Friday, March 4, 2016

7 Tips For Choosing Your Character's Appearance


Let’s talk about character appearance.

This is an aspect of descriptive writing that I never really considered up until a few weeks ago. In a film class I'm taking this semester, we just finished learning about character makeup, costume, hairstyle, and how all of these elements are carefully designed to add to our perception of the character. I was blown away by the amount of care that goes into these decisions, and even more blown away by the fact that they make complete sense.

All I could think was, “Why are we not utilizing this technique as writers?”
Character appearance should go far beyond just allowing your reader to have a idea of what your character looks like. The way your character looks and dresses can, in fact, deepen the character’s personality, make them more realistic, and work to accent their role in the story.

And you know what’s great about character appearance? It has a lot of impact but is fairly easy to implement. Here are 7 tips to keep in mind when shaping and describing your character’s appearance:

1. Physical appearance shouldn’t be left to chance. I’ve read a lot of books where authors take care to throw in hints about the character’s hair and eye color. They let us know that the person has a slight build, full lips, or dark skin. And then, ten pages later, I completely forget what the character looks like. Why? Because it makes no difference to the story. So the character has blue eyes. That matters because….? Don’t just slap together a character based on the fact that you like red hair and always wanted to have green eyes. This is a creation that you are hoping to make come across as a real person. His or her appearance deserves some thought. 

2. Physical appearance can be used to help with world building. If you write fantasy, sci-fi, or any other writing that requires the creation of an entirely new world, remember that there should probably be different races of people in your story. You can use character appearance to help highlight each race. For example, Tolkien’s elves tend to be tall, light-skinned, and fair haired, so it makes sense that they tend to live in the woods. Hobbits are short and don't draw much attention to themselves, which is fine because they're quiet folks and want to be left alone. Even if you are writing books set in our world, physical appearance can still help you build a realistic setting. If you’re writing in a Victorian setting, does your female character have dark skin? Then she’s going to stand out, because, at that time, it was desirable to have a fair complexion. Or maybe you have a tall high school boy who would rather study physics than play basketball. Whatever the scenario, physical appearance can and should be used to help you deepen your fictional world rather than just being thrown in at random.

3. Use physical traits to accentuate or contrast personality. And no I’m not talking about, “She has red hair and a bad temper.” Can we stop with that one already? Please? I just read a book (Scout's Progress, to be exact) in which one of the characters is described as ‘fox-faced.’ This fits his personality, as he is very clever, observant, and a bit of a rogue. However, his appearance frightens some people, an interesting dilemma, since he is a very loyal, kind man. I thought this was fairly genius, because not only will I always remember what this character looks like, but his appearance will help me remember his personality, thus working to make him an unforgettable character. You can also try making a certain look inextricably entwined with a certain behavior: A girl who juts her unusually sharp chin out, making herself look harsh and intimidating in an attempt to be taken seriously. This one is also a perfect example: 
4. Remember that clothing says a lot about a person. Just think about it for a minute. When you first meet a person, you probably notice their face first, then their clothing, then mix that information with what you know about said person to come up with an idea of what this person is like. The same exact principle applies to fictional people. Lets do a break down of two characters to help you see what I'm talking about: 
The Joker
He wears oddly colorful clothes and both his hair and his socks match his outfit, showing his attention to detail. Despite what he says, he is clearly a man with a plan. His painted-on smile is fairly comical, but the dark shading around his eyes is frightening. One look at him and you know: this guy is psychotic, dangerous, but also knows what he's doing.
Astrid Hofferson
She wears a skirt, so she's not ashamed of her femininity. She has an open, round face and large eyes, giving her a pleasant look. But she also wields a hefty ax and sports skulls and spikes. Clearly, she's a girl with an edge who knows how to take care of herself, but isn't as mean as she may want people to think. 

5. Try flipping stereotypes completely around. The super shy girl who loves to wear bright red lipstick. The hippie-looking dude with long hair who is actually very conservative and loves math (that's actually a description of my brother, but he's the perfect example of an inverted stereotype). Your bad guy is allowed to wear white and a mask doesn't always have to hide a scary countenance (think Scarecrow and Kylo Ren). Whatever it is, it's always fun to break out of the stereotypes and use it to create a unique character that really stands out. 

6. Try breaking character appearance. This should only be used in acute situations to show the intensity of a character's emotion. The guy who always carries two guns is only wearing one, perhaps because he received horrible news and left his house in a hurry. The girl who's always put together looks like a complete mess. A prime example of breaking character appearance would be Loki: 
Above is how he usually looks: perfectly groomed and wearing nice clothes, showing his royal descent. His slightly mischievous smile and slicked back hair making him look completely in control and every bit the trickster. That's why everyone's heart broke when we saw him like this: 
Here Loki is completely lost. His hair is out of place, he's not wearing any signs of his royalty, he's bleeding, and for perhaps the first time in any of the movies, he's letting his true emotions show clearly on his face. This Loki is at complete odds with the usual Loki: he's no longer in control and has fallen a long, long way. This sharp contrast is heartrending and goes to show us just how much Loki loved his mother. 

7. Avoid laundry list descriptions. This is a writing technique that was birthed in hell and raised in the fiery inferno of laziness and lack of imagination. It's when a writer decides to say: "She had red hair that fell past her waist, green eyes, and a freckled nose. She wore a long white dress with blue leggings and tiny black shoes. She wore white ribbons in her hair and a golden necklace...." Please don't do this. You do not have to describe your character all at once. It's okay to add little details as the story goes on. And, as mentioned above, characters appearance is best described as part of the story, not just random, extraneous details. 

Do you like to put a lot of meaning behind your character's appearance, or do you think that's overrated? How do you describe the people in your stories? I'd love to hear about your methods!

Related articles:
7 Cliche Characters in YA Fiction That Need to Stop
Writing Surfer Characters: 9 Things You Need to Know
Challenging Creative Writers To Be More Creative

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51 comments:

  1. Great article, Hannah! When I was younger and starting out writing I used to be pretty bad for the laundry list description thing. Sometimes I still can be, one of my greatest flaws as a writer I think is having trouble going from description, to dialogue, to action and back and forth and such. I've gotten better, but I know it's one of my things to work on. In that, I sometimes get stuck on my "description train" before realizing that "Oh yeah, no one gives a crap about this except me." :P
    I think your comments about character appearance being so relevant are spot on though. One of I think the best examples of this being used is on the character Gendry, from A Song of Ice and Fire series. I don't want to spoil anything for those who are wanting to read, but I'm gonna kinda spoil. Just so everyone's warned...

    Anyway, Gendry is a lowborn boy from the city of King's Landing, which is the capital of Westeros. He is a secondary character that many of the main characters come across as the story progresses and they each notice something very familiar about his looks, that he is almost identical to King/late King Robert Baratheon (who was known for having a lot of natural children). So the author kind of uses the appearance there to lend something mysterious and important to Gendry's character, even though we find him just as a lowborn smith's apprentice.

    So yeah, I totally get what you're saying here and I love that you said it. Great thoughts for my Friday! :)

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    1. Lol! Being able to remember that nobody gives a crap is a very valuable skill to have as a writer. =)

      And don't worry about the spoilers. I've never read any of Martin's stories and don't really plan on it, but it's neat to hear about his handling of that character. It's so fun to notice how different writers choose to approach character appearance.

      Thanks for the great comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

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  2. Great post! :) In my story hair color is important because there is discrimination. Also some of my characters appearances have to do with the ability they have. For example one has white hair and pale blue eyes and he has an ice ability, another has darker hair and eyes and has a shadow ability. I have at least 70 characters in the first book alone. So I hope doing this helps make them more memorable. I also have some pun names for about 8 or 9 characters that matches their appearance. I first did this to help myself remember them because they all are I introduced at once. In the end, I decided to keep it hoping it will help the reader remember them better, since I have so many characters, and there is an investigation going on.

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    1. How interesting! I love when character appearances match their special abilities. It makes me happy for no logical reason. =) It's impressive that you are juggling 70 different characters. I can see how having distinct physical traits would help with keeping all of them straight. Best of luck!

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  3. This is aptly timed, as I just spent most of yesterday compiling my casting list for my current WIP! Nice tips, too.

    In my history-inspired fantasy, I did a lotttt of costume research for 1780s clothing (half on Pinterest and half in museums). I selected color schemes my characters would wear, and challenged myself to pick out outfits in line-ups that they would want. I got it down to my romantic interest preferring more fashionable straight collar coat and my antagonist inclined toward the traditional folded collar. Did most of this make it into my actual book? No, but it was fun to know.

    Filtering in the details can be difficult, it's true. (Never use a mirror!) My current project and last drafting project have both had boy protagonists (and are written in first person, with one MC 17 and one 12), which confounds the whole process. I'm still struggling with taking a sentiment like "He was an African American man whose smile was a little too nerdy for a coach" and translate it into 12-year-old speak. Or how about how guys are actually terrible at noticing eye color half the time? Or clothes? Or anything? *face desk* The struggle is real.

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    1. Wow! It's so neat hearing about your research process. Sounds like you really have a handle on it. I like that the antagonist wears more traditional clothing. That can mean a lot.

      Writing first person through a 12-year-old boy's POV would be very challenging. *pats on back* *gives you tea* I have faith in you. You can do this!

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  4. Nice post. Character description can be a pretty delicate thing. Usually you can tell the difference between an experienced writer and an amateur based on how their character descriptions are woven into a story.

    When I first started reading your post I thought maybe you were saying that writers needed more description. There's a reason that filmmakers put so much effort into their "visual" art. But then I realized that you were actually going for "the proper" descriptions. Which I totally agree with. It's important to have character description so the reader has what to imagine, but it's more important to have the aspects of their appearance that have an impact on both the story and the reader. It's good to have this kind of reminder.

    Thanks for sharing! Write On!

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    1. Lol! I must have freaked you out there for a second. =D Description is very important, which is why it shouldn't be squandered on random pieces of information. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  5. Whoa, this is a great post! I almost never think about describing my character's appearance as I tend to automatically throw in those "hints" but this will help me think more about a character's appearance and ask the question "Why?" because that will give me a good reason for slapping on a physical appearance.

    I'm so glad you're getting a lot of writing tips and ideas from that film class! Looks like a must-take. Thanks for the post!

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    1. Ah. The "Why?" question. So important for writers, yet sometimes so annoying. =) Happy to hear that this post got you thinking!

      And yes, this film class is beyond cool. I'm getting so many writing tips from it. I think you would enjoy it!

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  6. This is all really good!! I'm a big supporter of your first point. Don't just give someone random descriptions; let it mean something. I love using symbolism here, too, such as giving a young girl white-blond hair to represent her innocence and purity, or emphasizing a boy's green eyes because of his prevalent jealousy in the story. I don't do this all the time, of course, but it can be fun.

    Point #7: "This is a writing technique that was birthed in hell and raised in the fiery inferno of laziness and lack of imagination." Haha! Amen! ;D

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    1. I love that you use symbolism for character appearance! That is so cool! I love it when books do that. Sometimes it's fairly subtle (like your green-eyed jealous character), so I don't pick up on it right away. But, once I notice, it makes me super excited. =)

      That 'birthed in hell' sentence just popped out of nowhere. Apparently I've been holding a grudge against that particular writing technique for so long that just I had to say something or burst. =)

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  7. Great article, probably the most detailed (and useful!) I've seen on how to connect character descriptions to the story. I like contrasting character appearance, personally; I have a character with big, pale blue eyes and freckles, but she's as determined and ruthless as you get, and hell do people regret underestimating her based on her looks!

    Only thing I'd add to your list is to keep it believable - not every good guy/main character has to be attractive, and if you're trying to be subtle about a romance subplot, for e.g., making your love interest the most stunning person on the page is a dead giveaway.

    I second the comments on the "birthed in hell" phrase, btw!

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    1. Contrasting appearances is also super fun! Your character sounds great.

      I completely agree with your assessment of having an insanely attractive love interest. That's getting really old and annoying and obvious. Thanks for the great comment!

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  8. This is great, thanks! Appearance is so important. I also love what Jamie Rose said above about making sure everything is believable.

    The part about your brother made me laugh!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Hailey! I was sitting there trying to think about challenging stereotypes and my brother popped into mind. =)

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  9. Wonderful, very helpful post!
    NO NO NO DON'T TALK TO ME ABOUT LOKI. MY POOR HEART CAN'T HANDLE IT.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. I know, right? So awful. My heart bleeds every time I see that scene.

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  10. Excellent article! I don't usually do much physical description, so this gets me thinking about the ways I can meaningfully include it. I like the idea of making it meaningful. Sometimes, what one character notices about another can also be a neat characterisation moment for the viewpoint character. Like one favourite recent piece of physical description from my WIP which happened when a supporting POV character, a tough old Frankish knight, describes my protagonist, a young Syrian man, as "good-looking in an effeminate way" which made me chuckle, it was such a typical thing coming from that crusty old character (especially when compared to how the average teen girl would view the same features...)

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    1. I love this thought, Suzannah! It's important to describe things in a way that matches your POV character's attitude. Not only does this help get a description across, but it gives the reader a sense of both of the characters (observed and observer). Now you have me wanting to go and try this technique. Happy writing!

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  11. Less is more, I always say... I dislike laundry-list descriptions as well :\ Generally speaking, every detail - physical descriptions included - has to have meaning beyond face value. Everything has to allude to something more, as you yourself observe in the Tolkien examples. Excellent article, Hannah :)

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    1. Exactly! "Less is more" is a great rule of thumb. =)

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  12. To me, one important thing is to draw all characters, or at least the most important, of the story. I draw their families, combat gear, clothes, sketch out their weapons, phones, hair bobbles, alternate hairstyles, school uniforms, key rings, hobbies' equipment etc. etc. Usually, one detailed, inked and sometimes colored full body picture and two pages of miscellaneous sketches. If I have got all right with my settings, my profile pic should currently be set as a brown-haired young woman with a yellow-orange explosion behind her. That is cropped from one such full body picture. As you can see, my style is far from realistic, but it is enough to give some idea base, which is about what I need to write about her. Sometimes, the drawings even influence the final character. One example: I had planned to draw a girl full of heart, who is somewhat silly, fails at stuff often and secretly reads a lot of trashy romance literature. However, the picture ended up as making her look quite flirty and borderline dangerous, with heavy mascara eyelashes. Didn't go with what I had thought, not at all. So, I decided to smash some stereotypes and write about a girl who tries to seem and look dark, mysterious, above-your-league and difficult to approach, but fails at it and everyone can see that she's hiding yet another trash romance inside the covers of that world classic doorstopper. And inside, she's still about the same lovable goofball I had originally planned.

    Does anyone else draw their characters?

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    1. Wow! That is so cool. I have absolutely no drawing skills, but I've always thought it would be super helpful to be able to sketch my characters. It's awesome that you have that skill. It sounds like it helps you a lot.

      Also, your character sounds like a lot of fun. =)

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    2. YES! My charries are some of my favorite things to draw. It really does help flesh them out and discover new sides of them. I'm very visual, so physically seeing mine sand next to each other or interact with each other is super cool.

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  13. I've actually never thought about a character's appearance in that much depth. For example, I've never clued into the fact that the Joker's clothing all matched, so therefore he was a dude with a plan. (Which totally makes sense now, by the way.) I usually don't do a lot of character descriptions, but I think I'll have to make sure everything I do is advancing the character and the plot. You have made some excellent points :)

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    1. Yeah, I didn't notice that about the Joker's clothing until a few weeks ago. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. =D I'm glad this post got you thinking!

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  14. In my ongoing brainchild of a fantasy epic, I can definitely see how my charries' appearances flow out of their personalities and backstories and (authoring-wise) vice versa. I'm an artist, so I like drawing my charries, which really helps.

    For example, my FMC and MMC (both driving forces in the epic quest). They are almost complete opposites- she is sunshiny, naive, optimistic, socially adept; he is serious, world-wise, realistic (or pessimistic), and socially awkward.

    She is tall, lanky, with large hands and feet, pale skin, long, amber-colored hair and a messy awning of bangs. She has large, childlike eyes and blushes easily and deeply- her basic colors are white and yellow, like daisies or sunshine. She learns the value of things like toughness and grit and labor in the story, and she learns to use her sweetness in an irreplaceable way.

    He is average height for his race and a moderate, athletic build, with neatly cropped (well, neat at the beginning of the story) black curls and skin that tans easily. He has a straight, simple nose, squareish head, and a overall straight-lined, aloof look. He often wears red (his favorite color). At the beginning of the book, his face is clean-shaven. His theme colors are black (utilitarian, secretive) and red (passion, bravery, lifeblood). During the course of the story, he steps up to being a hero- bringing justice to the oppressed, defending those he loves, putting his life on the line. He also learns to use his quiet strength and attention to detail in a way no one else can.

    These two charries (as you may have expected) fall in love on the adventure (someday, they will be married!)- this, through the rumination of this opus of mine, has come to capture the union and teamwork and friendship of their contrasting qualities- how well things go when they work together, and how nothing can get done when they don't.

    (One huge help for visual resources is Pinterest. My visual horde may aid in your imaginings. Check out the Visual Vault of Aelati here- https://www.pinterest.com/elyaalteri/ )

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    1. That story sounds amazing!! Would you mind reading mine? It is the link below. Just put it in your browser. It is similar to yours because my characters are first annoyed with each other then fall in love.

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    2. I love reading about your characters, Julia! The amount of thought that went into connecting their appearance to their personality is impressive. It's awesome that you are able to draw your charries. That must help a lot! Anyway, I love your story idea! Happy writing.

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  15. This was great I would really like if you read over the story I am writing, it would very inspirational for me if you read it. I am only twelve and I am writing novels, I wouldn't mind if you helped me out I will be doing it gradually. So Anything you think might help me comment. I hope you can read it because your obviously a talented writer. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GoQNKvIp0pkKqvw0cBkUfQg0hay0vMCPuooKiR5qELU/edit?usp=sharing

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  16. Sorry let me retry that link. If you open it in a browser then you can get to my writing. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GoQNKvIp0pkKqvw0cBkUfQg0hay0vMCPuooKiR5qELU/edit?usp=sharing

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  17. You should read my book, Hamilton and Stanley.

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    1. I'd love to see what it's about, but I can't seem to find it on Amazon because I don't know your name. If you'd like to leave a link, that'd be awesome!

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  18. This is amazing! I actually made my main character wear black leather all the time well my villain wears jeans and a tee shirt.

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    1. How fun! Gotta love the black leather look. =)

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  19. Have you read The Silmarillion? Tolkien's Elves are split into groups based on physical appearance! Many don't live in the woods, and blonde is likely not the most common hair color. Elven Appearance 101:
    1. The Vanyar: Exclusively blonde and pretty; also the smallest tribe.
    2. The Noldor: They're the smart ones, but are also mostly dark-haired; its most famous members have black hair: Fëanor, Fingolfin and his children, Elrond, and Arwen. (The blonde Noldor, like Finrod and Eärendil, get their blonde hair from a Vanyar or human ancestor.) There are occasional silver-haired Elves here: Míriel, Finwë's first wife, and probably Míriel's grandson Celegorm. Red hair is also exclusively found among this tribe.
    3. The Teleri: The Sindar (Celeborn, Thranduil, and Legolas) and Silvan (Elves of Lothlórien and Mirkwood outside of their rulers) are in this category; they have mostly dark and silver hair, though a few (Thranduil, Amroth) are described as blonde. The Silvan and the Sindar are the ones who live in woods; the Teleri proper usually live by the sea. (By contrast, the Vanyar live in Valinor with the Valar and the Noldor generally live in cities. Most of the famous cities are founded by Noldor: Gondolin, Nargothrond, Lindon, and Rivendell.)

    Arguably the most common hair color among Elves is actually "dark", brown or black. Excepting a few blonde Teleri/Sindar/Silvans, blonde hair was only found among the Vanyar and Noldor with Vanyar ancestors, making them a small group.

    This is an excellent example of how physical appearance can be used to define a character, per your post, and how it can be ignored and cause problems. I (and other well-read Tolkien fans) had a hard time taking The Hobbit seriously when they gave Silvan Tauriel red hair. Meanwhile, Galadriel's silver-gold hair is a visible sign of her Vanyar-Teleri heritage, giving her in Middle-earth an even more otherwordly impression.

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    1. Yes, I have read The Silmarillion and loved it! I especially liked how different all of the elves were. I felt like their appearance really did help convey the world and their personalities. Tolkien is a genius in that aspect. And, of course, being able to create amazing characters like Fingolfin. =D

      Thanks for the awesome comment!

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  20. Really interesting post Hannah! I totally agree that it can really add to a story when a characters appearance reflects their personality - or goes against a cliche. I've noticed that as a reader I enjoy when I am allowed to form my own picture of characters. Sometimes, even when I have been repeatedly told a character looks a certain way, I'll consistently picture them looking differently in my head. I wonder if this is because the writers of these books didn't do a good job of making character appearance important, or if I am just a stubborn reader who refuses to comply with what the author is telling me.

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    1. Lol! I have noticed the same tendency in myself from time to time. Am I being too imaginative and stubborn or was the description no good? It's often hard to tell. =)

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  22. Interesting post! I gave a lot of thought to my main character's appearance - I'm writing historical fiction, so with my fictional main character I took care that she contrasted with the most important non-fictional character, with whom she'll have a lot of scenes. He was tall, dark and handsome, strong and confident; so she is small, slim and shy, with a mass of light auburn hair and a girl-next-door looks. As I'm closing the POV on her, I wouldn't be able to give her a good description; so I had to put a small "laundry list" - in his voice, while teasing her in an important scene, soon in chapter 2. I think it worked because I made it short in the middle of other subjects.

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  23. Great Job with this article!! It helped a lot!! I love your blog!!

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  24. Also I have a reading suggestion, There is a YA sci-fi book series called Michael Vey and I think it's absolutely amazing!!! It's good writing. Maybe you could try reading it?

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    1. Thank you so much for the suggestion! I'll add it to my TBR list. I always love a good YA Sci-Fi novel. =D I really appreciate it.

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  25. This is terrific. Very helpful and pointed.

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  26. This is one of the most informative posts I've read! I'm still in high school and have always wanted to put my wild imaginination to paper and this really helped me gauge the importance of character appearance and not just because you like green eyes. So thank you

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  27. Actually a very good point. I've never studied film, but I studied drama all throughout high school, and we covered costume design (which includes hair and makeup) each year, having to complete assignments usually involving designing our own and then justifying every little thing. And I mean EVERYTHING - want a flower brooch? You better have some sort of psychological back story to that brooch. Want a certain colour dress? Colour symbology better be relevant.
    The work professional costume designers for the stage have to go through (and I assume it's similar for film)...every little thing, from how shiny their shoes are to whether they have a bit of loose wispy fringe hairs escaping their pony tail - it all has to have a meaning, and all has to be justified. You have to know the characters, plot, and scene inside out, and the costume has to reflect that.

    I'm personally having a nightmare with the appearance of a character at the moment; I wanted the character to have heterochromia (two coloured eyes), so that she (and the reader) could instantly realise who her long-lost birth mother was simply by seeing a portrait painted of her as a young girl. Was going to be a great scene. Then it was ruined by the voice of Alan Rickman saying "You have your mothers eyes...". Trust Rowling to create a monopoly on eye colour!

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  28. I definitely used to be guilty of laundry list descriptions...Since then I've come to my current system. I allow myself to create a boring laundry style description for myself as a guide to help prevent me from contradicting myself later...or simply forgetting what on Earth these people even look like.
    Anyway, very helpful post.

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  29. Your posts never failed to inspire me!

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