Likes and Dislikes in Character Descriptions

14/06/2016 Discussions, Reading 33

Likes and Dislikes in Character DescriptionsCharacter descriptions are a pretty essential part of character building for me. I know for some people they prefer little to no character description as they would rather build up their own image of characters, but personally I like a little something to go on!

However, I think it’s really easy to get character descriptions wrong, and so here are a few of my personal likes and dislikes:

Things I Like 

  • Some basic information…

To build up an image of the character in my head, I like to have just a few basic details, namely hair colour and build, as these are the kind of things you notice immediately when meeting a new person in real life.

  • …but not all at once!

Whilst I like a little information to allow me to formulate a mental image of a character, I don’t want too much, and definitely not all at once. Personally I like when authors scatter their character description throughout the first couple of chapters, so by the end of them I have a full picture of the person, but I’m not bombarded with description (plus this helps avoid the ‘shopping list approach’ – see below!).

  • The description worked into the story.

As well as not wanting to be bombarded with character description, I also prefer to not even notice I’m reading description (yes, I’m super picky!). I like it best when authors slip bits of description into their telling of the story seamlessly (which I know as a writer is actually really hard to do!).

So instead of saying ‘Sally had honey blonde hair’, they’ll maybe mention Sally’s honey blonde hair rippling in the wind as she waits for the bus, or how she has to scrape it back out of her eyes to read her book.

  • An interesting quirk.

In addition to some basic info, I like to be told maybe one little quirk the character has that suggests something about their personality. Maybe that’s a scar or a tattoo, a goofy smile, or an item of clothing they always wear, but I just think it adds interests and tells me more about the character than their eye colour or exact height would.

Things I Don’t Like

  • The shopping list approach.

One of the reasons I like to be fed bits of character description subtly and not all at once is to avoid the ‘shopping list effect’, as I like to call it. This is where the character’s physical description is given all at once, practically in a itemised list.

For example: ‘Jerry was tall and thin, with black hair and green eyes. He had a prominent nose, and a thin mouth, which tended to turn down at the corners in an almost permanent frown. He always wore a dark suit with a crisp white shirt and shiny black shoes, with a Rolex watch peeking from his right sleeve.’ Despite giving more than enough information to create a picture of Jerry, this approach doesn’t really give me any impression of him as a character, so he may as well be a blank space in my mind. I like to see less physical description and a lots of personality in my character descriptions!

  • The mirror approach.

One character description pet hate of mine is the ‘character looking in the mirror and describing themself’ thing. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever personally looked into a mirror and mentally listed my physical features, and for another, it just seems like a bit of a cop out.

Plus it stalls the story whilst the character gazes at their reflection, generally whilst doing something mundane like brushing their teeth or sorting their hair.

  • Clichés

There are certain ways of describing a character’s physical appearance that are so commonplace they’ve become cliches, and these really irk me!

One in particular that gets me is ‘piercing blue eyes’. It really doesn’t help me imagine the colour of the character’s eyes, and simply leaves me wondering how exactly eyes can be piercing (unless they are magic eyes that can stab people maybe?). ‘Piercing’ gets used far to often in my opinion to describe eyes, presumably as a short hand to show that the person in question is pretty intense or brooding, but it just causes me to roll my regular blue eyes (and don’t even get me started on ‘crystal blue eyes’…or ‘burnished gold hair!’).

  • Details that are too exact.

‘Paul was 6 feet and 2 inches tall, and weighed 14 stone and 3 pounds’… Unless you’re an undertaker, you probably can’t guess a person’s exact height just from looking at them, so it makes no sense to introduce a character by giving their exact height or weight, or anything else too specific. I like to know the details about a character I would notice in a real person, so unless it comes up in conversation with another character, I don’t need to know the character’s height, shoe size or waist measurements (and I really can’t imagine an interesting situation in a story where these minuscule details would come up!).

So put simply, I’m super picky! I like some character description but not too much, only the basic details plus a quirk, and it has to be woven into the story as opposed to given to me all at once. I don’t ask for much do I?

So what do you like or not like to see in character descriptions?

33 Responses to “Likes and Dislikes in Character Descriptions”

  1. Alex

    4th time poster

    I too loathe the “piercing” eye description. Your description of what it is supposed to suggest is the best defense of I’ve ever seen. Yet I agree, should be tossed out a writers tool kit. Have you ever heard somebody use that in real life?

    • Laura

      I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone use that in real life, or that I’ve ever noticed anyone have a particularly ‘piercing’ gaze or eyes. I’m glad you agree!

  2. Aj @ Read All The Things!

    I guess I’m not too picky about descriptions, but the mirror thing has always baffled me. I don’t think I’ve ever analyzed myself in a mirror. I also don’t like characters who are unrealistically beautiful. Everybody has some flaws.

    • Laura

      I hate it when characters are unrealistically beautiful too. No one looks perfect, so I think characters shouldn’t either!

  3. Kaja

    Haha I love the undertaker comment. 😀

    Romances are horrible with the cliched descriptions – I’ve been binge-reading a 6-part contemporary romance series this week and noticed that 3 out of the 6 heroines had green eyes that shone and were luminous and whatnot and I kept thinking about aliens. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t read the books all in a row but it bugged me anyway. And I hate having a guy’s blue eyes “darken with emotion/lust”, that’s just weird!

    And yep, the mirror scene is weird. I mean, I know what I’ll see when I look in the mirror (well except the morning bed-head, that’s always a surprise), so I don’t tend to stand in front of it and catalogue my features. It seems like a very narcissistic thing to do.

    • Laura

      🙂
      I don’t read that much romance, but I know I’ve found that the most likely character descriptions to be cliched is those for love interests. The whole luminous eyes thing is pretty weird (and totally unrealistic!), and I have always been confused by the whole ‘eyes darkening’ thing. I’m pretty sure everyone’s eyes just stay the same colour regardless of emotion!
      And the mirror thing really does seem narcissistic! That really wouldn’t make me like a character, as I’m more likely to assume they’re vain.

    • Codex Regius

      Hah! In one book forum I am keeping a list of green-eyed heroines. Never mind that I employed a green-eyed protagonist as well. Courtesy to my wife who is every inch the ginger-green cliché.

      And with regard to those mirrors … I was facing that problem, too. My solution was that our heroine meets a bunch of ruffians early on who make insulting comments about the way she looks. 😉

  4. Greg

    I agree I like descriptions to be doled out naturally, like maybe mentioning hair color as he or she brushes it absently with their hand or something lol. Sometimes when I read older sci fi or fantasy you get like a paragraph long description of the characters and that always drives me nuts! 🙂 Glad writing has changed in that sense. And you’re right about “piercing” eyes- good grief does everyone have them lol?

    • Laura

      I have found that with older fantasy too, and it really does disrupt the story for me. I get when it’s a character like an elf the author wants to show what their version of an elf looks like, but I think there’s better ways to do it than a huge paragraph.
      It really does seem like half the characters in book worlds have piercing eyes doesn’t it? I can’t say I’ve ever noticed anyone with piercing eyes in real life though! 🙂

  5. Rosario

    Omg that last one though! I’m not sure a character’s exact measurements ever really need to be included unless significant or relevant to a plot point? Cliches also always get an eye roll from me, one thing I really dislike is descriptions of brown character’s skin as chocolate or coffee or any other food item. It gets a double eye roll from me. I really enjoy when a description is weaved into the story as well, because you can gradually build up an image of a character in your head, using bits of their personality and appearance. The shopping list approach just makes characters seem a bit static to me. Ah, great post, this is really interesting to think about!

    • Laura

      I’ve seen the height thing included a couple of times, and if it’s somehow relevant, I’m fine with it, but it pretty much never is!
      I totally agree with you on the whole ‘food item’ skin thing too. It’s such a cliche and so annoying! A personal one I don’t like is ‘caramel’ skin.
      I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

  6. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight

    Oh, I just touched on this in a post I just scheduled for some weeks from now! Though mine is more about description in general, not this in depth about characters.

    Ugh, the mirror approach is the worst. But now I would love to read a book about someone whose eyes actually stab people, hahaha.

    I get what you’re saying about the shopping list thing, but I actually do like to have a fair amount of description for characters, and I like to have it as soon as possible. I like imagining characters fairly in detail in my head, I don’t just imagine blobs, so the more info I have, the better. It keeps them from looking generic. But if it takes too long to get me that information, then either I keep holding off, not letting my mind commit to anything, and then they become blobs if the info never comes, or I lock into something and possibly get it wrong. And if I’ve already been imagining a character with blonde hair, for example, I don’t want to have to change that at 50% into the story to black hair. So I at least need their basics right at the beginning!

    • Laura

      I’m really looking forward to reading your post! I think character description is a pretty interesting thing to think about 🙂
      I genuinely need to find a book now about someone who can stab people with their eyes! It does sound pretty cool.
      Character description definitely is a personal preference thing I think. I’m in the middle, in that I like a little bit of description but not too much, whereas other people don’t want any and want to completely imagine the character, and others like lots. That is such a great point though, and although I like scattered description, I do have to get some pretty quickly so I don’t start thinking about a character having one colour of hair when they actually have another.

      • Codex Regius

        Not exactly stabbing … but our heroine has a skill which she calls the Panther’s Glare. She applies it with great effect to confuse or even scare her opponent for that crucial moment before she attacks.

  7. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    I was actually thinking about character descriptions the other day as I was reading a book and realised I had no clue what my main character looked like. If they had been described I had promptly forgotten all info about them. I think that’s my pet hate with description, if it’s done so badly you can’t recall it later in the book. I think i like my character description to be gradually introduced in the book and then small bits of description interspersed throughout to remind me when I inevitably forget in the book (I also forget character names… and real people names. I’m just bad at remembering people). I don’t want it thrown at me in one go as I will forget it, though. I don’t know, I think I only know when character description is done well when I can still remember my vision of them half way through a book.

    • Laura

      I’m the same, in that I will have completely forgotten a character’s description if it isn’t done well or is just really generic. That’s why I don’t like cliches (too generic!), but do like quirks, as they are more memorable than general details. I also like being given little reminders too, just to keep my mental picture of the character clear in my head throughout the book. I totally agree that the biggest sign that a character description has been done well is if you can still picture them clearly part way through the book! 🙂

  8. Simone

    I 100% agree with everything you listed. I hate when authors write things like piercing blue eyes. What’s more annoying is when they write something like emerald green eyes. I mean I’m glad that I can guess the colour I certainly wouldn’t think about what kind of green it is. Green is green. 😀 And also when there’s the “shopping list” kind of description I ten to skip it because I will never remember all those features and I will imagine the character as I want. But this was brilliant post and I’m glad I’m not the only one with this opinion. 🙂

    • Laura

      Yeah, I think emerald green is another cliche description. It’s used so often, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a person whose eyes are emerald green! Most people’s eye colour isn’t quite that bright. I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

  9. Michael Tyne

    Nice post! I admit I’ve used the word “burnished” to describe a female character’s hair, but in a book I haven’t published yet – so thanks for the heads up 🙂

    The mirror thing has been going for years, and a particularly egregious variant is when a male writer has a female character do this while naked…it happens a lot in thrillers, for some reason. This ought to be banned by some kind of international treaty.

    A bit off-field, but one of the things I like to read (and do in my own stuff) is to give a character verbal mannerisms – an accent, or just a quirk of speech. A great example would be Terry Pratchett’s witches. You get an wonderfully clear idea of the personalities of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg just by the way they speak…

    • Laura

      These are all just my own opinions, so I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who quite like ‘burnished’ as a descriptive word 🙂
      I totally agree with you on the whole female seeing themselves naked in the mirror thing that a lot of thrillers do! It’s just really weird, and I’m pretty sure no one in real life just stands naked in front of a mirror and describes themselves.
      I really like being given an idea of a character’s way of speaking too, and I like when characters have a really clear voice (as long as it isn’t taken to far – for example when authors try and write regional accents to the point where it’s hard to tell what’s being said).

    • Laura

      I totally agree with the eye colours! Grey eyes are super rare in real life, yet half the characters in books seem to have them, and I’ve never even heard of someone having violet eyes, so it seems pretty random that it’s so common in fiction.

  10. Codex Regius

    Mind you, just this morning I read it AGAIN – C.S.Friedman, “Black Sun Rising”, chap. 2, the High Priest has “blue, piercing eyes”.

    AAAAAAAARGH !!!!!!!! 🙂

    • Codex Regius

      And this morning, same book … Reflection in a shop glassfront. Some authors don’t manage to avoid ANY trope.

      It’s comforting when you write about a time before the invention of mirrors and glassfronts. Then you are forced to find other solutions. Once I described our young hero by comparing him to his foster-sister. Like, she has grown so tall that their eyes are at one level, which he doesn’t appreciate because he would prefer to look down on her. (In either sense – did I mention that these two are fighting a lot?) That he is naturally blond we learn from a scene in which she offers him to dye his hair, against his parent’s explicit prohibition. But, I think, I never mentioned his eye colour. It was not relevant for the plot.

  11. Cait @ Paper Fury

    Yessss I AGREE WITH THESE SO MUCH! The shopping list is the WORST and mirrors should really be outlawed. Every time I see a character look at a mirror I mentally prepare myself for a looks info dump. Gahhhh. Oh but I do like the description sprinkled throughout the story…but more so towards the front? Like I HATE when I get to the last chapters and suddenly they’re like “And Bob combed his dark hair” but I’d spent the last 300-pages giving him BLONDE HAIR. So. That always throws me.😂 And I like it when it’s worked into the story too. That’s also excellent writing advice. 😉

    • Laura

      I feel the same when I start a book and a character looks in a mirror. I’m just like ‘oh no, here it comes…massive character description info-dump in progress!’ Seen as it’s one of my pet hates it really doesn’t bode well for the book when I’m already rolling my eyes within the first few pages!
      I get what you mean about leaving description too late though. It throws me too, because if they haven’t specified a character’s hair colour etc., in the first few chapters I just assume I’m being given free rein to imagine them how I want.

  12. Zoey @ Uncreatively Zoey

    What I really like: when appearances are casually repeated throughout the book. (But not obnoxiously.) Because if I’m 300 pages in, chances are I don’t remember that person’s hair color that was mentioned way back in the beginning. But what’s really annoying is when somebody’s scent is being described and the paragraph just goes on and on about the OUTDOORSY BUT MASCULINE BUT SUBTLE BUT WONDERFUL SCENT of this character and I’m just like, no, stop, just let me keep smelling my candle and move on. (Also, YES, THE MIRRORS, UGH)

    • Laura

      I like occasional reminders too, as I’m pretty likely to have forgotten the character description by the time I’m halfway through, especially if it has been as subtle and unobtrusive as I like it to be.
      And I totally agree with you about the scent thing too! I especially hate when character’s apparently smell like freshly cut grass. Unless you’ve recently rolled through a meadow, who the hell smells like freshly cut grass?

  13. Jee Ann @ The Book Tales

    I guess I got tire of the list and mirror style, too, especially when it was done one too many times. I personally find a character memorable when the author puts in more effort describing the character’s personality or attitude. Sometimes I forget the character’s hair or skin color, but I’ll definitely remember the personality if it’s done well.

    • Laura

      I’m exactly the same – a character’s personality should be more memorable, and is definitely more important to me.

  14. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I think you describe this pretty much perfectly. I hate it when an author feels the need to describe the characters’ every tiny detail – especially all at once. But I definitely want enough description that I get a good sense of the person. The quirks is a great point that I wouldn’t have really thought about but that I totally agree with. Oh, and I agree that the description has to be natural – if a person wouldn’t think it, I don’t want to hear it!

  15. Jess @ POB!

    Wow, I actually haven’t read any books with the mirror approach but just reading ABOUT it, it’s certainly something I want to avoid. Cliches are definitely the worst–not everyone has eyes the color of gems! I like my character descriptions both direct and indirect, as in I can tell who they are when someone else describes them as they are talking to said character or by their actions.

    Thanks for stopping by Princessica of Books!

    • Laura

      I quite like that approach of seeing what another character looks like through their interactions with another character too. It’s more naturalistic than just describing them in an itemized list.

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