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My Preference. As a reader, I like minimal physical description of main characters because I'd rather imagine them myself. I enjoy quirky and vivid descriptions of the minor characters because they're not as important in that they're not in the story long enough for me to identify with them.
This preference is typical of readers of literary fiction, mainstream fiction, mysteries, and science fiction. Readers of fantasy fiction will want more physical description.
If you're writing romance ( m/m, m/f, or f/f), you need to include a lot of physical description of your main characters because the genre centers on love and sexual attraction. Both males and females in romance fiction tend to be very beautiful and described in great detail. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I've had a lot of trouble trying to remember to do that!
That said, I love descriptions of eye color.
How descriptive you get depends on your genre, but it can also vary based on what else you're trying to do with the description. Descriptions can serve different purposes. I've found some examples for you from fantasy, romance, mystery, and mainstream fiction.
A note on the advice to be found here. It is simply information on techniques that have worked for one published author (me). Only you can decide if my information will be helpful or not helpful to you.
For example, I point out clichés to avoid, and you can decide if you want to use them as they are, avoid them, or improve the terms with additional description. I personally love the cliché "flashing eyes," even though I know it is a cliche. I will go on using it in my writing.
Improving as a writer is all about experimenting. The only "ironclad rules" in writing fiction are the laws of physics and the principles of grammar, and even those can be bent, if you know what you're doing.
Description that gives a basic snapshot.
Some writers, especially those with a cast of hundreds, just want to nail down a few physical traits so that readers can tell their characters apart. The following descriptions are boring and static in my opinion, but they serve their purpose. See how the images are workmanlike, basic, and in my opinion too wordy.
From page 23 of Rhapsody (fantasy fiction) by Elizabeth Haydon: "She had long straight hair with just a hint of a wave to it, and it hung like a silken sheet down her back. In the dark it appeared to be the color of pale flax …Her face was delicately formed, with large, dark eyes fringed with black lashes and an upper lip shaped like a longbow."
From page 15 of A Game of Thrones (fantasy fiction) by George R. R. Martin: "He was big and broad and growing every day, with his mother's coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun … Jon's eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast."
Description that understates to highlight a particular feature.
Ellen Kushner has a literary style that doesn't overburden us readers with physical description of characters. Like me, she seems fascinated by eye-color. Look at her minimal description of Richard St. Vier, one of the two main characters:
From page 4 of Swordspoint (fantasy fiction) by Ellen Kushner: "He was younger than most of them there; dark-haired, of average height, his face dirty and stubbled."
Later on, we get his eye-color and it remains his most distinctive feature because everything else about him is so understated:
From page 40 of Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner: "The swordsman's eyes were, incongruously, the deep lavender color of spring hyacinths."
Description that conveys personality.
From page 6 of Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner: "Alec dreamily laced his long fingers in his hair. His hair was fine and leaf-brown, worn down his back in the long tail that was the defiant emblem of University scholars … Alec's eyes, turned to the window, were dark and green, like the water under the Bridge."
Along with giving us a physical image, Kushner conveys many intangibles about Alec in that physical description: dreaminess, defiance, scholarliness. He seems refined: fine hair, long fingers, and he's a scholar. But there is also an unsavory quality about him: his eyes are dark and green like water under the Bridge. What lurks under bridges? Moss and slime? Trolls? Highwaymen?
From page 17 of Kushiel's Dart (fantasy fiction) by Jacqueline Carey: "It is not, of course, that I lacked beauty, even as a babe … My hair, which grew to curl in charming profusion, was the color of sable-in-shadows … My limbs were straight and supple, my bones a marvel of delicate strength … My eyes, when they settled, were that color the poets call bistre, a deep and lustrous darkness, like a forest pool under the shade of ancient oaks."
This description does a lot. At first, you might think that narrator Phaedre is conceited, especially because she's conveying it in first-person viewpoint! If you read the description in context, however, you realize that she's very matter-of-fact because all of her countrymen, the D'Angelines, are known for their supernatural beauty. So the description goes beyond Phaedre and does some world building within the Kushiel series.
Plus, note how ornate the writing is. This tone echoes the dreamy, baroque, feverish experience that is Phaedre's story in the Kushiel books. The experience just wouldn't be possible if it were written in a minimalist way.
From page 207 of Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey: "Indeed, there was very little about Joscelin Verreuil that was not beautiful. He had the old-fashioned, noble features of a provincial lord and the somber, ash-grey garb of a Casseline Brother adorned a tall, well-proportioned form, like the statues of the old Hellene athletes. His eyes were a clear blue, the color of a summer sky, and his hair, caught back in a club at the nape of his neck, was the color of a wheatfield at harvesttime."
Just for contrast, the description of Joscelin does nothing for me. The author has missed the mark with this description in a way that she didn't with the gorgeous description of Phaedre (especially Phaedre's eyes). I think it's because he sounds so generic to me: well-formed like a statue, sky-blue eyes, hair the color of wheat. It's nowhere near as striking as Phaedre's description, which set the bar pretty high.
This is an amazing description. We've got a leitmotif going here, a theme or image that recurs.
In this case, it's liquid: "pooling in curves" and "sleek as cream" and even "oozing blood." If you can repeat an image this gracefully while managing to vary it slightly like this, it makes for a wonderful reading experience. There is a connectedness and symmetry to a leitmotif that sinks into the reader's subconscious and is immensely appealing.
Apart from the literary creativity going on here, this description conveys something about Peter, the one being described. "Sleek as cream" is the phrase that really grabs me. It's an unusual way to describe a man, but striking. Peter is beautiful, but there is also a connotation of luxury, self-awareness, arrogance, and entitlement to him.
Description that reveals the watcher's personality.
From page 34 of Always (mystery fiction, f/f romance fiction) by Nicola Griffith: "She felt my gaze and looked up. Grey-blue eyes, soft as dove feathers."
From page 39: "She had wide shoulders, a tight waist flaring into rounded hips, and muscles on her fingers and forearms and neck. I guessed her back was also finely muscled, and her legs. It was muscle that comes with intensive training from an early age, the kind a trapeze artist or a free climber or high diver develops."
This is in Aud's first-person viewpoint. She's a martial arts expert and a former cop so she would value strength and physicality. She knows a lot about fitness and how you develop certain muscles.
Plus, she's immediately attracted to this woman, and it comes across in the sensual touches (a tight waist flaring into rounded hips) and in the unusual contrast she points out between the woman's muscled form and her eyes "soft as dove feathers." This description reveals as much or more about Aud as it does the woman being watched.
This is the heroine as seen in third-person viewpoint by the hero. See how unemotional and observant he is. He ticks off characteristics like a cop making a list: blond hair, ponytail, no makeup. In fact, he is the chief of police.
Note the chip on his shoulder against the upper classes: that overbred look, a nose perfect for looking down on folks. Yet, you can tell he's interested in spite of himself (and in spite of how disinterested she is in her own appearance what with her scraping back that ponytail): he takes the time to notice her eyes in detail.
If you guessed that he is from the working class (cop) and from an unsentimental culture (rural Yankee) and that she is more cerebral than appearance-oriented (she's an Episcopal priest), you're right. It all gets conveyed in the type of details he notices and what connotations he gives to those details.
From page 3 of In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming: "He had a fit, outdoors look to him, still slightly tan from last summer, his dark brown hair picked out with gold and copper. She'd have to disagree with Lois, his nose was too big and his lips were too nonexistent to call him handsome. But he looked like a man who had lived comfortably within his skin for the past forty-odd years … His eyes were Fourth-of-July blue, high and bright with the snap of a flag in the wind. But behind them she could see something moving, like pages turning in a book no one was allowed to read."
Okay, this is the hero as seen in third-person viewpoint by the heroine. You definitely get an image of him as an outdoorsy guy. You also get a sense of her trying to mask her interest behind an intellectual sort of detachment: she's just disagreeing with Lois, and of course it was Lois who first brought him up.
Look at what she finds attractive: that he's lived comfortably within his skin for a long while. That's a cerebral, spiritual thing to notice rather than, say, that he has a cute ass. Later we find out that she's an Episcopal priest. She's also intuitive enough to sense his darker side as shown by the last line. With alcoholism and the Vietnam War in his past, he has some shadows on his soul.
I don't usually enjoy being led by the nose, but I love how over-the-top Ayn Rand's descriptions are. You read a physical description and you know immediately whom you're supposed to like and dislike.
Her descriptions are way too heavy-handed for today's readers, but I'm including them so you can see how much mileage she gets out of each description. They're so revealing of personality.
Warning to romance fans: We the Living has a love triangle, but the author is more interested in showing the evils of Communism than to give us an HEA (happily ever after) ending – just so you know.
From page 44 of We the Living (mainstream / literary fiction) by Ayn Rand: "Kira's eyes were dark gray, the gray of storm clouds behind which the sun can be expected at any moment … Kira's mouth was thin, long. When silent, it was cold, indomitable, and men thought of a Valkyrie with lance and winged helmet in the sweep of battle. But a slight movement made a wrinkle in the corners of her lips – and men thought of an imp … Kira's hair was short, thrown back off her forehead, light-rays lost in its tangled mass … a face that had escaped from the easel of a modern artist who had been in a hurry: a face of straight, sharp lines sketched furiously to suggest an unfinished promise."
Kira is a typical headstrong, self-absorbed Ayn Rand heroine. She's striking rather than pretty, and is so involved in her chosen work that she doesn't waste time on primping and dressing up. So she comes across as intense, hasty, unpredictable, independent – and effortlessly beautiful despite, or perhaps because, of her indifference.
The above description of Kira Argounova is fun if you read it in context. She's standing in a barren office in front of a little Communist drone who is writing down her description so that he can issue her the all-important labor book.
He sets down the bare minimum such as "Eyes – Gray" and then the narrative goes into this huge elaboration about "…the gray of storm clouds" et cetera. Ayn Rand is showing us how the Communist bureaucracy squeezes the vitality and heroism out of these larger-than-life individuals.
Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I find it hard to believe that the Communists would care enough to have a place on the form for a description of one's "Mouth" (the drone writes down, "Ordinary"), but that's okay. How else are we going to launch into a comparison of Kira with a Valkyrie?
From page 61 of We the Living by Ayn Rand: "He was tall; his collar was raised; a cap was pulled over his eyes. His mouth, calm, severe, contemptuous, was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it."
This is Leo Kovalensky, whom I've got to like because his surname is so close to my own, ha ha! Otherwise, he's your typical Ayn Rand hero who can be summed up in one defining word: arrogant. He's the son of an admiral under the old regime – that is, the imperialists who fought the Reds. Therefore, like many Ayn Rand heroes who defy collective mediocrity with their innate splendor, he's doomed.
Note how minimal his physical description is. He's tall (and presumably not fat) but we have no real idea of his build, hair color, eye color, or even how attractive he is.
What's most important is his individual arrogance. Isn't that an amazing thing to say about a character: "His mouth … was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it."
From pages 74 – 75 of We the Living by Ayn Rand: "… two gray eyes that looked like the eyes of a tamed tiger; but she was not quite sure if it was tamed or not. There were four straight lines on his face: two eyebrows, a mouth and a scar on his right temple … He was tall and young. He wore a cap and a leather jacket. He walked like a soldier, his steps deliberate and very confident."
Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I love that description of Andrei Taganov who is not just a Communist, but also a member of the GPU (the secret police). This is the ultimate in a sinister occupation, and yet he is supposed to be a noble man who doesn't fully realize the evil of the system for which he crusades.
He, too, is tall, young, and confident. But he's not completely arrogant. He walks like a soldier, which is manly and all, but also suggests that he, like any soldier, obeys orders.
He has the eyes of a tiger – but possibly a tamed tiger! Poor Andre could've been a real man like Leo if he hadn't had thrown his lot in with those Communists! Just for the record, he's my favorite character in the novel.
Even more fun are Ayn Rand's descriptions of the villains: that is, all the Communists except for Andre who is supposed to be attractive enough to form a love triangle with Kira and Leo.
From page 69 of We the Living by Ayn Rand: "[referring to Comrade Sonia] …short, husky legs and flat, masculine oxfords; a red kerchief tied carelessly over short, straight hair; eyes wide apart in a round, freckled face; thin lips drawn together with so obvious and fierce a determination that they seemed weak; dandruff on the black leather of her shoulders."
Thin, weak lips and dandruff! Ick! No wonder she's a Communist!
From page 70 of We the Living by Ayn Rand: "[referring to Pavel Syerov] A young speaker stood on the platform, rubbing his hands solicitously, like a sales clerk at a counter. His face looked like an advertisement that had stayed in a shop window too long: a little more color was needed to make his hair blond, his eyes blue, his skin healthy. His pale lips made no frame for the dark hole of his mouth …"
The description of Syerov is one of my all-time favorites. "Rubbing his hands solicitously" makes me think of a housefly – how loathsome! And that sun-faded advertisement metaphor conveys weakness, impotence, venality, and mediocrity.
Description that gives pleasure to the reader.
From page 6: "She had rich ebony hair that absorbed light like ink and curled so wildly that she was forced to pull it back in a severe plait every morning. Her skin was a dark honey."
From page 4: "Well over six feet tall, he was built like the fighting machine he was in the wild, pure lean muscle and tensile strength. His black hair brushed his shoulders but there was nothing soft about it. Instead, it hinted at unrestrained passion and the dark hunger of the leopard below the skin … Four jagged lines, reminiscent of the claw marks of some great beast, scored the muted gold of his skin [on the right side of his face]. His eyes were a hypnotic green."
From page 26: "In spite of the black pantsuit and stiff white shirt she wore like corporate armor, he could tell her breasts would overflow his hands … The curve of her hip was sensually female, her bottom a heart-shaped enticement."
These descriptions fulfill many different purposes. They reveal personality: the heroine's wild curls tamed into a severe plait, and her voluptuous form hidden in formal clothing. You read this and realize that she's repressed, defensive, and out-of-touch with her own beauty and sensuality.
The descriptions also reveal what's important to the character doing the watching (the hero is having a meltdown over her breasts). Plus, we readers can't help but realize how attractive the hero and heroine are to each other. The pleasure they're taking in each other's appearance is building up reader anticipation for their first sexual encounter.
Beyond all of that, this is a romance novel, and its job is to create a pleasurable sensual and romantic fantasy for the reader. We want the hero and heroine to be not just gorgeous but imbued with strong emotion: passion, or repressed passion, or loneliness, or yearning. Or all of the above!
It is part of the sweeping escapism that readers look for in the romance genre, be it mm or ff or mf. Romance is the genre that will demand the most physical description of your characters.
So what should you do when describing your characters?
Figure out what genre you're writing for.
For literary fiction, mysteries, and science fiction, tradition dictates that you don't describe main characters that much. For erotica, romance, and fantasy fiction, tradition dictates that you describe main characters in detail. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, you have to know the traditions before you decide to obey them or break them.
Consider focusing only on one unusual physical feature.
This is what Kushner does with Richard St. Vier. She spotlights his violet eyes and downplays everything else about him. We can guess that he's young and trim since he's a swordsman so she doesn't need to describe him. This descriptive technique is more memorable than flooding us with unnecessary details.
For hair/eye color, reach for an unusual comparison. Look at the Jacqueline Carey excerpts above. Her description of Phaedre's eyes ("a deep and lustrous darkness, like a forest pool under the shade of ancient oaks.") is far superior to her description of Joscelin's eyes ("His eyes were a clear blue, the color of a summer sky"). This is because everybody uses "summer sky"; it's a cliché. Read a lot, and soon you'll see what's overused.
Describe your characters actively, not passively.
Look back at the Haydon, Jordan, and Martin descriptions that give a basic snapshot. See how boring they are? The characters aren't doing anything and so we're getting a mug shot. Now read the Kushner description of Alec who is looking out the window and running his fingers through his hair. See how the words move and give us readers a more vivid mental picture?
Consider focusing only on an overall impression.
What if you just ditched the usual details of hair-color, eye-color, shape of face, and build, and instead showed your character's demeanor, energy, or personality. Look back at Ayn Rand's descriptions.
Kira's description emphasizes her energy and potential: "Kira's hair was short, thrown back off her forehead, light-rays lost in its tangled mass … a face of straight, sharp lines sketched furiously to suggest an unfinished promise."
With Leo, we get even less physical details and even more personality: "His mouth … was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it." We readers are fascinated, and we're going to imagine our own physical details, and therefore Ayn Rand has us more intellectually engaged than if she just gave us a mug-shot description.
Choose physical details that reveal personality.
In whose viewpoint are we when we get a character description? What details attract or repel the watcher? In Nicola Griffith's description of the caterer, you realize that Aud, who is the watcher, really likes muscles.
In Julia Spencer-Fleming's description of Clare, you realize that Russ, who is the watcher, resents the upper class and is unsentimental.
You can also use comparisons as Alex Beecroft does to foreshadow personality to the reader: her character Peter is sleek as cream, and he will turn out to be aristocratic and arrogant.
Kushner hints at Alec's unsavory side when she compares his eyes to dark green water under the bridge. Romance writers can use description to hint at the heroine's degree of repressed sensuality: Look back at how Nalini Singh conveys it with Sascha's hairstyle.
With exception of those writing romance, I hope you'll remember one of my favorite sayings when it comes to description: Less is more! But either way, best of luck to you.
Note: There is more! Because the website traffic is so high on these "how to write" articles, I have expanded two of them from the roughly 2000 words per article that you see on the website/blog to 15,000 words each. I am offering them as Kindle documents on Amazon, if you are interested. Here are the links if you would like to have a look and download a free sample.
How to Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces
(Just so you know, this 15,000-word book contains the 3651-word Eye Color list from my website plus the 1731-word article How to Describe Eyes, also from my website. The other 9618 words in the book are all-new material.)
How to Write Descriptions of Hair and Skin
(Just so you know, this 14,900 word book contains the 2000-word article HT Describe Hair from my blog plus the 600-word Hair Color list from my website. The other 12,300 words in the book are all-new material.)
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