Writing Books/Description

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Question
   I have some trouble trying to describe a character in a book that I am working on,it's fantasy.  I know what they look like and I even had a friend of mine draw a picture, I just don't know how to describe them in an interesting way.  Say for example I wanted to describe a character named Liek Ki Shadow, how would I describe him with, brown hair, blue eyes, slightly tanned, half-elven, with a slightly muscular body?  This is a something that I have been having trouble with for a long time.  I would really appreciate a response.  And, if you may, do you think you could give me a few pointers on describing to make it easier on me?

   Matthew

Answer
Character description is, believe it or not, something you shouldn't waste a lot of time worrying about.  

Here's what you need to ask yourself:  Is it IMPORTANT that the reader know "x" about how this character looks?  Is the hair color important?  Probably not.  Eye color?  Almost certainly not.  (I mean, who cares?)  Slightly tanned?  Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors is gonna be.  We can figure that out for ourselves.  Slightly muscular body?  Again, this is implied by the TYPE of character you've got.  If he's active, we can pretty much expect him to be slightly muscular, if not more so.  Half-elven?  That's almost certainly important.  But it's not something to just mention in a descriptive fashion.  If half-breeds are commonplace in this world, then it's really not that big a deal.  If they're rare, then his heritage is something that should be revealed in a context that puts some significance on it... not just in a "description" of the character.

Also keep in mind that the LEAST effective character descriptions are those that are "data dumps."  If, for example, you DID describe Liek Ki Shadow as a half-elf with brown hair, blue eyes, and a lightly tanned, somewhat muscular body, the reader is going to have that information go in one ear and out the other, so to speak.  It's not memorable.  For two reasons:  One, it's not an effective way to describe something... it's too clinical.  Two, nothing there is very memorable.  There's nothing out of the ordinary.

Physical description should, in my opinion, be kept to a minimum.  Leave SOMETHING up to the reader's imagination.  Certainly, you need to describe things that are out of the ordinary.  But readers of fantasy have something in mind when you say "half-elven."  And the rest of your descriptive bits are just too commonplace to use in a data dump fashion.

If you're set on having the reader know the things you listed, then mention his hair color in passing when you have him pull it back into a ponytail.  Mention the eye color when you have another character look into his eyes.  Mention the slight musculature when he displays a strength that belies his appearance.  That sort of thing.  But by all means, do NOT just list the things as though you were describing something to a blind person.

Hope that helps.

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Vincent M. Wales

Expertise

I am a speculative fiction novelist (fantasy, science fiction, and so on). While I may be able to answer questions on non-fiction, my specialty is fiction. Please keep that in mind when asking questions.

Experience

For four years, I taught a series of fiction writing classes in Sacramento, CA.

Education/Credentials
BA in fiction writing.

Awards and Honors
My 2004 novel, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, won BEST FICTION in Fresh Voices 2006, BEST FICTION and BEST YA FICTION in the NCPA Book Awards, and placed as a finalist in BEST BOOKS 2005. In 2002, my novel WISH YOU WERE HERE won awards for Best Fantasy and Best Fiction/Drama in the 8th Annual SPA Awards. My latest work is a trilogy titled THE MANY DEATHS OF DYNAMISTRESS (a superhero memoir). The first book, RECKONING, was released in 2013 and won the SF category in the 2014 San Francisco Book Festival, took second place in the 2013 Royal Dragonfly Book Awards for the SF/Fantasy/Paranormal category, second place in the SF category of the 2013 Reader Views Reviewers Choice Awards, and was finalist in Foreword's 2013 Book of the Year Awards, Fantasy category. The second book, REDEMPTION, will be released in early 2015 and the final book, RENAISSANCE, is scheduled for release in late 2016.

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