How to Write Character Descriptions

Hi everyone! I awoke this morning with some great ideas concerning my blog. Every Tuesday will be “Writing Tips Tuesday” and every Friday will be “High Fantasy Friday”. Other plans are yet to come (a.k.a. I haven’t properly outlined everything yet, but you can bet they’ll feature alliteration). Today we’re going to go over some tips on how to describe characters in your story. I saw a few Twitter posts where writers were concerned about this, so I decided to use it as my intro to “Writing Tips Tuesday”. Basically, you read a story and–by the end of it–you aren’t sure what a character looks like. Throughout the book, no hints were dropped about the character’s appearance. Did they have black hair? Green eyes? Were they tall or short? Who knows–maybe not even the writer. There are readers who like the vague character descriptions, but then there are readers who absolutely hate not knowing what your characters look like. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. So how do you cater to both types of readers? In some ways, you can’t. You can’t write a full description showing how your character looks and be subtle about their appearance, but you can write in a way that allows your reader to paint a picture of the character without leaving a long trail of boring details behind. If you outright say, “Marcie’s hair was earth-brown and her eyes the colour of emeralds”, you have given the general look of your character, but you shouldn’t continuously repeat that throughout the novel. It tends to get boring fast. Instead, start describing the character through speech and actions. Subtly scatter hints throughout the story about your characters. It’s good to remind readers every now and then what your characters look like. You might remember what they all look like, but they don’t. Remember that when writing. Whether you’re focusing on character appearances or the plot line, you–as the writer–know the whole story, but the readers don’t. So make sure you don’t make the mistake of leaving out miniscule details. Tips:

  • A fantastic way to put a picture of a character in your mind is to use another character to do it. Jack and Jill don’t get along well. He calls her “strawhead” and she calls him “dwarf”. You now see Jill with yellow hair and Jack the shorter one of the two.
  • Use your surroundings to describe a character. Anne wants something on the middle shelf but she can’t reach it (she’s short). Ben bumps his head coming in through the doorway (he’s tall). Anne’s hair gets tangled in the forest underbrush (she has long hair). Ben easily tosses his heavy suitcase into the car (he’s well-built).
  • Then there are informative ways to describe characters. Jill just returned from her vacation down south (you picture her with a tan or sunburn). Jack works at a highly successful law firm in the city (you picture him in a suit).
  • Avoid using an information dump to describe characters. Don’t say, “Anne was rather short, with long, black hair and blue eyes. She lived in California with her husband, Ben, and owned a dog named Patches. A regular family girl with enough community projects to keep her active and fit. Her skin was unnaturally pale, despite living so far south”. Instead show us Anne struggling to nail in the last board at a local house building project because she can’t reach that high. Show us Anne’s husband bringing her some water and their dog scampering just behind. Show us Anne having to tie up her hair because it’s sticking to her back. Showing is far more interesting than telling.
  • Using the plot to describe a character can keep the story moving at a nice pace. Perhaps Jill went to the hairdresser on Friday. She just received a haircut and is now dismayed to look down and notice the sea of yellow by her feet. You just showed us that Jill has short hair (now), it’s yellow, and she’s also someone who easily regrets decisions. This description doesn’t just show us how Jill looks; it shows us that–later on in the story–Jill will have to overcome her fears concerning decision-making.
  • Hobbies can help paint a picture. Someone who plays sports will be well-built and athletic; they might wear sports jerseys and expensive sneakers. A music lover might have headphones around their neck, a gamer might wear a T-shirt with their favourite video game character on it, and a book lover might be carrying around an eReader or a book in a tote bag. No, most of these aren’t actual descriptions of the characters, but from these little hints you can paint your own picture of how the characters look. It forces you to use your imagination.

Next Tuesday, I’ll be posting up some tips on how to describe character personalities. It ties in closely with appearance, so be sure to look for it! Happy writing, Sandra

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