My next two characters shall look like Barbie and Ken!

No, no, I kid! Come back. I promise they won’t look like them. And I promise I’m not going to talk about them either. I mostly brought them up because when it comes to appearance, characters with features similar to Barbie and Ken are the most cliché. I admit that I myself have included this cliché in one story at one point in my life, but that’s beyond us now.

Just look at the perfect smiles, eyes and hair, haha.
(Photo Credit: http://www.barbie-game.com)

The appearance of characters is arguably important. There are some authors who put too much emphasis on how a character looks, some who mention it in passing, and others who leave it up to the imagination of the reader. I’m of the second type; I only mention the characteristics in passing and only when needed, and never more than once. I also try not to use extraordinary features, but mostly stick to ones we see every day.

At one point in my life though, I kept what I call “Appearance Sheets”. Each separate sheet described a particular feature. For example, the “Eye Sheet” listed all possible eye colours and shapes, including violet and red, and slanting and narrowed; the “Hair Sheet” listed things like curly and wavy, and blue and orange… and so on. Every time I wanted to create a new character, I would consult my sheets and put together something you’d mostly likely see in anime shows. I never wanted my characters to be normal; I wanted them to be special and beautiful and unlike anyone I’d ever seen. Even the villains had to be moderately good-looking! I daresay that some of them even beat Barbie and Ken by miles, and they had better names like Giovanni, Dimitri, Tatiana and Annaliese (yes, I also have Name Sheets).

Behold my Name Sheets. Yes, I still have them. I wouldn’t throw them away, not when it had taken me ages to compile them.

I’ve tossed those sheets away now, and very rarely do I think ahead about the appearance of my characters. I try to give the readers a brief outline so they may be able to picture them in their heads, but I don’t overwhelm this with details about their lustrous hair, long lashes, full lips, smouldering eyes or creamy skin. When it comes down to it, the important thing about a book is its plot and the personality of its characters, not their appearance. In my personal opinion, unless the novel is about the beauty of a certain character, unnecessary flashiness simply distracts from the actual story.

So what do you think? Do appearances really matter? Do you go to great lengths to describe your characters, or do you settle for a few features scattered here and there?

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22 thoughts on “My next two characters shall look like Barbie and Ken!

  1. Artemis says:

    I don’t think appearance is as important as plot, but I like to be a bit more detailed anyway. It takes a paragraph or so at most, and doesn’t really distract from anything. It gets everyone on the same page and doesn’t necessarily have to be full of specific details. There have been some books where I realized I had no idea what the character looked like, and it actually bothered me.

    It doesn’t have to be crazy, just something to give me a picture to start, and variety helps. I read a book where every single character was described by their skin colour and hair style, and nothing else. In my mind I pictured the cast as faceless beings, basically just skin and hair, going about their daily lives. It was… interesting.

    • That actually sounds like a book I would like to read! Sounds interesting indeed. =D
      Though I suppose I’m the opposite; I don’t feel bothered at all when I don’t know about the appearance, and I let the characters take any shape in my imagination. To each their one, right?

    • You know, I don’t think any of my main characters have blond hair either. One secondary female character had golden locks, but then she was a princess, so that colour fit her the most.

  2. When I think about how many people were surprised by the ethnicity of the young girl in the hunger games I have to wonder how much of those descriptions people actually read! I agree it’s nice to have a picture in my mind as I write. I also think that the only descriptions that really matter are the ones that are relevant to the plot.

    • I haven’t read or watched The Hunger Games yet, but I take it she was not supposed to be white? I heard that some people thought she should be super skinny! And I agree with you there… or at least just bring up the descriptions super casually in a way that the reader doesn’t even notice.

  3. When writing fanfiction, and reading it too, I find the repeating mentions regarding appearance nice. It reminds one of the show – especially if said show is now off the air. And sometimes it can even remind one of a particular event int the show they love, be it comedic or dramatic. Of course, that’s simply in my opinion.

    Now, when I’m reading a novel, I hate mentions to appearance unless they add to the story – like a killer on the loose where a witness remembers blue eyes and an eyebrow scar, or some cliche romance novel where the person catches only a glimpse of the other and some detail reminds them (I see a theme on remembrance here, lol).

    But, generally, I like to picture the character myself. With the way most books are nowadays (particularly the YA genre, which can hold a diamond or two among the rolling mounds of rough rocks), I find you can get more variety in appearance when visualizing the details yourself. But, that’s just me.

    I was wondering, though: do you have an image in your mind of what Sophie and Oliver look like in Puppet Parade? I’ve always wanted to ask a published author how much thought they put into their character’s development regarding appearance :)

    • Hmm. I’m not sure if I agree with you there. I mean… if we’re reading fanfiction for a particular fandom, we are bound to know how they look like, no? To me it would feel kinda redundant.
      The remembrance theme works quite well, and I think the YA novels don’t leave much room for the imagination, especially with all these covers that have the face of some beautiful girl plastered on.
      As for Sophie and Oliver… you know what, not really. xD I didn’t give much thought to Oliver, but I made sure that when Sophie was unmasked, she wouldn’t be a dazzling beauty, otherwise that would’ve been quite cliche.

    • Same here. =] I always like to form my own image when reading a book than have the author tell me how everyone looks.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. I must admit I am guilty of the same sin! In my first (of many… heehee) book, I chosen for my characters to be beautiful. Not exactly Barbie and Ken, but somewhat gorgeous! :D.. I guess one of the reasons is that this book is a romance. However, I mentioned looks just as an introduction or at a needed point of the story, but I hope I do give much more emphasis to their personality.

  5. I agree that plot and character personality and action are more important than the looks of the character but I do like some information about the character’s looks when I read. When I write the looks of the character get woven in where appropriate, (e.g. Joey depressed the accelerator. Her long, dark hair whipped around her face as she raced the red convertible down the freeway.) The description here helps portray the speed of the car. I like to weave descriptions in with the action rather than making a list of physical attributes.
    Tori

    • I like doing that as well. When you come across a list of attributes in a story, it somehow feels as if the author just copied what he had written in the character’s profile.
      Thanks for your comment, Tori!

  6. Appearances are important, but I agree about letting the reader draw their own conclusions. Unless there’s something striking about the character (like a missing limb), just stick with the basics. I like to use my imagination!

  7. I use to go to great length to describe what my people were wearing – then someone said (in a nice way, of course) if I wanted to read about clothing I would pick up a catalogue – that sort of cured me of that – I guess less is more sometimes

    • I couldn’t have put it any better than that person! I mean, unless the clothes were an important part of the story, there’s no need to put so many details.
      Thank you for your comment!

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