How important is a novel character’s appearance?

It occurs to me that in yesterday’s blog post about the protagonist for my upcoming NaNo novel, I didn’t provide a physical description of Fiarra. In fact, in a lot of what I write I don’t describe or mention physical aspects of characters much, beyond gender (essential for pronouns), characters’ ages (though these are often relative to one another than absolute) and occasionally general information like height and build.

I often struggle to visualise characters – both when reading and when writing. Even when characters are described in detail, I often forget the “identity card” type details – hair colour, eye colour, that sort of thing – and remember the “personality” details, the scruffy coat, the smart shoes, the styled hair, the preference for wearing ties. I remember the character’s choice of appearance, not what genetics has gifted them. When I do physically describe characters, that’s the way I describe them primarily.

Novels aren’t a visual medium. They’re verbal. We have words only to establish character. Unlike visual media like screen, stage and comic formats, we can’t rely on the audience knowing what a character looks like. We can’t insert subtle visual cues to reveal character; all characterisation must be revealed explicitly through words on the page.

And because novels aren’t visual, because they are read and not seen, it is a character’s actions and voice that distinguish them from one another. Physically they could be identical clones, provided that their personalities are distinguishable. On screen, perfect clones would soon get confusing and visual clues are needed, such as clothing or hair styles, or the addition of a beard for versions from the evil parallel universe.

I don’t put much store on characters’ physical appearances. I don’t deliberately ignore it, but I don’t go looking for places to make things known either. Often I don’t know until I write it what colour hair a character has, how tall they are, what their build is. I rarely have an image in my head of what a character looks like when I’m writing them. As long as they are formed solely of words, what they look like feels irrelevant; considering it is an indulgence, not a necessity.

But am I missing out? Is it easier to write a character when you know what they look like, or is their personality enough?

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6 thoughts on “How important is a novel character’s appearance?

  1. No I definitely agree with you here. That’s also kind of why I hate covers with real people on them and prefer illustrated covers where there’s at least a little more leeway for imagination. Do you feel that way too?

    1. Absolutely. Hooded figures – a staple of fantasy – are okay because you never quite see their faces, but where they’re drawn or photographed in detail, where nothing is left to the imagination, it’s no fun. I prefer the type where any people are in the distance, mere shapes on the landscape.

  2. That is an interesting method of character development. I was recently criticized for not having done more in one of my books, Armageddon Darkness, for not doing more to develop the characters. I believe that a readers imagination can be more effective many times than I can. I do some, but not as much as I used to. My first two books, Irish, then Children of the Sanctuary wore character description out, but I thought it also wore the readers out too.

  3. I don’t put too much into character description either. For some stories and characters, though, describing appearance more is necessary.
    I don’t describe everything about each character’s appearance and I don’t think readers need to know the eye colour of every character. I describe things which are necessary and which advance the plot or progress a character.
    Also, describing appearances more could be used to good effect, such as if you have a very vain character, this person would notice and comment on the looks of others much more than your other characters might. So if you are writing from this character’s POV, you could simply write with more description in regards to how other people look.

  4. Actually, I think there are two ways to write about characters. One is where every single thing about a character is described, every single thing about their person: how they think, how they feel, and who they are are described. This writer is referred to as an introspective writer who may inject their own person into character descriptions. I did that for years, then of course my books were 400 pages long, not like they are today only about 280 or less. I have been accused lately of not developing characters enough, but I do just enough and leave the rest for the reader’s imagination. I decide how much of a character to develop, but it is not essential to do it for all of them. Just a thought.

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