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Describing Appearances: Moving Beyond Eye & Hair Color

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Lately I’ve been plotting and planning my next novel. As part of the process, I fill out an extensive character worksheet for my main characters.

In the planning stages, one of the things I try to do is get a clear picture of what my characters look like. I accomplish this in numerous ways. If my character doesn’t already have a real portrait from history, I pick one from photos of actors or models. I also fill in the physical description part of my character worksheet—making note of every detail (along with synonyms, similes, metaphors, and ways other characters might describe the person).

And yes, part of the description includes eye and hair color. I believe we as writers need to know as much as possible about our characters if we want them to come to life.

However, Michaela Tashjian brought up a great point in a recent review she did on my debut book, The Preacher’s Bride:  She said, “When it comes to physical description in many contemporary works, writers often resort to 'hair-colour-eye-colour' descriptions. This is a somewhat elementary approach. In The Preacher's Bride, Ms. Hedlund goes far beyond this scope of mediocre physical description of characters.”

Michaela sites a couple of examples from my book which I’ll share as well:

Description of Vicar Burton on page 24: His breathing was wheezy, as though he struggled to catch his breath. Whenever this happened, his shoulders hunched further, and his chest sank inward like a bowl.

Michaela says: “The author gives us no description of Vicar Burton's hair, face, or eyes, and yet we have this vivid picture of the way he talks and breathes and are reminded of this every time he speaks up again in the book.”

Description of Elizabeth’s suitor Samuel Muddle on page 29: Samuel pulled up his breeches, which had a habit if slipping below his protruding belly. He hitched them high above his waistline, as if to give them plenty of sliding room.

Michaela says: “Throughout the story, we are left with next to no description of Samuel except for his protruding belly and overlarge breeches; and yet we are not left wanting for more identification.”

Sometimes we can rely too much on hair and eye color in our descriptions of our characters to the neglect of other techniques. How can we go deeper? Here are some methods to keep in mind when describing our characters:

1. Main characters will likely need hair and eye descriptions (especially in certain genres like romance). In fact, we should help our readers to visualize our main characters correctly right from the start (versus confusing them two-thirds of the way through the book by springing an image on them that might not match the person they’ve already visualized). However, these kinds of basic descriptions can be done in creative snippets that are subtly woven in.

2. Minor characters will probably NOT need hair and eye descriptions (unless hair or eyes play a role in the plot). Otherwise, why bother mentioning them? We can pick much more creative ways to describe them—preferably with traits that add to the story in some way (whether mood, tension, etc.). Blake Snyder in Save The Cat describes this technique by saying, “Make sure every character has ‘A Limp and an Eyepatch’ . . . something memorable that will stick him in the reader’s mind.”

3. Give our characters unique tags. A tag is something that will help identify a character throughout the book. Tags can be physical (a bulbous nose), verbal (a particular phrase only that character uses), characteristic (timidity), or an action (nail-biting).

4. Remember description is only a small part of bringing a character to life. In fact, description alone is not enough. We must weave the sharing of their physical appearance among other techniques—how our characters react to situations, their goals, their method of handling conflict, the way they enjoy life, etc. All of these little things come together to leave an impression in the reader’s mind about who that person really is.

My Summary: Describing our characters is like most aspects of writing—we have to reject the easy (often clich├ęd) image that comes to our minds first. Instead we need to brainstorm, dig deeper, and find creative, interesting, and unique portrayals that will delight our readers.

How about you? Have you fallen into the eye and hair color description trap? How do you push deeper to find more unique ways of describing your characters?

38 comments:

  1. I find writing unique descriptions and intertwining them into the action tricky. Your character worksheets really help with this - thinking about the unique traits I wish to use prior to starting the actual story.

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  3. I love the descriptions of Burton and Samuel! And I've never before heard that minor characters need a tag more than a physical hair/eye description. That's really interesting, and I'm sure I'll employ that in my next novel . . . which already contains the hair color of most of the characters. Sigh . . .

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  4. Great tips. I like when descriptors are of physical habits and actions - gives me a real visual :)

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  5. As a writer who struggles with details in general (I'm a dialogue girl!), I definitely fall into the hair-and-eye-color trap. Thanks for the tips!

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  6. When using eye color/hair color I try to avoid cliches and use comparisons that are unique. Sometimes I come up with something. Sometimes, not. :)

    I like your idea of using metaphors on the character sheet. Great idea.

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  7. Thank you for this topic. I needed it. :-)

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  8. So good!

    Last night I was on a knuckle kick. It mattered what one lady's knuckles looked like...of course there's a story there, but now you'll have to wait to read the book! :D

    ~ Wendy

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  9. Wow, great post, and some excellent examples of description from your book!

    I admit to struggling with description at times. I have a very bad habit to use "hair colour, eye colour" as my standard. Sourcing pictures for characters helps, I find, because then I've got something tangible to describe rather than the mutable images in my head.

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  10. Yep. Done the constant hair and eye color for almost everybody in my first novel. Now that I'm on number four, I'm trying to get more descriptive. You did a wonderful job describing both Vicar Burton and Samuel Muddle. Could really picture them!

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  11. WHAT?! Crud, now I have to rewrite my book. ;) Kidding. But yes, I totally agree with what you said. My one character, an old French trapper, is identified mainly by a stubby index finger where he's lost the tip and a beard that rivals St Nicks. I love describing and trying to find creative ways to do so.

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  12. Wonderful post! Yes, I'm sure I have and am now wondering if my contracted book has anything in it besides eye/hair desc. LOL

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  13. Thanks Judy. I'm always looking for techniques to improve my skills in bringing my characters to life.

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  14. These are some great tips - I'm going to go back through my current book and rethink those descriptive passages.

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  15. Nice article. Thanks for all the detail.

    Lou

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  16. Stopping in today to say THANK YOU! You all are so sweet and encouraging to me! :-)

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  17. I've been really struggling with one of my antagonists. She's not behaving true to her character. I realize that I failed to analyze her character beforehand. Better do it before I go much further! Thanks for the reminder!

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  18. Great tips! I definitely try not to go into too much detail with minor characters except to give them one or two "traits" that are important. Imagination is better left to good use on the reader's part with this.
    I enjoy that as a reader, too- building the character in my mind based off of what the author has given me. Hence the reason why I don't often like movie versions of books- the minor characters sometimes look nothing like I imagined! :)

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  19. This was a great post as usual.
    As a 'student' of character, I thought all of your advice was very sound. :) I also write plays and deep character analysis is very important in the theatre - something that translates well into fiction, even if all that info never makes it into the book.
    http://www.tracykraussexpressionexpress.com

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  20. Great tips, Jody. This was another brilliant post full of uber-helpful info! :-)

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  21. Great blog post! I haven't been on in a while and it's good to see that you're constantly posting smart, informative posts. I agree with all you've mentioned, and, to add, I like to look at old family photos and draw their interesting physical traits into the adjectives I use for my characters.

    One of my grandfathers, for example, was an auburn-headed man whose lips bore a permanant half-smile that warned all who came near that he would soon be teasing them. I can only tell that by looking at his photo because I was only three when he died. So it's a good rule of thumb to write for an audience knowing they haven't met this person and will likely never meet another character that resembles them again. One of a kind...just like Papaw "Red."

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  22. A terrific post, as usual, Jody. I definitely need to work on this as I'm rewriting. Thanks.

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  23. Great article!! Thanks so much for all the helpful advice.
    Cat

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  24. You always have great posts, Jody, but this is one of the best. The development of characters involves so much more than what they look like. Their identity is wrapped in traits of personality and behaviour.

    While I do a character study before I start, I know my characters a whole lot better after I've finished the first draft. Good thing there are revisions!

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  25. Wonderful insight and remiders on how to bring our characters to life! I think a lot of the fun of creating characters are those tags. I often watch people and try to find some unique trait that they have and then store it away to use in my writing:)

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  26. I think adding those nervous ticks or limps makes a character bloom to life It adds depth.

    I like unveiling a character for myself rather than being spoon feed, granted a nudge doesn't hurt either.

    If you tell me he has a limp I begin to wonder if there was an accident? Was he born that way? Depth... he has a history.

    Love the character sheet. Thanks!

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  27. Looking forward to your next book!

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  28. Thank you so much for referencing my article (I got a lot of unexpected page views)! I'm very grateful for the favor.

    Great job going deeper with the idea of characterization. Another method I've noticed in some books is reminding the reader of what minor or even major characters look like. You did a spectacular job of this in The Preacher's Bride. I noticed a great example of this in Inkheart--another book on which I did a short review earlier in my blog--in which the author reminds the reader of a character's scarred face by having him stroke his scars whenever he is deep in thought. I think little reminders like this are a great way to keep everything visual!

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  29. Oh I can't wait for more of your descriptions in The Doctor's Lady. What brilliant examples.

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  30. I'm sure I have. Since you brought it up, though, it makes me wonder something: Is it better to simply describe what we would first notice about such people if we saw them in real life?

    Whenever I'm at the grocery store, I don't always notice eye and hair color combinations. Sometimes I notice height. Sometimes I notice facial expression. Sometimes I notice tone of voice. Hair and eye color don't normally come into it, unless they are rather unusual hair colors or styles, like purple, or bright red, or something.

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  31. Wonderful suggestions! I've been trying to find ways to move beyond the trite hair and eye color descriptions. I'll definitely give this a try in my work.

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  32. I love this blog entry...this gives me so much to work towards!

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  33. Thank for the tips. I look to pictures on my Pinterest ;-) and so I create my personages.

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  34. Insightful and eminently useful advice. As an editor, I constantly remind my client authors of the importance of description and have myself fallen too easily into the hair/eye trap when providing an example. I will show this page to all my current and future clients. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  35. Excuse me, the character sheet link does not work. I am using Google Chrome and I keep being directed to a page that says it cannot be loaded :(

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    1. Sorry you're having trouble. Did you try another web browser, like Firefox?

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  36. Thank you for the description on the appropriate use of physical description. I just read an article with tips from someone else who gave a blanket statement that eye and hair color are not worth describing and should not be included. I understand letting the reader fill in the blanks when you can, but disliked his advice for exactly the reasons that you mention in your comment on describing main characters. Your advice makes much more sense.

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