Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Describing Characters' Physical Appearance

I was the one who asked for this topic to be included in our weekly topics because I have a hard time describing my characters’ physical appearance. It’s similar to my difficulty in describing places/surroundings.

I have to admit that, even as a writer, I am dreadfully unobservant, so I really admire Jennifer’s eye for detail which she showed us yesterday. I don’t have a good visual memory – unlike a friend of mine who, I think, can picture every hotel (and hotel bar!) we’ve ever been to in our travels together. My strength, on the other hand, is an aural memory – I can remember conversations or information (and total trivia too) and I can hear accents and different vocal tones.

So I have to make a very conscious effort to study scenes and people, but even then I can have problems. I tried a mental exercise yesterday evening when we went to a bar for a drink after seeing the latest Martin Sheen film (had to get that snippet of information in, LOL!). But I still ran into difficulties – was that girl’s hair fair, blonde, flaxen or platinum? Was that guy’s face oval or square-jawed, or a mixture of both? See what I mean?

Maybe I CAN picture some things, but most times I have great difficulty actually describing them. I have no problem with dialogue, I struggle with description.

Going back to Francine’s blog on this topic, I do tend to describe the hero through the heroine’s eyes and vice-versa. Occasionally I might bring something in through action, but not often. I’ll have to remember that in future and try to do it.

But here, for your perusal, are a couple of my (fairly inadequate!) efforts at description. Feel free to tear them apart!

He had his back to her, but the outline of his broad shoulders in a pale blue polo-shirt gave an impression of hidden strength. His slim waist and hips in well-fitting dark blue jeans only added to the impact of his tall figure. His thumbs were looped casually into his back pockets and Jess’s eyes rested momentarily on his firm hands and long slender fingers. A pianist’s hands, she thought, then let her glance travel up his tanned arms to the back of his head. His dark hair wasn’t exactly curly, more like a mass of waves that were layered casually into the nape of his neck, which somehow emphasized the ruggedness of the rest of his very masculine body.(From ‘His Leading Lady’, chapter 1)

He quickened his pace, annoyed that he’d allowed the memories to breach the emotional wall he’d built around himself. But he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Not the teenage Abbey, but the Abbey he’d just met again. She was even more stunningly attractive now than she’d been ten years earlier, with her heart-shaped face, sparkling green eyes and seductive mouth. Her long dark hair swung when she turned, her shoulders moved in a tantalising way as she walked, and her trim hips swayed sexily as she went into the shop.
(From ‘Fragrance of Violets’. chapter 2)


  1. You describe attributes in the context of how they make the viewing character feel. I think this is the key, Paula.
    I'm tired of 'chiseled abs' hero worship. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My husband says the first thing he noticed about me was my breasts. They're the kind that make running in gym almost impossible. I noticed his long legs and tight butt. He's 6'4" tall and naturally muscular.
    Some men are physically beautiful overall, but isn't it more realistic to have one strong feature?

  2. Paula, I think both of those descriptions are very good. You give just enough detail to provide a picture of the character, but leave enough to the imagination of the reader, which I think is important to keep the reader engaged. And thank you for the compliment--I think it would be fascinating to incorporate your aural abilities into your stories!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Hi Paula,

    Bah, "B" typos!!!

    As far as I can see both descriptive introductions to physical attributes are fine. That said, as a reader I'm happy visualising shape of face etc., so long as I have basic eye-colour, hair colour and body type. Of course, a particular feature sometimes adds to a character's persona: say eagle-beak nose, or hooded eagle eyes. I think too often authors strive to paint complete portraiture of a character in words! Whereas, if vague beyond basics one can visualise to own desire a character's facial appearance.

    I guess Jennifer's comment re aural/audio abilities might be fun to write in terms of a character eavesdropping oral interaction: not knowing what someone looks like, and getting the low down. Could see this fitting well in most any set up, where an MC's curiosity might lead them to purposefully being around when a certain person comes to call! ;)


  5. Thanks for your kind words!
    Ana - long legs and tight butt? Hmm, you know I'm a sucker for long legs LOL! But yes, I agree about beauty being in the eye of the beholder - maybe we'll expand more on that next week when we talk about what makes a hero handsome (and, like you, that doesnt mean chiselled abs either!)

    Jen - I think we all have images of the characters in our mind when we're reading. In some cases, these are influenced by the cover picture, in others by the writer's detailed description - or, as in my case, simply from a very brief description.

    Francine - think I've said more or less what you said about visualising characters from a few basic details. But I like your idea about highlighting a particular feature.
    Aural abilities are strange sometimes. For instance, I can hear an accent in my head but can't relay that to my own voice (I'm hopeless at mimicking accents) - but I can write them!

  6. I find that I have a hard time always coming up with descriptions by memory, too. I like to have a visual in front of me.

    Sometimes I'll get part way through a story and have to go back and check: What color were the heroine's eyes? Was her hair brown or blond? (I guess I should make little descriptor cards on index cards to help with details such as these, huh?)

  7. Debra, I can see my characters in my mind but can't always describe them as well as I'd like to. They're usually my own 'inventions' rather than inspired by a photo of someone, although occasionally I'll see someone on TV or in a magazine and think 'That's just how I imagine Jess' (or whoever).

  8. Hi Paula,

    Mimicking accents! Hee hee, when out with my husband and he's in a wicked mood he can don any accent inclusive foreign lilt. He does mean American (states), Canadian, Oz, Kiwi, Russian, French, and people from same have been totally fooled by him. As for local UK dialec: yee gods his Norfolk accent sets everyone laughing. He was at one time on the verge of transfer from Home Office to Foreign Office, then decided on complete career change. There's nothing worse than stepping into a restaurant with an American and, stepping back out with a Frenchman. The faces of waiters: classic! ;)


  9. Sounds like great fun! I really envy him that ability. One of my daughters is very good at accents but I think the only one I can do (albeit badly) is Cockney, having directed 'Oliver' twice!