How do you like your characters cooked?

Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by Diziet Sma, Mar 19, 2017.

  1. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    I’m in the middle of the Silos series and following on some comments made by @Silvion Night:
    No idiosyncrasies, no personality traits, just faceless blobs that speak. Hell, it's been 3 books and 1500 pages and I don't even know what Juliette and Donald look like.

    ... I have been noodling over the characterisation problems of this series. In my case, I don’t think it is crucial to have a physical description of the characters. I’m trying to remember favorite characters of mine, and they tend to be so because of their personality traits, I could hardly describe their appearances.
    In SF, I have read some wonderful AI characters without much of a corporeal description or even without a physical embodiment at all.
    There are, on the other hand, cases when the physical aspect complements beautifully the psychological one. I can remember studying Dickens and how he used the element of dehumanization by applying animal imagery to his characters. Well, he was Dickens…

    So my question would be, how do you like the characterisation process? How important is for you a physical description? Do you prefer your characters being fleshed up by indirect characterisation i.e . their inner thoughts, their speech, their reactions etc, or do you prefer a direct approach? Or you are not really bothered as long as the story takes you somewhere good.
    If you think of your favorite characters, can you see an obvious characterization pattern emerging?

    And for the writers amongst us, do you tend to write characters you would also enjoy reading? Or, do you force yourself to think outside the box when drawing them?

    @jo zebedee and @Tanniel, I recall perfectly well your main characters, their personality traits and what they stood for. However, I would struggle to describe them physically. I could give some vague details in Tanniel's case but not in Jo’s. Maybe it’s just how my memory sieves through details.
    @Matticus Primal, Marta is a different case altogether. Her physicality is key to the story. However, what I love about Marta is the fact she approaches life with fire in her belly. After all, what it counts is not having a pair of fists, but how well you punch with them…
  2. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    I kinda want to be how long is a piece of string, but that's not particularly true.

    I grew up on Eddings/Feist/Gemmell/Jordan etc.etc. and yes, they described their characters pretty thoroughly, and I can still remember what they look like. My favourite modern series is the Dresden Files and I'm not sure how coincidental it is that they feature big character descriptions (I actually caught myself getting annoyed during Storm Front at how much time and space was dedicated to character descriptions of fairly minor characters though). I can visualise all the Discworld characters I love in seconds. Outside of fantasy, my favourite authors trend towards long descriptions too.

    I know the trend in modern fiction is for leaner descriptions and I do like a good lean one-two sentence description that hints at everything for a minor character, but I think the evidence points at me preferring something more substantial.

    The idiosyncrasies and personality obviously come first though.
  3. JHBSmith

    JHBSmith Got in a fistfight with Dresden

    My opinion is that a character's physical description doesn't matter - until it does.

    What I mean by that is that their mental attributes are always going to be more important, but one or two visual details can add a rainbow blast of colour to a character. Bonus points if how they look or dress is relevant to who they are. There's no need to go too deep though, since the size of someone's little finger is very rarely going to mean anything to anyone.
  4. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Journeyed there and back again

    Nice musings, @Elvira . I don't do a lot of physical description. I think this is partly because I am very 'face blind' so my visualisation of characters is weak (I hate being asked who'd play characters in movies, for instance). But there are bits and pieces in there - Lichio has long legs for instance, and is graceful. Sonly has hair just long enough to tuck behind her ears.

    But! The second reason I don't have much character description (and the main one) is that I write so very close to my character thoughts and - just as in real life - my characters don't stop to describe what they already know. To pull out of the close thoughts to describe someone would be to change my style utterly.

    But I don't think that means lack of characterisation (I hope not!) indeed, it's usually picked out in reviews as my strength. Every one of my characters are different - and alive in my head. If I want to become Baelan, all boiled down and angry and vulnerable, I just think as if I was him. And if I want to change to Henry in Inish Carraig, guilty and conflicted and frustrated I just do. All their tics come with that change of thoughts *

    So I don't think physical description is what drives characterisation (although some readers like it, some not), but the voice of the character coming through

    *one of my fav scenes is where Kare's voice blends to Baelan's and it happens both smoothly enough and clearly enough that the reader keeps up. Only distinct characterisation can acheive that.
  5. Anti_Quated

    Anti_Quated Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    I'm something of a completionist - personality and idiosyncrasies are essential, but I also like a rough sketching or delineation of the physical attributes as well. Such habits inform my own writing with different characters - their vernacular, the outward appearance, internalised thoughts, etc. That said, I also conceive and write characters that I dislike, or promote certain irritating facets in characters that I intend to have evolve. Older characters, like in real life, I try to maintain a fairly consistent and developed perspective, personality and behaviour for, habitual almost, barring some tragic experience that changes the character utterly. Likewise, younger characters I try and ensure sufficient room for growth and change as they age and develop a more multifaceted worldview. All of which is difficult to convey in my one published work thus far, but the progression of the series should bring more of this to light.
    I tend to value these same approaches in other works I read - the desire, I suppose, to not necessarily identify completely with characters but to enjoy reading about them and their respective exploits. That, and I think most people have small, innumerable changes and shifts as years pass, but after a certain age fundamentally remain the same; and this consistency is what I hope for in my own characters. A natural bedrock, if you will.
    The nuances, almost imperceptible at times, are where one can have a lot of fun though, mind.
  6. Darth Tater

    Darth Tater Journeyed there and back again

    Fantasy names being what they are, , it's nice to know if they are male or female. :D

    Seriously though, I need a vague idea of how they look. Hot/medium/butt ugly, Redhead/ brown/raven, tall/medium/short. When you start getting into hair styles, strong chin/dimples, facial hair (unless on a female), smiles, nose size and eye color it's a waste of my time. I inevitably forget that stuff and just make up my own picture. I have enough trouble just trying to keep certain characters straight. :confused:
  7. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Physical description doesn't play such a big part for me, because sometimes my brain just picks up a few things and ignores others, even if the author have bothered to put a page of description for everything.

    For instance Seanchan from The Wheel of Time. I know that they are supposed to be dark skinned, maybe close to what an invading army from Africa would be like. But for some reason when I was reading The Wheel of Time for the first time I was under the impression that their culture was heavily inspired by the Japanese culture in real life, so I always pictured them as something between Europeans in high, and slightly Japanese in features and skin tone. My brain have made an easy shortcut, ignored some of the descriptions by the author regarding Seanchan, and now I picture them quite differently than what they are supposed to be. And I don't have a problem with that - I am in for the story and the characters, after all, not for their apperance, so I can go with that.

    In my own works I stay away from long physical descriptions. First - because I am crap at imagining fictional characters appearances from scratch, second because I am not very good at describing them, especially women with their wild variety of clothing options I am not familiar with, because I am a man and so on. I keep it simple - giving some physical attributes to the reader, so that they would have a general idea, but letting the character personality to paint the rest of the picture. It also saves me the trouble of keeping an inventory list for each of my characters, what outfits they have available for them at any given time... I go out of my way to avoid writing myself into a corner with those small details, because as a non-native speaker I cannot afford to pass the work through half a dozen editors and relly on them to catch such things. Neither can I use beta readers that much. And I also have to self-translate everything I write into English first. So I take the path of the lazy warrior whenever I can, making sure that the things that I could get wrong in my story aren't that many, and long description would get in the way of that approach.

    That's just my way of doing things, though, whether by personal preferance or pursuing of maximum convenience for me as an author. I can understand how other authors could feel differently about the matter.

    But as long as I am sure that my readers could predict how a character would react and speak after they've been with him/her for a while, I know that I have a good job making that character real in the reader's mind, and the physical details come as a tool to solidify that even more. So there's that.
  8. Alucard

    Alucard In the name of the Pizza Lord. Charge! Staff Member

    I like what Joe Abercrombie does. Plenty of physical descriptions to establish their appearance, but also descriptions of their mannerism, the way they move, their voice and inner monologues that are kept short (other than in the case of Glokta, but that character lives in his head).
    So far he has written characters the best (from authors I have read).
  9. Maark Abbott

    Maark Abbott Journeyed there and back again

    It depends really. It really depends if the character is meant to stand out. From my work, Anderas and Herik haven't got much in the way of physical description beyond stature, build, hair colour and any notable features, whereas Kaenna gets a lot more description due to here appearance being unusual. Descriptions of how they think and act are also important (especially as a reader).

    In terms of the sort of characters I write, I absolutely write characters I'd want to read. I also draw from aspects of my own personality with them which I would hope makes them more credible (for instance, Kaenna is written with my propensity to be a grouchy dick). I really dislike the idealistic lawful good style characters as a reader so as a writer it's not a character type I've ever drawn on.
  10. Silvion Night

    Silvion Night Sir Readalot Staff Member

    I agree wholeheartedly with this Alucard.

    It is what made me dislike the characterization in the Silo trilogy. There were hardly any physical descriptions of characters, but even worse; they were interchangeable when it concerns personality traits, idiosyncrasies etc. There was hardly any characterization. If the names wouldn't have been given it would be impossible to determine who said a particular line. In an SF like Hyperion (Dan Simmons) or a Fantasy series like First Law (Joe Abercrombie) this would be unthinkable. In most cases I can see by what is spoken and how it is being said who the character is that uttered a particular line. Just like in real life.

    You say yourself that this is a "lazy warrior approach". Don't you think this would scare off potential readers? I for one wouldn't be keen on reading books that lack physical descriptions altogether.
  11. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Hopefully not. I prefer to relly on my strenghts instead of going out of my way to make everything perfect and plentiful.

    When I say that I am ignoring physical description I don't mean that I don't give any, but I prefer to let the people paint their own pictures based on the boundaries I gave them, instead of painting my own intricate picture and getting something wrong every second time( her dress was red with white lace in page 53, but at page 78 the dress is red with sky blue lace?).

    Also I have the benefit of masking my obscure physical descriptions behind more important things like body language. It was one of my passions and hobbies ever since my late teen years, body language, and I use it extensively in my works - think The Wheel of Time/The Kingkiller Chronicles type of approach to it. Looks is just a small part of it, posture, movements, mannerisms, voice, subtext - those are more important for my story than how long a certain character's dress is, most of the time at least.

    I am just playing on my strenghts and let them use them to give myself some lazy time on other aspects of the books. I can be expert in everything, but I don't have the time for that, so instead I prefer to use the things I am expert on, and get by on the things that would require too great amount of time and effort on my part to become good at.
  12. Silvion Night

    Silvion Night Sir Readalot Staff Member

    That makes sense. And to be honest, some writers go way overboard on stuff like clothing (argh, I remember Jordan going on for pages on end about the descriptions of Aes Sedai dresses).

    And posture, body language, body type (muscular, thin, fat), facial characteristics (a prominent scar, a looney berserker grin, lanky black hair), that type of stuff is what makes a good character description in my opinion. Like Alucard's example of Abercrombie, I think everyone can picture the way Logen looks. I can't for the life of me remember what he wore though. However, clothing can occasionally be very important. In the Netherlands we say "kleren maken de man" (clothes make the Man).
  13. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    It's important to an extent - it can either underline ones position in life, or obscure it.

    But it's more interesting how our cultures differ on that one point. In my country we say "By your clothes we greet you, by your mind/intellect we send/part with you", meaning that while we could make some assumptions on whether you are wearing a richly or more poor clothes, it's by your intellect we'd judge you and make our conclusions. Same as don't judge the book by its covers kind of thing.
  14. Tanniel

    Tanniel Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    That's an interesting question. As a reader, I think I tend to sometimes gloss over physical descriptions that feel long (and don't seem to have any purpose but just description, i.e. it's not plot relevant that I know the specific tailor cut); probably because almost as soon as a character is established in a story, I have a mental image of them; reading further descriptions doesn't leave much impression on me, since I have already decided how this character looks 1(again, unless it's plot relevant and I am forced to read and adjust if I want to keep up with the story). I suppose that's a bit weird.

    I think that influences me as a writer, though. I do have very clear images of practically all my characters in my head, but at the same time, I feel conscious that I can never get the reader to see the exact same image. No matter how well I describe, nothing short of an actual picture would ensure we had the same mental image. Accepting this, I've chosen to simply go vague with my character descriptions and let the reader imagine the characters however they wish. I usually make sure to mention at least one or two basic characteristics (such as height or hair colour, if their features are handsome or ugly, if their clothing is practical, cheap, rich etc.); both because this influences how other characters see that person and to give the reader some basic 'building materials' to construct the image from. Sometimes, I also mention something to make them stand out, like a limp, scar, or missing finger; with the wealth of characters in my book, this helps make them stand out a bit, and I can mention the peculiar characteristics later on to jog the reader's memory, make sure this particular character stick.

    It doesn't always work as I intend though; one character that I describe is gaunt, my primary reader told me that he constantly imagined this character as fat.
  15. Andy Kroll

    Andy Kroll A Muggle

    I guess, in my opinion, the physical appearance is really only important for the initial impression. I like to visualize the characters in my head when I first read about them, but from that point on, it's all about character. I think that first appearance helps me build a bit of a first impression about a person, before we've heard them speak. Then again, you have a great point, because I don't know what anyone looks like in my head unless there was a movie!
  16. Maark Abbott

    Maark Abbott Journeyed there and back again

    Silv that's ridiculous. There are a million reasons why smoothing a double pleated bell skirt woven of the finest reeds and reinforced with sparkling mauve concrete is an occasion. AN OCCASION! If the book was truly just, it'd play a fanfare at that bit.
  17. kenubrion

    kenubrion Journeyed there and back again

    I agree with Andy. I don't dwell on it after the first intros, and maybe I'm not even noticing when there's no there there these days. I say this because I only just got an idea of Gabriel's physical appearance in the latest (fourth now?) Traitor Son book and hadn't thought much about it. Bad Tom now, I've got a mental picture of. Also Hari in Heroes Die, only a vague idea but it's actually pretty important with him. And my main man, Tarmun Vykers, I don't think Allan has described him head to toe. And he doesn't need to. He's bigger than his size. Good enough for me. Good topic and thread Elvira.
  18. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Don’t you think this can be a bit of a doubled- edged sword? Running close to character predictability could spoil the story, couldn’t it?

    For authors, like you, who enjoy writing characters, who reflect the author's personality. Doesn’t it get a bit stale, repetitive? I guess what I mean is, don’t you run the risk of writing the same character over and over but with a different name, hair colour, etc?

    I don't think it weird. I also create an image pretty quickly in my head and do not change it unless it is necessary due to the story plot. The same happens to me regarding strange made up names. I adapt them phonetically in my head to a comfortable sound, and never change them. Often, they don't bear much resemblance to the original.

    We all obviously place characterisation value differently. What I enjoy about physical descriptions is when they tandem and reinforce the personality traits. When an author can see this and connects the two, s/he wins me over, but I don't need it to fall for a character.
    I'm afraid Abercrombie and I don’t get along, and I know most of you will disagree with me and might go for my jugular. Please don’t. …
    Half way through The First Law, I found the characterisation overdone, forceful and exaggerated to the point it became cartoon-like. I couldn’t connect with the characters and therefore I haven’t continued with the series.
    Well, I guess if we all enjoyed the same books, these forums discussions would be a bore...
  19. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Depends, really.

    It's not that much a question of character predictability - it's more about character recognizability.

    If I have introduced three POV characters, and they are together, talking, and half the book in I remove the names from "X said that", "X responded", etc, and reader cannot tell who's POV the chapter is in and who is speaking in the different lines - I've done a poor job in characterization.

    Other than that - if your characters are two-dimensional plot elements then yes, that approach would mean they'll suck, but that's true for every approach. I try to make my characters distinctive and believeable, and then I constantly use one or more character arcs for each of them as the story goes - things they learn or unlearn, so they'll need to adapt and do not act the same, etc, but their character voice should remain more or less consistent.

    Another thing I am doing while plotting, and I am a heavy plotter, is that I don't come up with characters by filling a name, abilities, dreams in a D&D card. I think of my characters as complexities - i.e. each and every one of them is a whirlwind of emotions, beliefs, goals, experiences, memories, aspirations, assumptions, skills, flaws and so on, I imagine it as a small tornado swirling notes, obscuring the character a bit, I don't know what's written on all the notes, but I know there is something there, and I know what's written on some of them, so I can be consistently representing this character in my story, without getting into the awful situation where this character is there just for the plot's sake.

    Actually I think of everything in my books as complexities. The worldbuilding, the magic system, the immediate setting, the towns, the cultures, the characters thenselves, the conflicts, the over-all plot even. This means that I write based on what I know about each of those things, but that I also aknowledge the fact that each of those things is bigger than my story, and subject to change, according to its own nature, rather than my desires of how a thing would behave to make it convenient for me as an author. If that makes sense.

    It's just a way of me giving my mind the freedom to work with something complex, without the need of coming up with every aspect of this complex thing in advance. Most of the times it works very well.
  20. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Journeyed there and back again

    Actually I can't take to Joe, either @Elvira. Not sure why :(

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