Thoughts on physically describing characters?

I find myself in this catch 22 with describing characters as I want to describe the people as I, the author, see them and imbue the physical characteristics I find attractive. However, I know that means that some people will be turned off or not as interested.

Recently I’ve started to make physical descriptors less specific or leave them out all-together. As a reader, YOU can get to choose what David or Ben looks like. I’m hoping that it makes the story more enjoyable for the reader because they get to imagine their perfect man.

What are your thoughts?

An author should describe his characters. Whether they’re attractive to the reader is up to them. A faceless character doesn’t inspire the reader’s fantasy.

Giving no description whatsoever is worse than showing a picture. Many people don’t like a picture, because they destroy the fantasy, but I disagree. Illustrations have been a part of literature forever (e.g. Harry Potter) and did they destroy your fantasy?

But giving nothing makes the character just an empty space without any face. The author probably had a face in mind, but he didn’t care to share it with us. So there’s practically a faceless character walking around…

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For me, it depends on the story.
If it’s something like a transformation story, you need a pretty detailed description for the story to fully work, which will mean you’re not going to please everyone if that description doesn’t meet their fantasies.

But if it’s something like just mind control/alteration, the description isn’t that important, and can be left to the readers imagination.

For some of my stories, I take the approach of just a few key details with the aim of outlining how I imagine the character looks, but not so much it doesn’t leave anything up to the reader, and they can use their imagination to fill out the character.

I prefer not fully describing the characters. Rather I like leaving it up to th reader to fill in. Mostly because when I read a stoey I don’t care to read paragrasphs of appearance related information. In fact too much describing often ruins the story for me

While I normally give celebrity castings for my stories, even when I don’t, I tend to describe only the key details, personally. This makes sure that the reader isn’t imagining something wildly inappropriate that’ll be contradicted by later info, but avoids the issue of having to find ways to list each character trait, many of which may not be all that important to your story.

Ironically, some readers still choose to ignore some of my descriptions anyway! As I’m sure people who read my stories have noticed, I’m mostly into younger guys, but I’ve had people mention that they’re imagining somewhat older guys in some roles, just cuz that’s what they’re into. So, no matter how much you describe your characters, at least for some readers, it won’t matter! :stuck_out_tongue:

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I’ve got to disagree with you there. Martin. I don’t have specific faces in mind when I write my characters. I usually try and give my characters a few individuating details, but usually those are based around their personalities and their occupations rather than their looks. The (totally undescribed) narrator of my current story, “New York Magazine Sex Diary,” is a good example of that.

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Same, mostly. I do have specific faces in mind, but I don’t like actually mentioning them. I don’t want my hyperspecific fantasies getting in the way of a story. When it comes down to it, I’m writing a fictional story about a fictional character, and I want to give the reader full agency to imagine whatever they want to.

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From my reader point of view, setting up a situation and then digressing to give a physical description is always a big turn off because it feels like pandering. I know a number of people have written that a physical description adds to the sexiness of a story, but generally I strongly disagree. Unless the physical attributes are part of the narrative, I find physical descriptions to be like commercial advertisements: they totally remove me from the plot and force me to be reminded this is a gay sexy story site. Let the readers fantasize about what the person looks like.

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Isn’t there a quote about building enough of a skeleton for the reader to hang the skin on, or something along those lines? That’s the track I try to take. I get that it can feel like pandering, and it’s a constant struggle to not take the needle off the record, but I think in general most readers need some guideposts along the way. Some people have the kind of imagination where they can perfectly visualize their fantasy, but others need that help. The hard part is riding the line between the two. Do I need to describe every freckle? No, but I don’t think it hurts to describe someone as “broad shouldered” or “trim waisted” either.

I actually just had someone recently critique my stories for not describing whether a guy was cut or not, which is always something I’ve left up to the reader, but is an example of someone wanting that level of detail.

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Describing anything - whether it be a setting or a character - and making that part of your narrative is a part of your writing skill. Have you ever read a story that was moving along and suddenly it came to a screeching halt when a detailed character description broke the pace of the story (and possibly gave you a flashback to the opening lines of My Immortal)? Figuring out how to include descriptions and keep the pace of the story going is essential. You should also think about what’s important in the description, and evaluate how much detail you need … and think about how you can avoid an exposition lump. I very much agree with what mw-scot said above. If you’re going to transform someone you need the before and after but you don’t necessarily need the exact height, weight, dick size, complexion, moles on their shoulder, quirk of the mouth, etc. Ask yourself what you need to tell as part of the story to make it clear; ask yourself what you need to omit if you want the reader to project their desires or themselves onto the story but still be within the frame you’re creating.

Also, if the concern is actually more like “If I specify this character is Black/White/Redhead/Blond it might turn people off because of their innate racist biases” then I think you should just ignore that and write your vision. I think you shouldn’t erase ethnicity but on the flip side you normally wouldn’t want to fetishize it either – unless maybe that’s the point of the story (which we do see here sometimes).

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I’m working on my first story at the moment, and the description of the characters is one of my greatest concerns. I do believe some kind of description is necessary. That’s because I write about my imagination and I want to transport that. So, for me, it is important to know what the author imagines. And I like the pointers very much, they help me to get a better image to fantasize about.

Still, Noctune13 is right with his advice to think about the flow of the story.

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Such an interesting question.

I try to describe “only what matters to the story”
Almost like, you know in hand drawn imagery, or in court drawings the cartoonist might leave out noses, or have only eyes, or only use slight shading on the faces of people.

I like to describe hair colour, build, beard/no beard, eye type, “general feel” then I leave the rest to the reader to put their mind’s imagery onto it Unless there is a specific feature needed to that character, perhaps a thick forehead, body skin tone, or a button nose.

Like if I say someone “looked angry and slim, with a black goatee” that’s a completely open description, but it’s still definitely a description that will inspire an image of that character to the reader, and I won’t write anything to disturb or change a “possible alteration” to the reader’s now established identity of that character.

I write a lot of stuff with at least one character in first person, and for that I try to be even less precise (a trick from storyRPGs; give the protagonist a general enough description, to allow a reader near their age to imply their own identity into them).

It’s like a way of being vague and precise at the same time.

The most important thing I will say is, describe a character concisely, and from “most outstanding features first” and don’t keep dipping back adding detail.

dont be like Chapter 1 “there was a tall man with blue eyes, he looked handsome and strong”

Chapter II "he waved his hand through his Gray hair (wait, what!? I’ve been imagining him with brown hair), and adjusted his massive gold nose ring (WHAT?!)

Chapter III "A bead of sweat glistened and rolled down the scar on his right cheek (OK, Fuck this story this guy keeps changing his appearance)

I’m with the give a description group, but with restraint. If you want to write well, things have to be consistent, you can’t have things change in a way that disturbs the reader’s zen (for lack of a better term). That said, you can indeed use change or new information to elicit an element of surprise. The whole point of a good story is to take the reader into your consciousness for a ride. Same thing with all art and writing fiction is an art.

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Great description, with the “Reader’s Zen”

I would say characters should have a similar zen

This is an interesting question. For me, I don’t care for facial hair and any story that mentions it requires me to mentally edit out that physical feature for me to get into it. However, I wouldn’t advise those writers to remove such a descriptor if that’s what they find hot, because we’re ultimately writing these stories to please ourselves first, and, ideally, likeminded readers will find our work of it’s out there. Just my two cents.

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Fascinating discussion here, about whether to describe a character physically or not. I’ve found that some of the hottest characters emerge naturally as the author carries them through their narrative. There’s got to be some basic groundwork at the outset, so you have at least some physical image in mind about each character as soon as you first meet him. But then to “meet” him, step by step, has had amazing impact on my at times. Of course, it’s also nice to learn immediately what the character looks like! So I guess I’m half way on this question!

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Like @thedirtyspiders I try to give only enough description to support the needs of the story. However, since most of my stories have a transformative element, the “before” matters.

But the goal is to weave it into the story so that it feels we haven’t stopped forward momentum for description. There is nothing more painful to read than: “There were four friends. Character 1 was tall and blonde with a medium build. Character 2 is shorter and red-headed with a rugby build. Character 3 has black hair and a scruffy mustache. Character 4…”

My character descriptions usually follow the character’s first bit of spoken dialogue. That breaks it up a little more easily.

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I find first person narrative can make this easier. Then the narrator can naturally describe those around them in a slower pace. Of course the problem then becomes how the narrator describes themselves. Using a mirror in the first page is pretty overdone.

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Not only does is disrupt the flow, but these characters all have the same distinguishing feature.

Sometimes I’ll do a description by leaving breadcrumbs through the story so we find out more over time.

Justin was all academic. He’d spent the last ten years as a student in one way or another, and now he was stepping onto campus as a professor for the first time. The thrill of it made his heart race.

There’s no physical description here, but I bet you can picture Justin in some way.

“Hello, I’m trying to find room 404,” the skinny academic asked. “Do you know where they’ve hidden it?”

Now we know Justin is skinny because we knew he was the academic already, and we can chain those two pieces of knowledge together.

Justin looked around his office. He could reach out and touch both sides without moving. He thanked the gods that he was only 5’4”. Justin had always wished he could be over six feet, but he doubted he’d even fit into the office if he got his wish.

Am I describing the setting or the character? Both. I’m also sneaking in some info about what makes him feel inadequate. And it’s probably been a few paragraphs, so dropping another breadcrumb tells us that Justin is shorter, skinny, an academic, and wishes he was more.

Justin flinches as he walked out the door, surprised by the doorframe brushing against his mousy brown hair.

More breadcrumbs, and an implied transformation!

“Dude, I dunno why they even make me work in this shitty office,” Justin mumbled. “I should be over at the gym with all the other jocks.”

You can also describe people with their own self-image. Justin is clearly changing here, even though we didn’t say a word about it.

Justin turned sideways, squeezing his thick frame through the door. He moaned as the narrow frame brushed against his ass and nipples in the same moment.

Okay, I mostly just wanted to finish Justin’s transformation before I hit “post”.

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Beautifully written, @DerekWilliams

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