See What I See


I imagine most of you, being fans of  fantasy, have already gobbled up the 14 minute Game of Thrones trailer that was released into the interwilds a few days ago.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch.  It’s worth the time.  I’ll wait.)  It appears to be the first 14 minutes of the show itself, and features Sean Bean playing Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.  As a fan of George R R Martin’s epic saga myself, I have to admit being mightily pleased with many of the casting choices. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo…someone in casting clearly either read  the books or paid attention when someone talked about the characters.

As pleased as I am about these actors, I’m utterly disappointed about the choice to play Roland Deschain in the upcoming films of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.  Despite King having said in interviews many times that he modeled Roland off of a young Clint Eastwood, and despite there being a number of actors with the appropriate body type and look to choose from, instead they have decided to cast Javier Bardem, who looks and sounds nothing like Clint Eastwood.  He might be a talented actor, but he’s not Roland, and I’m going to go into this movie with a chip on my shoulder.

What does any of this have to do with writing?

When we create characters, we know what they look like.  We do our best to describe them to the reader.  He’s blond and average height, with a sardonic twist to his lip that never quite fades away.  She wears her dark hair in multiple braids, and prefers red silk shirts over white linen. We do our best to convey an image to the reader, so the reader can see what we see.  It’s not easy, though.  Just think about all those eyewitness accounts that turn out to be so far off base as to be no help at all.  The grocer saw a black man in a green van, wearing sneakers and jeans.  The taxi driver insists it was a Vietnamese teenager in baggy pants in a VW Beetle, and the mother walking her baby swears it wasn’t a man at all but a white woman driving a red Mini Cooper.  They were all there, but what they saw differs with each person’s perception.  Readers do the same thing.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading along in some thrilling book with the author suddenly mentions the character’s auburn hair, and I come screeching to a halt.  Auburn?  But in my head she’s been a brunette all this time – what do you mean she’s a redhead?  That can’t be right!

I won’t say that it’s entirely the writer’s fault.  The reader’s going to imagine what she’s going to imagine, and no one can get inside her head while she’s there.  That’s why it’s so important that I make my character as clearly defined as I can.  That also doesn’t mean I should info-dump every detail of my character’s looks on the first page, and hope the reader remembers.  Info-dump?  That’s when the writer spends a paragraph or a page loading details that do nothing to push the story along.  “He was middle-aged, wearing a gray three piece suit and scuffed shoes, and he carried a briefcase as scuffed as his shoes.  He hadn’t shaved in a while, and his watery brown eyes squinted under beetley brows.  His skin was pocked with acne scars and his nails were ragged.  He sighed, his breath unpleasant to be so close to, and there were hairs sticking out of his ears.”

See?  This didn’t really tell me anything other than what he looks like.  It’s a list, not narrative.  Instead of telling me his shoes are scuffed, tell me his shoes looked like he’d bought them at Goodwill.  Instead of saying his skin is pocked, mention that he should have washed more often during his teenage years.  And don’t tell it all at once, but in stages.  It’s better to tell me a little at a time, and then throw in reminders along the way.  You can tell me what color her eyes are, how tall she is and how many buttons are buttoned on her shirt at the beginning, but if you mention those buttons again later on, I’ll be more likely to remember.  The picture in my mind will solidify.  As a writer, if I’m doing my job properly, you should be able to recognize my characters on a city street.

We’ve been talking about measures of success in writing for the last few posts, and I have to feel this is one of them.  When you, the writer, can manage to convey your character so clearly that I, the reader, know exactly what he looks like as well as how he’ll behave,  you’ve succeeded.  Telling a compelling story is important, but so is creating a character who’s immediately recognizable inside and out.


21 comments to See What I See

  • I detest laundry list character descriptions. I’ll tolerate a few lines, but if I realize that it’s an entire paragraph, I’ll skim, which actually works against what the writer was trying to do. Instead of taking in all the character’s details, I now know fewer.

    Feeding a few details at a time is much better, in part because of my preferences, but also for memory. A few well-placed reminders will help the important details stick in my head.

    Nice post, Misty.

  • I find that if we limit ourselves to just a few choice details, the reader will fill in the rest just fine. Our versions of the character may have different eye color or weight or what-have-you, but the important things will still be there. I think that’s why I don’t mind a lot of the casting I’ve seen in Game of Thrones — nobody looks like I pictured, and yet they look exactly like they should. That’s the key feeling you want to evoke from your reader, and that comes from finding the right details.

  • I think I am prone to over-long descriptions in my own work, in part because I love to read a well crafted extended description of a character in other people’s work. I find those first-time introductions that delve into appearance and dress and mannerism incredibly entertaining and informative. They gan give you foreshadowings of story elements to come, and they are often filled with rich detail. As I say, I love this stuff. But I guess that’s just me.

  • David, there’s a definite difference between a well-crafted, extended description of a character and a laundry list. A proper description is a beautiful thing, but a laundry list just makes the reader skip to the next page.

    You have never written laundry lists. *smile*

  • Great point about success being about effect on the reader, Misty. That’s what it’s all about.

  • I try to get the character description to the reader within the first chapter of introducing that character. That way I don’t have the reader get to page 40 and I drop that the heroine has auburn hair when they have already developed a mental image of a blonde. Then they get pissed with me and it affect their opinion of the book.

    One of my favorite Game of Thrones castings is Maisie Williams as Arya Stark. She is so cute and dead-on to the book. She is like the character come to life. I feel kinda bad for her and her character will be going through in the coming seasons though.

  • Unicorn

    I always have trouble with this because my characters are so clear and real in my mind that I either dump it all on my poor reader’s head, or forget that the reader doesn’t know what the character looks like.
    Character description is something I really love playing with. Only, they must never ever stand still and just get described. I always make mine do something while I prattle about them. It doesn’t really matter what. They can read or polish their armour or sleep or walk, but I find that when they’re doing something, it helps to bring out their mannerisms. I have a lot of “Wow, I didn’t know that, it’s cool!” moments.
    Thanks for the post, Misty.

  • I like what Stuart said about limiting us to a few choice details. I don’t feel as if I’ve spent much time describing my main character or those she travels with, maybe to the point of not enough. But a few choice details? I think I can work that in during rewrites. Great post, Misty. Thanks for getting me thinking about this.

  • I’m with NGD; I despise laundry-list character descriptions. This is a good post and I especially like the way you tie physical character descriptions with personality descriptions. I also have to thak you for pointing me to the Game of Thrones preview. I hadn’t heard about that before and it was very cool. Kinda makes me wish I had HBO. I guess I’ll just have to wait for the DVD…

  • Misty — I agree, a lovely post, and a good reminder. (note to self) No laundry lists.
    (note to David) Don’t be silly. You never write laundry lists. Well, you may, but they are probably about actual laundry not character descriptions.

    I needed this post because I am now entering alien territory. I am on book 5 of a series. This is the *very first time* I’ve ever had a series go to five books. Always before they stopped at book four. Or even book three. Once, book 2 (which I suppose cannot be called a series. Hmmm.)

    I’ve now described each character several times and my forebrain says it should be getting easier. The descriptions are *not* getting easier. They are getting harder, more technical. I’m having to pull tools out the writer’s technique tool box and use them. I’m having to *think* about descriptions.

    Why? Because I now have to write for the reader who will read each book in succession and want something fresh. *And* I have to write for the reader who picks up book 5 with no idea who my characters are. It is counterintuitive. And it is hard. And I am surprised. And kinda grumpy about it all.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I just wanted to tag on a note to Faith’s comment. It makes total sense to me that character descriptions would get harder and harder as a series progresses. I’ve noticed this in the Dresden Files where my husband and I just start skipping a paragraph or two each time the characters are introduced, because yeah, it’s really hard to make the description fresh for the long-time readers (and unfortunately this can go for places and central objects too). On the other hand, Jim Butcher’s website has some good, interesting advice about using descriptor tags for each of the main characters to keep readers grounded in a consistent picture of what those characters are/look like (even still, for the longest time I thought Thomas Wraith was blond). I suppose if I had to tackle this problem, my inexperienced instinct would be to try to make the description as situational as possible. Of course, easiest said…

  • The classic (not) way of telling the reader how a character appears is to have them look into a mirror and describe what s/he sees. I am surprised there are still writers who do this horrible thing, usually without even any revelatory commentary (such as “When did I get these grey hairs?”), just a boring, vapid checklist of features.

    And the thing is, all the characters who are described this way look pretty much the same.

    As far as description goes, are you in the school that says “Keep the description vague and universal enough that the greatest number of readers can identify with the protagonist” or the “Use authentic, specific details to give the reader a clear image” one? I find I vary from story to story, with the work determining how exact to get.

  • Wolf, I agree that it’s a story to story thing. I like enough specific description that I can ‘see’ the characters quickly, but not so much that I’m bored with it all. I’ve never been the kind of reader who identifies only with characters that physically resemble me. I’ll more often identify with whatever character thinks like me, whether it’s the protagonist or not. 😀

  • I agree thoroughly with you on this one Misty, but just to throw a twist into the conversation, I’ll mention that occasionally I think readers will change a character’s description in their heads because even though the author was quite clear, the features they describe doesn’t mesh well with the character’s personality. Of course I know perfectly well that in real life body does not dictate character, but I also have to admit that I have trouble picturing pale, waifish blondes as ass kicking heroines. I loved Kestrel’s practical, yet stylin’ black braids. If you’d made her a pale little thing with wispy platinum curls I probably would have found the image so jarring I’d probably have turned her into a brunette in my imagination.

  • Tom G

    I’m with David. I love a well-crafted description. I like little details.

    Now, as I see it, there is another issue with the characters descriptions. First person POV. How much do people really think about what they look like, other than picking out the clothes they will wear that day? My UF is my first 1st person POV, that that was HARD. None of the beta readers pinged me for how I handled it, but I worry nonetheless that I mishandled it.

  • Razziecat

    Character description is one of my favorite things, when it’s done well. I have very clear pictures of my own characters in my head, and I love to play around with descriptions like this. I’ve found that one good way to avoid info-dump is to give only the most important “first-impression” details when the character is introduced. “Tall and fair-haired, with ice blue eyes” (a cliche, but you get the idea) is short & to the point. I can fill in further details as I go along, tying them into emotions and plot developments.

    It’s also fun to practice writing descriptions of each character as seen by other characters, not just friends or lovers, but enemies, strangers, etc. I learn things I didn’t know about my own characters, and it helps hone my writing skills in several ways (especially paring down the flowery, over-done stuff!)

  • I often find I visualise the characters I’m reading more by their actions and by evidence of their clothing or where they live. There have been a number of times where I’ve happily got an image of a character and, like you said Misty, the author mentions hair colour and I have to just ignore it. No matter how hard I try I can’t fit the author’s description to my own internal one. As a result, a lot of the time I think characters are over described.
    So I’m of the school of less is more when creating a character image for the reader. I think posture, clothing and speech is more effective than direct “He had blond hair and blue eyes” type of description, unless there is a specific story reason for the description eg: “His skin sparkled like diamonds when the morning light struck it. Oh what a beautiful creature he was and how I longed to meld my soul and being into his…” 🙂

  • jennspiller

    @Hepseba Thomas isn’t a blonde? Oh, dear.

    I have to admit, as a reader, I often totally disregard author description. If I don’t like it, there’s nothing anybody can do to alter my perception of a character. I prefer a few sharply drawn strokes from the author and to fill in the rest myself.

    That being said, I really struggle with character description. How much is too much? How much do people need to know when? What do you do when you have a first person point of view? It’s always a balance between what *I* would want as a reader, what I want to convey as a writer, and what the general reader might need to feel grounded in the story.

    No laundry list-except when they are fabulous. I just read the latest Harlen Coben novel, and his descriptions have so much voice and character they tell you as much about the pov character as the one being described. I love that, when an author makes a description do double work.

  • So I know I’m super late to the party but I’m allied with the faction that you give enough to nibble on and only give out what’s really important. if the hair color isn’t critical, I may say they ran their fingers through their silky hair or coarse, knotted hair instead of auburn…. Unless I want to have the option of making a “wild red head” comment later.

    I also notice I give more desperation to non-narrating characters than the narrator, especially when I write in first person. I’m actually working on a bit of an experiment with my current WiP where I’m not even revealing the gender of the 1st person narrator. I’m leaving that up to the readers because it isn’t relevant to the story. It’s interesting to see the feed back so far that say Cory is an effeminate male or a masculine female (and no, it doesn’t break across the gender lines of the reader).

    Do we always need to know every detail of a narrator? I’m not sure. Supporting cast, probably but sometimes I feel like it just puts more of a distance between the narrator and the reader. I know there’s a part of me that reads a story and puts ME in the place of the narrator so I’m almost actively involved instead of passively observing.

    So that’s my 2 cents plus interest. I’m glad for the post and really think it deserves a revisit sometime too 🙂 great job!

  • Aha! A fellow Ice & Fire enthusiast! I started reading A Game of Thrones about two weeks ago in anticipation to the TV series coming out, and now I’m almost at the end of the A Storm of Swords. I picked it up as a casual read, I might add. Instead, I end up getting my soul sucked out through my nose. As for the casting, there hasn’t been anyone I completely disagree with, but I do feel like The Borgias on Showtime stole half the cast members I would’ve picked for Game of Thrones!

    And (speaking of addictive) I’m ready for the sequel to Mad Kestrel to come out 😉 I zoomed through it in two sittings between which I got up to feed the cat and eat…at least, I think I ate… Just out of curiosity though, who would you cast as Kestrel if Mad Kestrel became a movie? I kind of had this young-Monica-Belluci-crossed-with-Kate-Beckinsale’s-character-fron-Van-Helsing in my head while I was reading.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Raven, thank you! I’m so glad you liked the book, and as soon as I know when Kestrel’s Dance will be available, I’ll be screaming it from the rooftops. (I’m also relieved you remembered to feed the cat – no pets should suffer on my account. :D)

    You hit Kestrel’s look pretty closely, too. Wow! At the time of first writing, I had “cast” Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun from Farscape) as Kestrel, but your combination might even be better.

    Instead, I end up getting my soul sucked out through my nose.

    *laughing ’til she starts coughing again* Oh I needed that!