I’ve been doing a lot of very specific whining about things that people like lately, so I thought we’d take a break and talk about something else. For now, anyway. I mean. I am reading Cloud Atlas and I have Problems with it, so that might crop up here soonish, but today we are going to talk about writing. More specifically, we are going to talk about physical character descriptions and how utterly irrelevant they are about 90% of the time.
Not that you would know it if you spend any amount of time reading amateur fiction (and oh my god is it common in fan fiction), or even professional varieties on occasion. Long, rambling physical descriptions meticulously outlining height, build, hair color, eye color, attractiveness, etc. often arrive on the page before we even know a character’s name, sometimes stretching on for paragraphs until you’ve lost sight of the larger picture. If you’ve ever run across a scene in which a character is described for a full page as “the [insert color here]-haired [girl/boy/man/youth/woman/soldier/etc.]”, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
This is a really easy and natural mistake to make when you are writing, but make no mistake: it is a mistake. Let’s say mistake again. This is such a mistake that I don’t think first drafts should even include physical descriptions, because it is too easy to get fixated on them and forget to give your character an actual personality. I don’t care if it’s the radiant, shimmering purple of a midsummer sunset after the first storm of the season; hair color is not a personality.
First of all, I want to reiterate that there’s nothing stupid about describing a character physically as a first instinct. After all, we are (for the most part) visual creatures; we see bodies before we see people. In our interactions with the real world, hair color and height and what not are what catch our attention, and sometimes that’s all we get to see of the people around us. It makes sense that those would be the first things to come to mind when we are designing a person from scratch.
The problem is that people aren’t built on their exterior appearances. Instead, those exterior appearances are a reflection of the interior. In the real world, you have to start outside and work inward to find out who someone is. If you want your characters to read like real people, you have to recreate that experience by finding out who a character is inside their own head, and then layering things on top of them so that the reader has something to peel away. Once you have a personality, you can look for ways that it might manifest physically, but you can’t start there. If you start with the outside, it can trick you into thinking you’ve already created a whole person, and you’ll end up with a cardboard cutout who happens to have really pretty eyes.
For this reason, I think it’s a really great strategy to completely ignore physical traits the first time through a draft, except where they are absolutely relevant to the character’s ability to move through the plot. For example, if a character is missing a leg, and therefore cannot run, that’s probably a key point to mention (ASoIaF‘s Tyrion comes immediately to mind). If a character has a physical feature belonging to a minority group that leads to discrimination, you should also include that, but be careful to develop the character fully around that trait (exterior perception, however unwarranted, usually affects the way people see themselves, so you can’t ignore it entirely) and don’t let it define them.
There are lots of ways in which physical character descriptions can be super relevant to a story thematically, as well, but these things are usually best left for later development, or allowed to grow organically. If a kid has the same eyes as his mom and it later inspires one of her beaus to save his life (o hai, Harry Potter, howzit going?), that’s a symbolic connection you want to start dropping pretty early. But you can’t let it define your character. If you also give that same kid the unruly black hair of his father so that everyone is always equating him to a character who doesn’t exist in the narrative, and then top it off with a prominently located and unique scar that causes people to see his history rather than his personality, you run the risk of forgetting about his personality yourself. And then he might end up with no personality at all. You know–like Harry Potter.
If you’re writing a first draft, I highly encourage you to try to write it without defining what your characters look like. It will not be easy, but it will force you to distinguish your characters from one another in more significant ways, and in the end they will be much more believable as people.
“Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee.” -My Immortal (a Harry Potter fan fiction infamous for being terrible)
P.S. To the above: for the love of god, do not name your characters after a physical trait that they could not possibly have possessed at birth. It is okay to give them nicknames that are relevant to their physical appearance, because that happens all the time, but don’t grant parents psychic naming abilities.