TERRIBLE PROSE TUESDAY: Vague physical descriptions

When I’m reading a book, it’s really important for me to know what the characters look like. If I’m going to spend an entire book with these people, I’d like to be able to picture them.

Now, I’ve read books. Across the kajillions of young adult-, sci-fi-, fantasy-, and chick-lit-novels I’ve read in my 22 years, there are 5 descriptions I keep running into. As common as they are, they don’t seem to be anything other than confusing. They don’t help me picture characters–if anything, I have an even harder time. Here are the top 5 vague physical descriptions I have come across in my travels.

  1. “almond-shaped eyes” (see also “slanted eyes,” “upward-tilting eyes”)
    Sounds like you mean Asian but are afraid to say it.
  2. “shoulder-length hair”
    Oh, goodness. Is it long!? Is it short!? Is it average? Say that instead! I don’t know what shoulder-length means! Is it touching their shoulders? Is it past their shoulders? How long is their neck in comparison? People have different opinions on which length category this type of hair falls under, and I still have no idea.
  3. “olive-toned skin” (see also “olive-skinned”)
    Could be a Caucasian who tans in the summer, could be biracial, could be of Greek descent… My problem is that sometimes people say “olive-skinned” and mean white, or say “olive-skinned” and cast Alexis Bledel in the movie version, so I’m not clear on what this looks like.
  4. “auburn hair”
    This one has bothered me for a long time. I’ve always thought “auburn” meant red, or having a red tone. Very well. If you describe a character’s hair as auburn, you cannot also describe them as “dark-haired.” My hair is dark. Shay Mitchell’s hair is dark. Neither of us has red/reddish hair. Get it straight.
  5. “bronze-colored hair”
    Okay, this one’s not as common as the others. I’m going to pick on Twilight because this description has always puzzled me. I can easily picture “golden” hair. I know what “silver” hair is. Bronze is the color you don’t want to win in the Olympics, which is a bad association to have. And, like auburn, do they mean red? Brown? Orange? What are you going for? Choosing this specific color clears up nothing!

1 thought on “TERRIBLE PROSE TUESDAY: Vague physical descriptions”

  1. These have always bothered me too!!! I take stuff like this as creative license. Can’t get your descriptions straight? Prepare to have your characters re-imagined in my brain.


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