Clothes make the man: problems writing physical descriptions

So, I’ve  had a few people give me feedback on some of the stuff I’ve written before, and one of the things I get asked for more of is physical description of characters. Hair, eyes, build, clothes, etc. Stuff that is really awkward to write naturally.

I personally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I have long dark hair that falls to my waist in soft waves that give way to a mad riot of ringlets at the end (I’m not even kidding. My crazy ass Mexican hair really does that. :P). I might spare a moment for the mirror in the morning if I care how I look that day, but I certainly don’t think to myself how my greengold eyes stand out against my bronzing skin now that summer reviving my awesome tan (Again, hooray for Latin heritage.). I’m more likely to be considering the clothes I’m wearing, but again, that’s a rare day for me.

And I know not everyone is like me in that regard- hell, I kind of avoid the mirror because for whatever reason, the face I see there always surprises me a little. I just don’t quite look like I expect to, and it unnerves me.  But I do get that some people are a bit more appearance oriented, so writing clothes scenes for them would be easier.

But not a lot of my characters are like that. I’m not even sure when Seth first saw a mirror.

So what then? What are some tricks you all have used for writing descriptions in an organic way that doesn’t disrupt the flow of your work? How do you write physical descriptions naturally?

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4 thoughts on “Clothes make the man: problems writing physical descriptions

  1. Here’s what I’ve been taught. Pay homage to the reader’s imagination. For rooms, give three important details and let them imagine the rest.

    I try to stick with that for characters too. In Will ‘O the Wisp, Patty is 1 a freshman in high school, 2 she wears leg braces to correct her bow legs, 3 she has a mop of curly brown hair that devours combs. Can you see her and imagine the rest?

    Other times I detail it. Lisa Burton can modify her appearance, and it’s an important part of the story. I go into more detail here.

    I don’t mind stories with no detail at all. I’ll form my own image. Just don’t tell me your cowboy has a ring of red hair around a bald spot the size of a pancake after the first chapter. If it goes in at all, it has to be early.

    Avoid mirrors like a vampire. That way of describing is considered cliche today and people will call you out for it.

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  2. Describing people has always been a challenge for me (heck, the descriptions you were able to come up with for yourself are better than what I can do). I try to tell myself that by leaving it more open to interpretation I’m allowing the reader to create the characters in an image that they can identify with. But I wonder if that’s just me making excuses for not being willing to push myself to describe them….
    When I do describe someone I try to fit it into the flow… like the straight hair that wont hold a curl no matter how hard you try (a thought I have had myself, so I can easily see a character making that note, as they look enviously at another character who has curlier hair). And eyes seem easier for me to describe. Hmm, something to ponder more.

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  3. Sometimes I think that I add too much description. My friends are split on whether it interrupts a story or not. Many of my friends like it because they say that it gives them a clear picture of my characters. Others think that I am not doing it naturally. I’ll usually introduce characters when they come into the room. Take Mara:

    ‘The door flew open, hitting the wall opposite with a loud bang. Mela whipped around and felt apprehension come over her body as Mara strode into the room.

    Her red stiletto boots made a sharp click on the floor as she sauntered into the room. Her dark blue jeans encased her long legs and her black silk shirt highlighted her green eyes. She ran a hand through her long red hair as it fell behind her shoulder and she smiled wickedly at Mela, who folded her arms over her blue dress, her blonde curls glinting in the light as she watched her make her way into the room.’

    Other times, it can matter where the scene takes place. If the characters are around a fire, you can say how the flames are highlighting hair color or darkening certain features. Other times, you can just let readers make up there minds how they look. I’ve read the whole Twilight series and I don’t even have any idea what Edward’s hair color is. I’ve always seen it as black but one of my friends said that it is a reddish color. I usually at least like some description of clothing, though so that I can build a template. You can always talk about the weather and the clothes that they are wearing: “It was so hot so she was wearing the purple dress…her mate was wearing the shorts that she always thought looked cute on him…” or something to that affect.

    Hope this helps.

    -Lili

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