She Brushed her Long, Blonde Hair: Character Description Snafus.

We’ve all seen it- that jarring scene of exposition where the character describes (for the audience’s benefit) what he or she looks like. The description throws us out of the scene because in real life, people don’t hang around thinking about what they look like- at least not in that way.

Take my hair, for instance. Right now it’s platinum blonde. If I were to look in the mirror, as so many characters do at the start of a novel, I wouldn’t think, “I arranged my platinum locks around my high-cheekboned face. An observer might call it heart-shaped, if not for the strong, Hungarian jaw.”

No! When I look in the mirror to obsess over my hair (which you do if you color it platinum- OCD goes with the territory,) I’d be thinking, “Is it too yellow right in that one spot? I wonder if I should get it toned again. And these roots are out of control! Maybe I should move up my appointment.”

The first example tells the reader more details about the my appearance, but the second gives more insight into my mental state. And about the labor entailed with high-drama hairstyles.

So, how is an author to express that a character is attractive, since said character is unlikely to hang around pondering their own gorgeousness? The old-fashioned way is to show how other people- extras if you will- respond to the character. For example, Humphrey Bogart was not the world’s handsomest man, yet in many of his movies he played a desirable character. Given that simply looking at Mr. Bogart would not clue the audience in, writers and directors created circumstances that showed the audience he was a man to be wanted.

In Casablance, we have Yvonne- the beautiful young woman who practically throws herself at Rick’s feet. Yvonne was so, so, so much more attractive than Rick. However, through this interaction, we understood that in “Casablanca World,” Rick is a hottie. In Sabrina, Bogart played a frumpy, overlooked older brother. Hence, we saw no pretty girls looking his way raising eyebrows and panting.

In one of my works in progress, a sequel to Mercury Rising, my character Troilus is gorgeous. Uncomfortable in his skin, he hates that he’s so good looking because it attracts all kinds of unwanted attention. I’ve got the scowling in the mirror scene, but a moment later a divorcee from next door tries to corner him in the hallway. Then throughout the book, everywhere he goes, men and women hit on him.

But Troilus will never, ever, ever run his hands through his thick, dark hair, or ponder the aristocratic slant of his own nose. Really, I promise!

How do you clue in the audience as to characters’ appearances? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

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12 Responses to She Brushed her Long, Blonde Hair: Character Description Snafus.

  1. Thank you for your post, Daisy. Some helpful food for thought.

    I describe my characters only minimally. Three reasons:

    1. When I’m reading a work of fiction, I tend to ignore what the author says the characters look like. A romantic hero looks like my dream man, regardless of how he’s described on the page. Who does the heroine look like? No, not me. She looks like either an idealized version of myself, or my vision of what a beautiful, strong woman should be. Or a homely, weak one, if that’s what the story calls for.

    I have reason to believe I’m far from the only reader who goes for this sort of recasting the characters. Therefore, there’s no point in my describing how characters look any more than is absolutely necessary.

    2. The appearance of the standard-issue romance-fiction hero doesn’t appeal to me. His face is typically described as rough, craggy, devilish, scornful, sneering, scowling. Authors use stock descriptions such as “He was not conventionally handsome”—though of course, the conventional hero is anything but handsome.

    Oh yes, and he’s over six feet tall, and muscled as though he spends hours a day at Gold’s Gym, even if he’s a billionaire who’s presumably tied to his desk all day. Or a duke in Regency England, when standards of attractiveness were considerably different from those of today, and did not include the notion that men—especially gentlemen— should be muscle-bound.

    Well, I refuse to pour my heroes into such a mold. Yes, I like them handsome. My ideal man looks like a Greek god. No rough, craggy, etc. alpha males in my romances.

    But lots of readers, not to mention editors, might take exception to this approach. Therefore, again, it’s best if I keep description to a minimum.

    3. We’ve all heard that romance fiction is character-driven. Well, I think plot should be at least as important as character. And the most important aspect of all, the one that gives rise to both plot and character, is theme. IMHO, of course.

    Therefore, if I’m writing stories in which plot and theme matter, but take up lots of wordage with descriptions of the characters’ appearance—or anything else about them, such as back stories or long internal monologues or interminable conversations—then I’ll be sending the reader the wrong message. She’ll think, “Oh yes, another character-driven romance. Let’s see how this author follows the usual pattern.” Then she’ll be disappointed, if not angry, when I push the envelope and break the rules.

    In other words, it’s a bad idea for me to set up expectations I have no intention of fulfilling. If an editor demands that I fill in the blanks for character description, or turn my heroes into the usual rough, craggy, etc. type—well, I might have to. But I’m not going to be cowed into creating such characters in my initial submissions.

    Thanks for asking the question!


    • Daisy Harris says:

      I agree with you that less is sometimes more. Plus, sometimes character description is hard to even understand. What exactly is a “strong” nose, or “stubborn” jaw??

      ANd I agree about imaging characters as we would like rather than having appearances spoon-fed. For example, much as I love BDB series, the fact that every guy on it weighed like 260 really threw me off. To me, 6’1 and 175 is perfect. So it’s hard for me to get my mind around a hero who weights literally twice what I do. He’d crush me!!

      So yeah, I like to be able to imagine my heroes able to fit through my door. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. danicaavet says:

    I remember my first attempt at writing when I was about 15…I had about six pages of description of my heroine’s appearance. Yes, I even went so far as to describe the type of skirt she was wearing…when really, a denim mini-skirt would’ve sufficed. Now I let my characters describe each other. Because yes, when I look at a potential date, or daydream, my eyes are crawling all over him, trying to take in everything. So that’s what I tend to do, but only for my hero and heroine.


  3. jeff7salter says:

    I guess I’ve gone all over the place on this.
    In my first ms. I obstinately refused to describe the facial features of either my heroine or my hero. I made it clear that the girl had a nice body and the (older) guy was a bit past his prime and looked like he’d had a rough life. Several beta readers bristled that they “couldn’t picture” these two individuals. So, in one of the many re-writes, I said the guy looked a little beat-up, in the way that Harrison Ford is ‘worn’ but handsome. Ha. That didn’t seem — to beta readers — to be any improvement, but it satisfied me to establish a visual image which many could picture, and elaborate only enough to say Mitch didn’t look ‘like’ Harrison Ford … but he had that ‘kind’ of face.


  4. Great post and some of what I planned to say!! LOL! I agree with Danica- I let the other characters describe but scattered throughout the story. I’m with you, though, less is more.


  5. everwriting says:

    Character descriptions – especially about oh so beautiful, big-breasted etc etc people drive me crazy. One of the bits of advice I had from a fellow writer was the “drip drop” method. Lengthy passages of gorgeous sexiness are a turn-off. Mention green eyes in one scene, brown hair in another. As Elmore Leonard says, avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I think most readers have enough imagination to see for themselves what a character looks like – movies have spoiled that ‘mind’s eye’ presence.


    • jeff7salter says:

      I like that ‘drip drop’ concept of descriptive nuggets.
      In one ms. — forget which one — I had to do a word search to re-discover what color eyes one of my characters had.
      It’s also a good idea to keep at least a brief ‘profile’ near your writing area with certain ‘vital statisticss and features of your different characters. Saves searching through the text later.


  6. Daisy Harris says:

    OMG- I’ve totally had to search out characters’ eye colors for use in sequels. Too funny!


    • jeff7salter says:

      I also keep a chart with what kind of vehicle my protagonists drive. Because fairly late (in an early draft) of one ms, I had absolutely no idea what car my Heroine was in. I knew I had written something down, but completely forgot what. [Turned out to be a Mini Cooper].


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