Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

Describing characters as attractive (1 Viewer)

I've read a few writing advice blogs that say you shouldn't do this outside of the POV of a character that finds said character attractive. Personally, I disagree with this, because if I intend for the character to be the hottest guy/girl in the room, I want it known to the reader so they can imagine it. Sure, you can leave exacting details up to the imagination, but if you intend for a character to rival George Clooney or Beyonce in looks, what's wrong with telling your reader that especially if it's relevant to the plot in some way?
 
This could apply to any character trait. What if someone is lucky? Your third-person omniscient narrator might say Jake (ahem, borrowed from another current thread) knew he was lucky, had always been told he was lucky, and was about to press his luck again. Have we really heard other characters if what we're told about Jake is true or not? Just because one character says something about another character doesn't make the observation true or not. It could just be an observation about the character making the observation.

I've always thought Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was misunderstood in this way. Last time I left off reading it I was, I think, on my fifth time through. (I love the story.) She has Jane report what other people say about her, but I'm not convinced that Jane believes it herself. In fact, I rather think Jane thinks the opposite, but like many abused children, she learns the hard way to stay quiet about it. In other words, she lives up to their expectations--and in some ways it's tragically unavoidable that she does. This tension, as it builds in her character, lends to her this amazing strength--but also this quiet grace and dignity, too, because inside, she knows who she is despite what other people say.

I'd go with your gut on how and when to reveal what you do about your character. I would, however, be more concerned with staying true to the character than worrying about the plot at this point. If she truly is stunning, tell us and then show us how all the guys in the room follow her with their eyes and, if she knows she's stunning, show us how she just smirks back at them, smug that her boyfriend is the great ____ and she is the envy of woman. Just be sure you keep reading beyond your comfort zone and consider how people really are and act, and you should be fine.
 
Situation: Your character is startlingly attractive and this matters to the plot, so you need to tell your reader. Dialogue is your friend.

"Oh, sure," said Mandy. "It's alright for you. You can stop traffic by walking down the road wearing a miniskirt. What about the rest of us?"
"Well hi there," said Geoff. "I see you brought your legs with you." He stood there staring at my knees like an idiot.

Doing it without dialogue is the problem. When you've read a certain amount of unpublished fiction, you come to recognize and dread certain scenes, and one of them is the mirror scene, where the protagonist looks in any reflective surface (mirror, pool of water, whatever) and notices her voluptuous curves and wing-tipped eyebrows---or else in the case of male protagonists, his slim hips, manly chest and cruel but sensual mouth. These are uniformly dismal. People don't do that, even the startlingly attractive ones.

You can directly tell your reader that your character is a corker, which is much preferable, but dialogue is more elegant.
 
Here is the only description I provide of the MMC's sister in our entire novel:
No one took a first look at Hope without a second look, probably a third, and maybe just stared. Tall, blond, fit, with piercing blue eyes, and Cal thought she preferred paint to actual clothes. Little sister … he never got over feeling protective.
Then there are a couple of passages which aren't direct descriptions, but might give the reader an inference ;-).
The sight of Hope crossing her heart would have made some grown men forget to breathe.
and:
“Boo!” Hope jumped as he entered the kitchen. It might be mean, but it was custom. Cal and Hope never greeted each other with meaningless courtesies. Hope wore a long T-shirt over, Cal hoped, something else. To anyone but a brother she’d have looked irresistible. Somehow, siblings are immune. One hopes.
There's nothing wrong with the narrator giving a description. My preference as both author and reader is to avoid overdoing it.

One the other hand, @PiP gives many descriptions of the FMC, Julia. Most are self-observation, or her friends giving her a hard time about how slovenly she's gotten (that gets better!). PiP ranges into humor on most occasions she describes Julia, so she can get away with dipping her toe into that water repeatedly.

On the other hand, while Julia and her friends coo over a picture of Cal from the internet, no description of him is included other than they find his eyes sexy. The reader gets to use their imagination. You do know that he's taller than Hope, shorter than Jake, and sometimes wears a Stetson and jeans. I suppose our cover will provide an image. :)

Overall, it's a subject I wouldn't obsess over. I'd say give some description in any way you prefer if there is a reason for the readers to know about particular features. But this isn't a "make or break" element of a book.
 
I am more into the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I don't think beauty is really objective. It's often more cultural than objective (remember how Chinese men found bound feet feminine and erotic?). I know some people have tried to make beauty universally objective and talked about symmetry and things like that, but I heard a man who somehow has become an expert on beauty several years ago give a TED talks and he said it's not about symmetry. He showed a very beautiful girl (beautiful to him and I agreed) and then showed both halves of her face alone and she wasn't symmetrical at all, yet both sides of her face were beautiful on their own and together. He also talked about meaning making things more beautiful, which is what art is.

I remember in college a few times that guys who came over and visited talked about which movie stars they thought were beautiful (how rude!). Sometimes my roommates and I spoke about movie stars we thought were handsome and my point is, it wasn't the same people. There wasn't really a solid consensus, even with those of us from the same culture. Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson is unattractive to my best friend. She likes skinny, rail-thin guys.

Anyway, if you describe beauty through the eyes of the character then it can build character and can be real and believable. Because you chose to mention Beyonce and George Clooney, I now know more about your personal preferences. Someone else would have chosen other people, and maybe even for you they weren't your favorites but thought everyone would like them? If you describe beauty from the narrator's point of view as if everyone agrees, then we might have serious disagreements about who is attractive and it might annoy me (the reader). I tend to get annoyed anyway when men (especially narrators) start describing women who they don't know as I feel it often is like they are describing an ice cream sunday. Maybe even more annoying if they somehow expect the reader to be as into reading it as they were writing it. Writing from the character's POV can sometimes fix this, although it depends on how it is done. Back to subject, I often get really annoyed with blanket statements like "Every guy was into her," because every guy wasn't into her. Some guy liked someone else.

I guess saying someone is "good looking" or "attractive" in general is less annoying to me then "Every girl wanted to jump his bones." because, again, every girl did not want to jump his bones.... some girls just wanted to focus on their education and there is too much variation in what people like, and thank god.
 
Last edited:
I've been thinking deeper about all of this. I think the problem is because describing things like "everyone wanted them" can be so cliché and I think it diminishes the unique human experience of that person, actually of both people.
But a character can perceive that some other people find a certain person attractive and that seems believable to me— some, but not everyone. It makes it more believable and less like a trope to me and also more respectful of the individual human experience. I fully acknowledge that this is just how I personally feel.

I have reflected more deeply on my own preferences in writing due to this topic. I DO enjoy it when a character describes someone physically who they already care about or have a relationship with. If it's special and personal and individual then I can enjoy hearing about their perception, otherwise I turn my nose up at it. So it seems (and I fully acknowledge I am only speaking for myself) the more unique and intimate the POV seems, the better for me. Maybe because "He/she was the best looking person in the room" is one of the most common clichés and aren't we all trying to avoid cliché?

So here is an example that I am thoroughly enchanted by and that feels so intimate from Ian McEwan's Atonement. I've only read it once but I have always sharply remembered Robby's descriptions of Cee as they are getting closer and he is discovering small physical things about her that elate him. He already loves her is why he loves these things about her. I think at one point he even says she has kind of a long horsey face that he knows not everyone likes, but that he finds extremely beautiful.

" When she reached for her skirt, a carelessly raised foot revealed a patch of soil on each pad of her sweetly diminished toes. Another mole the size of a farthing on her thigh and something purplish on her calf--a strawberry mark, a scar. Not blemishes. Adornments.” -Ian McEwan.

There is another part later after Robby and Cee have acknowledged their love to each other but where they are in company at dinner when Robby notices that Cee has an indent in her shoulder (like a dimple) and he says something like "Later he was going to push his tongue into that indent and slide it around." It is just so intimate and makes it so tragic when it never happens. They are never allowed to be together again because of a child's mistake.
 
Last edited:
I am more into the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I don't think beauty is really objective.

Yup.

Beauty is entirely subjective. There is no one gold standard, which is partially the reason the lists of the most attractive actor/actress are usually run at least ten or twenty spots.

It's also highly irritating when any organism (ad agency, authors, filmmakers, alleged pop-culture 'influencers') promote their personal favorite as the One True Anything, and is one of the surest ways to kill interest. It's great that your character wants to go on about the 5' 10' 38-24-36 platinum blonde with the evening gown slit up to here and the green eyes...but if your reader goes for short dark-eyed brunettes, it's a hard sell.

Point is, you don't have to convince us she's the best of anything. You have to convince us that your characters thinks she's the best.
 
Sure, you can leave exacting details up to the imagination, but if you intend for a character to rival George Clooney or Beyonce in looks, what's wrong with telling your reader that especially if it's relevant to the plot in some way?
Ok, but first off looking like George Clooney or Beyonce is not synonymous with being "attractive." Attraction is relative. If you want them to look like George Clooney then describe them that way. And leave it up to the reader if they find that type attractive.

But what's more important is to portray how the other characters react to your George Clooney look-a-like. And you don't have to say, Jane was attracted to George. It's more effective to say Jane's heart skipped a beat, or Jane tingled with excitement at the sight of George. Or even better, do it with dialogue: "What's that look?" "George is hot!"
 
An aside in dialogue:

"Jim, about that age thing ..."

"Shut up, kid. If you think Colonel Baslim ever whumped you as a child, wait 'til you see what I've got."

"Pop was Guard and X Corps."

"Yah. Neither of those outfits want to mess with James Garsch. You see this belly?"

In truth, Garsch was still leaning over the conference table, and his belly was hidden under it. But he'd seen it plenty of times. Thorby nodded to humor his friend.

"You know how I grew it?"

"Rich food, too much and too often?"

"Eating anyone who messes with me. And they're just the dessert."

It was vintage James Garsch.

Or do it with motion:

Just then Garsch came in, early, and closed the door behind him. The man didn't limp, or waddle, or hobble. No distinctive hitch marred his steps, yet he still somehow gave the impression that every foot placed down bore an imposition on his disposition. He pulled back the closest chair at the conference table, flopped into it, then leaned back and rested his feet on it in a motion belying the impression his gait sold to an observer. The result was a distracting balancing act. He looked as if he might tumble backwards at any moment.
 
In my recently finished novel, basically all of my characters are attractive (because they are descendants of gods who wanted to be obsessed over by humans), so I had to reference attractiveness/attractive traits A LOT. So much that I would consider it also a part of the setting. The story was in first person POV from a character who'd grown up as human, so she did a lot of noticing various elements of attractiveness among characters in both thought and dialogue. And because it's first person, basically anything said or thought was through a character lens. I also used the dreaded mirror description at times with a particular set of characters, but that is because they spent a lot of time in front of a mirrored vanity table and a handful of scene snippets (including action) were described through the reflection. In general though, I think physical description through reflection can get cheesy fast.

I do agree with the advice on the blog to an extent - I think it's more immersive and believable if the attractiveness is seen through some character's POV rather than the narrator. What a character does and does not find attractive tells not only about the physical beauty of one character, but also the tastes of another character. It just packs more punch than the narrator saying it omnisciently. That said, like everything else, I'm sure there are plenty of great examples of the narrator telling the reader a character is attractive when it's delivered well (when I say well, I think subtle/not distracting and so naturally written that the reader doesn't even really notice what their brain is processing).
 
Ok, but first off looking like George Clooney or Beyonce is not synonymous with being "attractive." Attraction is relative. If you want them to look like George Clooney then describe them that way. And leave it up to the reader if they find that type attractive.

But what's more important is to portray how the other characters react to your George Clooney look-a-like. And you don't have to say, Jane was attracted to George. It's more effective to say Jane's heart skipped a beat, or Jane tingled with excitement at the sight of George. Or even better, do it with dialogue: "What's that look?" "George is hot!"
Obviously I wouldn't use "looks like George Clooney" unless said character physically looked like him. I just randomly picked two people considered "beautiful" off the top of my head and honestly didn't expect anyone to read too much into it.
 
Obviously I wouldn't use "looks like George Clooney" unless said character physically looked like him. I just randomly picked two people considered "beautiful" off the top of my head and honestly didn't expect anyone to read too much into it.
Yes, I got that. It was a good example...I was just using it as an example as well. But, your right... I didn't explain that well. My apologies...thanks for calling me out on that!

The point I was making is that "attraction" is in the eyes of the beholder. When Annie Hall came out, I was incredibly attracted to Woody Allen. But it had nothing to do with the way he looked. So if you were writing it, you would need to convey Annie's feeling for him, not describe how he looked or say, "he was attractive."

But if you wish to describe someone who is typically good-looking...that is different in my eyes. A lot of romance novels get heavily into specific physical descriptions that are commonly seen as attractive. You can do that as well, as long as you leave it to the reader to decide. That's another application that works.
 
Top