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Are Physical Descriptions Necessary?

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Characterisation

It is a trait most writers are guilty of, at least to begin with: the great desire to tell our readers everything about our precious characters down to the last freckle. Think yourself better than that extreme? You probably are! However we all should take a metaphorical step back and ask ourselves if all of our physical descriptions are completely necessary or truly beneficial to our story. If you are brave enough, that is.



Bypass The Mirror


We all know the overdone, sloppy tropes that involve characters finding themselves in front of some reflective surface early in a story and have a moment to spare to take in their own appearance. “Ah! The perfect opportunity for some aesthetic character details!’ If you are cringing, excellent. Such portions are typically found in children’s books – and work well! – but readers eventually outgrow such tropes. However, are we falling into a more mature trap of dishing out physical descriptions as if our characters would not be ‘real’ without them? The truth is, more often than not, physical features don’t matter in the bigger plot. Any important elements (age, physical condition, charisma and more) can be conveyed through other means relatively easily. Additionally, you should leave some room for your readers to interact and put their own mark on this internal landscape. Otherwise, you might as well write a screenplay and have your audience watch a movie were nothing is left to the imagination. Before anyone thinks ‘Hey! I like having a solid character images and I want to share them with my readers!’, please know we are not dismissing all physical descriptions. What would Hagrid be without his giant stature and bushy beard? How can we understand the mysticism of Tolkien’s Elrond without his extreme, ageless features? As you weigh up how much detail to give to various characters, it helps to consider a few questions that will cut straight to the relevance or...lack thereof.


Ask Yourself:



  • Will these particular descriptions impact on the plot at all – either directly or indirectly?


  • Are my physical descriptions purely to share my vision with readers?


  • If so, do I really need to do this with all central characters?


  • Is there a better way to build these characters in my readers mind?



In some cases, the relevance of a character's physical appearance is important, for example impacting on the plot or helping flesh out character motivations. If this is the case for your story, how could you share this sort of information in a more creative, imaginative manner to bypass the obvious narrative descriptions? Consider these alternative, ‘show-don’t-tell’ methods of building stand-out individuals:


  • Let their personality/heart show through how they treat others in action and conversation.


  • Beauty is evident when others give favoured treatment, show interest, act ambivalent or dismissive, or display disgust.


  • Comments made in dialogue hint at physical features without blatantly stating them.


  • Characters with strong world beliefs, a certain moral compass, clear habits, and tendencies leave a more powerful impression and give readers the freedom to imagine for themselves.


Thinking back to all your favourite characters from books, TV or movies, how would you describe them to another person? Is their eye colour, hair length or body mass index what makes them enjoyable to take in? Chances are those traits add nothing to what makes that character memorable, and we should remember that next time we feel the urge to over-indulge in the physical descriptions. In a 'substance over form' note, ensure what a character is made from on the inside, the impact their attitudes have on those around them, before jumping on their looks like a Sims 2 character build. Some detail here and there adds good spice to your pot, but too much spice will ruin the meal. Leave room for your reader to create and they will thank you for it. And if you must divulge your character's complete description, please don't do it through a 'he looked into the mirror' scene. Just...don't.


It is a trait most writers are guilty of, at least to begin with: the great desire to tell our readers everything about our precious characters down to the last freckle. Think yourself better than that extreme? You probably are! However we all should take a metaphorical step back and ask ourselves if all of our physical descriptions are completely necessary or truly beneficial to our story. If you are brave enough, that is.



Bypass The Mirror


We all know the overdone, sloppy tropes that involve characters finding themselves in front of some reflective surface early in a story and have a moment to spare to take in their own appearance. “Ah! The perfect opportunity for some aesthetic character details!’ If you are cringing, excellent. Such portions are typically found in children’s books – and work well! – but readers eventually outgrow such tropes. However, are we falling into a more mature trap of dishing out physical descriptions as if our characters would not be ‘real’ without them? The truth is, more often than not, physical features don’t matter in the bigger plot. Any important elements (age, physical condition, charisma and more) can be conveyed through other means relatively easily. Additionally, you should leave some room for your readers to interact and put their own mark on this internal landscape. Otherwise, you might as well write a screenplay and have your audience watch a movie were nothing is left to the imagination. Before anyone thinks ‘Hey! I like having a solid character images and I want to share them with my readers!’, please know we are not dismissing all physical descriptions. What would Hagrid be without his giant stature and bushy beard? How can we understand the mysticism of Tolkien’s Elrond without his extreme, ageless features? As you weigh up how much detail to give to various characters, it helps to consider a few questions that will cut straight to the relevance or...lack thereof.


Ask Yourself:



  • Will these particular descriptions impact on the plot at all – either directly or indirectly?


  • Are my physical descriptions purely to share my vision with readers?


  • If so, do I really need to do this with all central characters?


  • Is there a better way to build these characters in my readers mind?



In some cases, the relevance of a character's physical appearance is important, for example impacting on the plot or helping flesh out character motivations. If this is the case for your story, how could you share this sort of information in a more creative, imaginative manner to bypass the obvious narrative descriptions? Consider these alternative, ‘show-don’t-tell’ methods of building stand-out individuals:


  • Let their personality/heart show through how they treat others in action and conversation.


  • Beauty is evident when others give favoured treatment, show interest, act ambivalent or dismissive, or display disgust.


  • Comments made in dialogue hint at physical features without blatantly stating them.


  • Characters with strong world beliefs, a certain moral compass, clear habits, and tendencies leave a more powerful impression and give readers the freedom to imagine for themselves.


Thinking back to all your favourite characters from books, TV or movies, how would you describe them to another person? Is their eye colour, hair length or body mass index what makes them enjoyable to take in? Chances are those traits add nothing to what makes that character memorable, and we should remember that next time we feel the urge to over-indulge in the physical descriptions. In a 'substance over form' note, ensure what a character is made from on the inside, the impact their attitudes have on those around them, before jumping on their looks like a Sims 2 character build. Some detail here and there adds good spice to your pot, but too much spice will ruin the meal. Leave room for your reader to create and they will thank you for it. And if you must divulge your character's complete description, please don't do it through a 'he looked into the mirror' scene. Just...don't.


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