Comment to 'No Female Bodies? I read what I thought was an extraordinary sta...'
  • Hi Eric, I'd say the appearance of most characters in most novels and short stories isn't described but their circumstances and actions let us form a picture. Age, gender, ethnicity, social class, clothing choices and the time they're living in - needless to say, all those things can be referred to and it's often not what an author says but the way they say it which provides the main impression. Or the way they get their character to say it, as part of that character's personality.

    If I'm looking for a general guideline it's to ask the needs of the novel/story and of the reader. Obviously some characters require a bit or quite a lot of physical description. Jack Reacher's height is relevant, as is the height and width of the MC in Kevin Barry's short story 'Last Days of the Buffalo'. Some of this man's clothing is described too but, this being a Kevin Barry short story, nothing is extraneous to the needs of the story and reader. (Also, KB can be critical, comic and very sympathetic towards his characters all at the same time. That's the kind of skill I can only dream of :-) )

    As a reader, the only time I've really needed more physical description is in some novels with two or three POV characters and all of them the same gender, ethnicity, social background and roughly the same age. I've noticed it more with first person narrators, when it can be a challenge for a character to describe even a small detail of their own appearance without the writing being clunky. But I'm a visual reader and I've just wanted something - anything - to distinguish the characters and stop me producing some generic image which could fit any of them. 

    As as writer I can see the physiques and clothing of all my characters and the detailed faces of my main characters. I'd definitely recognise them in the street but I know many authors don't want to or need to do that with their creations. In my writing I try to describe only the things I need to. Whether I'm successful is another question :-) 

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    • Agreed with all of this. Re first-person POV, my MC is the narrator. He has just been badly beaten up. On return home from hospital, he is assessing his situation: "A look in the mirror showed that my lanky near six-foot frame didn’t look too bad while I was dressed, though I felt bruised and battered all over.Fortunately, the medics confirmed that no bones were broken, though I had stitches for lacerations on my head, back and chest. My face was a bruised mess with one blue eye nearly shut. I used to think I had fairly good looks. Perhaps I’d have to settle for “rugged looks” from now on. A swollen ear didn’t help the effect either. My light brown hair, that I’d only just started to grow long while in civvies, had been shaved on one side of my head, where the stitches were.." As a large part of the story is based on the beating, inter-racial conflict (interrogation) and why he proved attractive in an illicit relationship, I felt a fairly detailed description was preferable. Horses for courses?

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      • Hi Eric, yes, - horses for courses. In your example we need to know what the poor man has suffered.

        I've probably said this already but I think there are two points to descriptions, including those of scenery, machinery or anything. 1) whether some particular detail is needed. Often it isn't but sometimes it is. 2) The author has to take into account three points of view: the character's; the reader's (what do they need to know and what will be their interpretation of what's said); and the author's (what do I need to say to drive the plot and the characterisation, and - if relevant - to provide an example of the theme of this scene or story.)

        Writing = mental gymnastics.

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