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Four Steps to Cooler @Descriptions

by Abby Goutal

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. In the MUSH world, first impressions are given by your name and your @desc. Now names are not all that tricky a field; there are only a couple of ways you can go wrong, and to be frank, if you believe that SexyDeath is a really cool name to be roleplaying under, then the finer points of self-description are not what you need to be studying.
Sexy Death

Can death be sexy?

Granted, then, that you have a fairly normal character name, the first thing your fellow players will have to judge is your @description. So you want it to look as good as possible -- not in the same sense that you, yourself, try to look as good as possible before going out in public, not as nice as possible, but as well-written, as descriptive as you can.

Let me assume that you already know not to dictate the viewer's response to you, not to settle for a one-line @desc, and not to say "She looks exactly like Rita Hayworth, except for the hair color". There are then four basic ways in which you can ensure your @desc has class:

1. Be correct.

This means pay attention to grammar and spelling. Don't groan. I know not everyone is a whiz at these things; but you're entering a text environment, where spelling and grammar are as basic as hygiene and manners. Ignore them, and people will avoid you. You can take all the time you need to get it right; show it to your English teacher, run it through your spell-checker, look up words you aren't sure of in the dictionary, ask a friend or an admin to check it if you're writing in a language you're not used to.

2. Be concise.

Though many people now use spiffy software like MUSHclient or SimpleMU to connect to MUSHes, many others are still using plain old telnet, frequently without the benefit of scrollback. For these players, lengthy @descriptions can be a disaster, and even for the rest of us they're sometimes a pain in the neck.

But that's only part of the case for conciseness. MUSHers have, of necessity, a short attention span. In the midst of a lively conversation or dramatic roleplay scene, there's not time to read a sixty-line @desc in full. By the time you've finished observing every freckle, curve, and dressmaking detail, you've completely lost track of what's going on.

Other players will take certain details for granted. For instance, they'll typically assume that a male character is clean-shaven, or that a female one is more slender than not, until they're told otherwise. Of the infinite variety of possible characteristics, the only ones that should never be left out are hair and eye color, height, and approximate age. Beyond that, include only the distinctive. Your character's facial scars are essential, the shape of his nose is not.

3. Be evocative.

Does this contradict point 2? Not at all. I said evoke, not catalogue exhaustively. The trick is to choose your details with care, and make every word work for you. If you're including clues to your character's background or personality, make them subtle. Subtlesubtlesubtle. Mention that Catherine's hair is so fine it blows every which way in the slightest breeze, and let that suggest her distractable nature. Don't tell us Roderick is "clearly" a seaman who's spent years exposed to the pitiless elements. Instead show us his weatherbeaten face and callused hands, the faint smell of salt that clings to his coat, and leave it at that.

4. Be realistic.

Roderick had better have callused hands. A serf on the estate of Lord Frungible had better not go around wearing silk. Try not to have innocence shine out of the eyes of Laurene the forty-year-old prostitute, or humility from those of the Emperor of Everything, unless she's a halfwit and he's a religious nut. Think carefully about what is likely, and don't pass off incongruity as an "exception to the rule". I'm not advocating stereotypical characters, mind; just realistic @descs.

Here is a character @desc of my own, on which I've gotten several compliments. I'm not sure why people like it, but let me show how these four points apply to it:

At first glance, Piers is merely scruffy: his sandy hair, shot with grey, a little unkempt; his clothing shabby, the shirt missing a button and the trousers worn thin at the knees; his rough hands never more than marginally clean. Yet there's a kind of thoughtfulness in the lean, lined face, the sober patient look of a man who ponders, and a keen humor in the hazel eyes that befits someone tidier. He is maybe thirty-eight or thirty-nine; tall, well-built, with a deliberate air, as though he never makes a move without thinking it over. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, he gives a twitch of the shoulders as if to shrug off something. When he speaks his voice is deep and slow; he seldom smiles.

First off, it's grammatical and correctly spelled, so your attention isn't diverted in the middle of a sentence while you try to figure out if I meant "their" or "there". It is concise; it only takes up about ten lines in a SimpleMU window, which is a moderate length.

It is evocative and not exhaustive. I don't tell you, for example, that he's habitually taciturn, but you get that impression, not so? I don't tell you that he works hard for a living; you can infer that. I don't tell you what color his shirt is; I don't need to; you can fill it in as seems best to you, plain muslin, say, or blue cotton chambray like your dad used to wear when he was building your treehouse. It doesn't really matter; what matters is that he plainly needs a new one. And it is reasonably realistic; since he does work hard for a living, he's liable to be tousled and shabby at any given time; he's around forty, and looks it.

I use my own work for convenience. I could point out the same characteristics in any personal @description I admire, and any one of these four points -- proofreading, conciseness, evocativeness and realism -- if applied to a fair-to-middling or even a good @desc, can't hurt and will very possibly improve it.