A Short Thought on the Visual First Impression

They say that a writer should research and backstory and take all the notes in the world, then file them all away and only directly reference about 10%, with the rest leaking through in dribs and drabs as the narrative progresses. I begin to think that the people who describe their character stepping into the narrative, be it story or campaign, for the first time should do the same thing, particularly if they’re late to the party. A mental picture is nice, yes. Being able to describe a character to the point where people can learn things from the description is also nice. Goodness knows I used to do that for fun with at least one of my players. On the other hand, you with the new character, I don’t need your entire biography the moment we meet. That goes for the flashbacks out of nowhere, the tendency to spill everything—but it also goes for the descriptions verging into purple as we walk into the blasted inn. Once you’ve gone for more than half a minute, I’m not sure I even care what color the character’s hair is. (I might make an exception for when I’m reading, but if your character description takes me half a minute to read, that’s probably a problem in and of itself. That’s pushing a page right there.)

Know the description. File it away. You’ll get to use it later. Right now we just want to get on to the vital question of whether these people we think through are going to be able to put up with each other.


  1. UZ says:

    Whether or not I have a visual description in the actual text (or, you know, when talking if it’s tabletop) mostly depends on whether it’s important to the narrative; a recent comment I wrote here (http://www.exchangeofrealities.com/2013/04/23/exercise-in-monochrome/) had entirely to do with the appearances of the characters. Consider, on a related note, a fashion RPG. (Does one exist? I have no idea.)

    But, I always keep a visual description on file because otherwise I end up describing people differently in different places, which is pretty embarrassing. Now, my visual description for at least one main character was that she was “brownish”, so level of detail can vary.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Yeah, better to have and not need–I just wish more people would recognize when they don’t need it either. It’s not so bad with play by chat, but when you get someone spending a couple minutes on his initial description, to the point where the choice is either to tune out or to forget the broad-strokes details you might actually need under the wave of little stuff…

    I don’t think there’s a fashion RPG out there, though I’ve had groups who’ve had field days with Dramatic Costume Changes anyway. My current one, last time they had an Event, came up with costumes and then moved on to making suggestions for their NPCs.

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