Nobody really cares what your character looks like…

This is an extract from a blog article on the Starbase 118 website by Sal Taybrim. There’s loads of great articles with tips for roleplaying in their Writer’s Workshop section, so make sure to read that right after this. 

Attractive Star Trek cosplay lady

Nobody really cares what your character looks like…

This is harsh, but true. In a writing game, we all imagine what your character looks like. If you insist that they are attractive, leave a few details and then move on to the action. Your readers will fill in with how they imagine the character to look and be depending on their own definitions of attractive. Dwelling on long passages that describe your character’s appearance down to each pore is a surefire turn off for your audience.

…unless their appearance is relevant to the story.

This means if appearance reveals something about the character to the reader, something that hints about the character’s past or factors in to the character working towards solving the problem we talked about above. Does a scar indicate a rough-and-tumble history? Do some slight pointed ears indicate a strict Vulcan Monastic upbringing – or a clandestine Romulan heritage? These things tell the reader something about the character, revealing back story and motivation.

Consider two popular young adult novel series: one where an incredibly attractive vampire has color changing eyes, another where a young wizard bears a distinctive scar. In the former most readers could not even tell you why there are so many changes in the vampire’s eye color – it seems to be purely cosmetic and at the author’s whim. It becomes a factor of confusion for all but the most die hard fans. In the latter almost everyone, even a casual reader knows how the wizard got his scar and how it is a major feature in his story. Make your choices on your character’s appearance in ways that impact your story, rather than as random cosmetic details.

The same is true for quirks.

A character can snap their gum, drink seventeen raktajinos per day or hum show tunes all they want. Unless there is a reason for these quirks that is associated to their background or ongoing story, quirks are as cosmetic and uninteresting as color changing eyes.

Written by Sal Taybrim. Make sure you read the rest of the article here. The top image was found on this Pinterest board.

Published by

David Ball

David is a web developer, and the creator of OngoingWorlds

  • Xanxa

    I disagree to some extent. I like to describe my characters, for several reasons. Appearance is often part of their culture, and I have several very different cultures in my novels. Scars, tattoos, brandings, even the way someone wears their hair can denote whether they are a warrior, a priest, or a dance teacher. I also like to play with perceptions, for example, having a brutish-looking character crying at weddings and playing with small children. Or having a complete nerd/geek type being able to kick ass magnificently! I don’t usually do more than a few sentences or a small paragraph on details, but I do like to include a few pointers as to what my characters look like.

    I agree that overly drawn-out descriptive passages can become tedious for a reader, so I see the point that less can be more at times. I do like to leave some details up to the reader’s imagination and for minor characters, I barely describe them at all.

  • Marie Noybn

    they get darker the longer its been since they’ve eaten 😉 there, now you know LOL. Oh, and heightened emotions. Not all that complicated really hehe.