same rules apply to the POV character or not?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/48840. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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4 answers

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People skip details that they don't care about at the moment. If people are not interested in the details, it won't matter if you put them in a lump or spread the out. They still won't be interested in them. They will still skip them.

If people are interested in a set of details at a particular point in the story, it is always for a particular reason. They need to understand those details in order to understand what is happening in the story, or to maintain the atmosphere of the story.

There are times in life when you care a great deal about your surroundings. You have been summoned to the manor house on unknown business. The butler shows you into the library and tells you that the master will join you in ten minutes. What do you do? You examine your surroundings in great detail, trying to figure out where you are and what your host may want of you. Are there maps on the wall? Guns? Mounted animal heads? Political Posters? Are there any books lying out on the table. What about the titles on the bookshelves. What about the furniture? Modern or ancient? Well kept or decrepit? In this situation, you are a glutton for detail.

But then there are times when you don't care much about your surroundings at all. You are being chased through a field by a pack of dogs. What crop is growing in the field? Was that a mouse or a vole? How pretty the stars look tonight! Are there daisy growing between the rows? How many petals on each flower? These are all questions you do not ask yourself; things you do not observe.

Detail is no different in a book. Show the reader the detail that they care about when they care about it. If you are trying to figure out some technique to slip it by the reader without them noticing, that tells you that this detail does not belong here at all.

Conversely, if the detail does matter, give it immediately. If it matters to the reader that her skin is amber and her eyes are blue and her hair is black, then tell these things all at once. If it does not matter to the reader that her skin is amber and her eyes are blue and her hair is black, then don't tell them at all.

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+4
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In general, do not give a laundry list of features. The reason for this is you are asking the reader to memorize a lot of stuff that is disconnected from the story.

In order to connect their features to the story, you should have a reason that feature makes a difference: If I picture a short man, I will invent reasons that shortness has some impact on him, in practice. There is an example in an American commercial where a rather short well known comedian in a grocery store has difficulty reaching the upper shelf to get something he wants, then pretends he actually wanted something else on a lower shelf.

If her skin is amber, why does that matter? Instead of telling us, you can invent some reason for somebody else to mention it. If she has blue eyes, maybe that is something her lover is attracted to. Maybe somebody comments on her unusual eye color, and she doesn't like it, because to her eye color doesn't mean anything.

If you dole out the descriptions in the story, and connect them to her emotional state and how people react to her, then the reader, visualizing the scene, remembers these features. It will also naturally force you to spread them out to some extent, because it is hard to make every feature you want to get out there to all matter in some particular scene.

It is true that any physical feature your character has that will have an impact on the story later should be introduced early, but not "as early as possible". Early means in the setup, so no later than the first 20% of the story. Especially if the feature has consequences later in the story.

Also, in describing features, it is always best if you can "show" the feature through the actions or words of other characters, not the narrator. The more indirectly the better.

If she's beautiful, don't tell us that. Show us she is beautiful by how others react to her. One degree of indirection is having a character say she is beautiful. Two degrees (and better) is nobody says it, but people act it: When she walks into a room, a man looks at her, rapt, so long that his date notices and punches him, then glares at our MC, who thinks, I don't want your guy, sweetheart, I'm just going to pee.

The same goes if she is not that attractive, or for any other feature. Don't tell us, make it important to some story moment, so it reveals something about her character. The above thought could be followed by, I should take him, though, I'd be doing you a favor in the long run.

Which would show something about her character. she's not dumb, she knows the ogler is going to cheat on his girlfriend sooner or later, and she's quite confident she could take the girl's boyfriend if she wanted to. And she has an altruistic side, she's thinking of the welfare of a stranger even though the girl is glaring at her.

So she knows she's attractive, and she knows how to use it, but I wouldn't have told you that, I am showing it by the nature of her natural thoughts.

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I struggle with this on an ongoing basis, though less than in the past.

First of all, I notice that experienced authors using just a couple descriptors around the time of character introduction (ideally when the viewpoint character 'thinks about' the appearance), and that's it, and the description is often less along the lines of 'blue eyes, cropped hair' (very literal) and more along the lines of 'there was a hesitancy to her gaze, or perhaps fear, which stood at odds with her formidable stance.' Le Guin describes characters along the lines of: 'all delicacy and bone,' or 'frump and fop.'

So, with those kinds of descriptions, a person can visualize the character but also something about the character's personality. Those kinds of descriptions get past some oft-proscribed descriptors too (almond eyes, chocolate skin, kinky hair, etc).

Description is a great place to immerse us a bit into viewpoint. A MC viewing a lame person as 'gimpy' is very different than one viewing that person as 'managing surprisingly well, in light of their lameness.'

Description can be extended to setting. The 'delightful crunch of snow underfoot' is different than the 'miserable endless white blanketing his dead wife's garden.'

Description is a nice place to show the advancement of a minor character through her own arc. Vin showed this in Mistborn. Originally a street urchin most at home in rags that kept her invisible, she at first found the gowns of upper society both pretentious and bulky--but over time learned that they made her invisible in a different way, and she learned to be comfortable within them. Likewise, a character who shaves their head may be doing so for an important character-related reason.

Can you extend the description later? I'd say yes, but use the opportunity to provide movement to the character and story. Why is the character thinking about their ragged nails? It could reflect the fraught escape they had just made from the cliffs of doom (or whatever) and also present a challenge as anyone who saw those ragged nails would know something had happened.

Answer: So, a few details up front are good, hopefully shining a light on internal character, and additional details later are fine--but will hopefully accentuate the character or story arc.

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There is no correct answer. As some have intimated a character's description is only necessary if it's relevant to the story.

My personal technique involves giving a reader a vague enough description to remind them of somebody they already know -this goes some way to employing the empathy card. Essentially, the character becomes the reader's character as opposed to the writer's.

And because I'm progressive (applying critical thinking to problems rather than follow tradition) - publishing has changed! More of than not describing the physical characteristic of the main characters is a pointless exercise. There is a 95% chance they are depicted in glorious 32-bit technicolour on the front cover!

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48847. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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