How Important Are Physical Character Descriptions?

Rock Face 2

Can A Character Be Memorable Without A Physical Description?

As I was writing my story, and really, what comes to mind every time I write a story, is the physical description of the main characters and even any character. When I write the character in a story, I have in my mind, how they look and even their mannerisms, but when it comes time to pen down those thoughts, I struggle to describe the character. Mainly because I feel when I write characters’ physical descriptions, I feel they come out sounded inauthentic, almost like distractions or deviations to the story. To be honest, while I am writing my first draft of a story, I do not focus on pinning down the physical descriptions of my characters. That is something I think about when I am going to the editing process.

One thing that is apparent when I write character descriptions is I struggle to find a place to fit in those descriptions. However, areas I have attempted to place characters’ physical descriptions are:

• When describing what they wore to an event or occasion (that way I can fit in hair color, texture, length when mentioning what they wore on their head or hair; height or weight, when mentioning the type of clothing they wore; even eye color or shape, when mentioning a key piece of jewelry or color of an outfit).

• If they touched their face or any part of the body, such as putting a hand to their chin (did they have a beard and how did it look like?), touching their hair, etc.

• When they are first presented in the story (sometimes this may be too much, but this is more likely if they are being introduced to another character in the story).

Whatever the case, even as I think and add these descriptions, I feel they are vague and do not really illustrate to the reader the true essence of the character. And though I could hint at things such as their ethnicity and culture, I wonder if that will give the reader a true sense of how the character looks like and who they are.

But maybe more important is, does any of this matter?

Does the reader really need to know how a character physically looks like? Or is it more important for the character’s personality, deeds, and individual story be of focus?

This all leads to the final questions? Can a compelling character be created without any physical descriptions? Could one write a story about a character with the reader only having their personality to connect them with? In their own minds, the reader could decide how the character physically looks to them.

For me, I think it would be interesting to read a book with the physical appearance of the character being unknown. Maybe even more challenging would be that the character’s name is unknown (maybe the character would have a stage name, such as Wonder Woman). Sure, there may be hints to the character’s gender and age, but maybe not, or not enough to determine anything unique about them. Maybe everything would be up for interpretation or speculation.

I do not know if I have come across stories with characters that are a complete mystery. Maybe some without a name, but not without a general description. But I think it would be interesting to read or write a story with a character who is a complete mystery. Part of me would think it would be easier because writing character descriptions is a little bit of a challenge for me as I said before—I usually feel they are too vague and only there because I feel they have to be. I often wonder if the reader will get a true sense of how the character looks like. I think writing a story one day with only the character’s name (or maybe not) would be something fun to do.

I guess in the end if everything fails and one cannot pen out that outstandingly unique and vivid physical character description, there is always the book cover which can feature the main character or characters for the reader to reference ☺

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6 thoughts on “How Important Are Physical Character Descriptions?

  1. This was a popular topic a few years ago on Absolute Write Water Cooler. Quite a few weren’t doing any descriptions at all. I played around with it, and they aren’t completely needed. My only advice is when using descriptions, do it ASAP. Otherwise, readers will form an image and when you give yours it will pull them out of the story.

    1. I like the idea of establishing the character’s image or description immediately. Another area I thought of adding the character’s description was as soon as they are being introduced, but that is not so easy for me when writing in 1st person (which I did for one of my stories). Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  2. I find character descriptions are important, as they set that character in people’s heads, but, as you say, they can be hard to fit in! 😀

    I generally do what you do, where I describe a physical attribute when they touch it or find a way to embed it into something else eg. ‘she pouted already full lips’ or something like that 😀 I figure that the reader can pick up description with it just being a paragraph of it!

    1. Thank you Mishka for sharing! I think creating a character is one of the parts of writing I enjoy the most and although in my mind the character’s image and personality is vivid, it can be challenging to create that in writing. I believe the best way to add descriptions is to try to sneak them in the story, especially when the character is doing something related to their image, as you mentioned with your example 🙂

  3. From time to time, I consider writing a short piece where MC’s gender and age are unknown; physical description wouldn’t be that tough to hide either. For me, it is a exposition and exploration of a reader’s tendency to either implant their own identity onto the MC (especially in 1st person) or have cultural assumptions be challenged.

    I think the best way to describe a character in a book is to put an illustration next to the page that they’re introduced. Fairy tales and legends tend to do this. Can you imagine Harry Potter (pre-movies) without the scraggly kid with awkward glasses on the cover or chapter starts?

    Also, no matter how much physical description an author provides the reader, how that information is going to be translated will be different amongst a wider reader-base.
    Fan Art is an example of this; readers have been provided with direct sentences of ‘this is their hair color’ ‘this is their general shape’ ‘these are their features’ and yet, people can have in their heads images that don’t look similar at all.
    It’s the “Paint me a green tree” effect; a parallel character statement would be like ‘blond hair’, but imagine how many different types of trees and shades of green would result. Sometimes, what people think are descriptive words… aren’t descriptive at all, they’re just template words.

    Great contemplative post, something I think about too. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    The pacing and scattering of physical descriptions is what I’m currently coming to grips with, to make sure that if a physical description is important, that it will appear with good timing to the reader so that it will still be in their head when the context is needed, but it won’t be a blaring info-dump of physicality.

  4. You really state something important–that although one can add what I would say are common descriptive words, such as hair and eye color, height and weight, the reader is going to have their own interpretation of what those descriptions look like on a character. I do agree that if a writer really wants the reader to have an idea of how the character looks like, it is best to illustrate that character whether on the cover or within the story.

    Regarding the pacing of physical descriptions, I also believe that good timing is important. For me, it is not always easy to predict when to add such descriptions but through the writing process, one just knows, as has been the case for me.

    Thank you Dominika!!!

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