Authorguy's Blog

How do you know she’s a witch?

Posted on: March 30, 2011

The answer, as everyone sane and sensible knows, is ‘because she looks like one!’ Which just goes to show you how silly and surface-oriented peasants can be. The more accurate answer is ‘because she weighs the same as a duck’, but I digress.

It came as a bit of a shock to me to find out recently that not only do some people actually read character descriptions (which I tend to skip over in favor of the next set of quotation marks), but that these same people actually find their experience of a book significantly enhanced (or degraded) based on that description. Since I have stated before that ‘stories are characters in motion’ it follows that the mere appearance of the character has no place in a story unless it affects the ways in which my characters are able to move. Because the Mikado’s will is law, and I am the Mikado.

This is not to say that such things are irrelevant, but that they are only relevant in a certain set of contexts. The smaller the set, the less relevant they are. Normally eye color isn’t a very important detail, but in some cases, like Roald Dahl’s The Witches, where they have purple eyes, it can matter a great deal. In Dave Duncan’s Seventh Sword trilogy the hair color of the two brothers is quite significant. But these are in fantasy novels. I have heard the occasional complaint about the overuse of certain eye colors to indicate some degree of exotic-ness about a character, usually in the context of a romance novel. I imagine red hair would also fall into that category. I described Candace, the romantic lead of St. Martin’s Moon, as having red hair, but only because I had dreamcast her with Alyson Hannigan and she has red hair. The other female romantic lead of the story (which, by the way, is not a romantic triangle) eventually turned out to have been blonde but that was just a throwaway line, mainly to distinguish her character from another.

Skin color and gender are much more relevant elements of a description, although gender is much more so. Skin color would depend heavily on context, for example in the movie Live and Let Die, as James Bond was traveling into Harlem his pursuers said it was as easy as following a cue ball, him being the only white-skinned person around. There is of course a subtext to this scene. Since the movie was set in this world at that time, it would hardly be realistic or plausible for there not to have been one. The importance of the description can depend as much or more on the subtext as the operational context directly. Probably more so, since the subtext is part of the backstory of the character and will also affect the way way he thinks and reacts.

I suppose the real question is how the character is created, or viewed. One of the reasons I dislike the ‘characterization’ school of character creation is that it puts the emphasis on the external visual and behavioral aspects of the character. I create mine from the inside, and I spend the book discovering their foibles, dislikes, and preferences. I don’t imagine that  most people, unless they’re in front of a mirror and specifically inventorying their appearance, are going to think twice about their hair color. So I don’t think it makes too much sense to have a character go on at any length about his own appearance. Similarly, when they are interacting with others the descriptive prose I employ is based on what they perceive rather than what they see, and only occasionally will they pay any notice to the way someone looks. Tarkas has often gone on about blue eyes, white skin, and yellow hair, but always because these are unusual to the point of miraculous. When the miraculous becomes commonplace he ceases to notice these things. Backstory is much the same, almost by definition it forms the background webwork of assumptions that we make about the way the world works. Those assumptions are not likely to be explicitly examined unless we encounter a scenario where they don’t work, or they’re brand new. One of my favorite Vorkosigan moments when he discovers that he’s fallen in love with someone, another is the soldier Bothari, when he’s forced to choose and decides not to be a monster.

How do you know if someone is a witch? or a Hero? Because they act like one.


13 Responses to "How do you know she’s a witch?"

Science Fiction tends to be action based, thus character descriptions tend to be less important/significant than, say, romance, which is nearly always character based. In romance appearance does tend to be more important to the development of the story. Of course, there are infinite exceptions to this general rule.


Very true. I tend to think in terms of fantasy novels and often overloook that. It’s interesting that the second I introduced the romantic lead in St. Martin’s Moon I ended up describing her, at least her red hair.


Great post. Characters from the inside are much more real and resonant I find – hair colour? Not all that meaningful most of the time.


If the only way to distinguish two characters is by the physical description I would think the author hasn’t developed the character well enough. I tend to write the dialog first, where the character should be seen simply through what he says and how he says it.


I tend to use description to help tell one character from another, but I often don’t describe my main characters in much detail. Of course, I have been told I should use more. LOL


I don’t use descriptions as much as roles. The point of this post was really about knowing who they are by what they do rather than by what they look like. The way they talk, the things they say, how they react to the events of their lives, are far more important than what they look like. In Jack Chalker’s book Midnight at the Well of Souls he has a character who reproduces by fission into two identical versions, each of whom undergoes different adventures and ends up quite different.


She turned me into a Newt!


I’m guessing you got better.


I suppose I have. I’m still not as great as John Cleese, though 🙂


I think romance readers are the ones that like to see more character descriptions of well endowed men/women or whatever turns them on. 🙂 I prefer more subtle descriptions myself because I like to imagine the characters through their actions and dialog.


I agree, although I do have a few eccentric characters that I describe early on (in their respective stories). Partly because I’m OCD and want the readers to see a certain set of details, but also because a character will dress/groom/hold themselves due to background traits.


Which is perfectly fine, since it affects/reflects behavior, which can affect the story. There are lots of ways of doing that, some better than others, of course. It’s description for the sake of description that i see no point to.


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