Writing Tip #16: Writing Character Descriptions

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We have talked about character types in fiction, and about creating memorable characters. Now let’s talk about how to describe characters. How can you effectively and artfully describe what a character looks like, or use characteristics to help the reader get to know the character?

Things to Consider in Writing Character Descriptions

As with all things in writing, there is no “one right way.” But here are some important considerations:

  • A character cannot see himself or herself, unless looking in the mirror. In other words, you must be very mindful in describing the appearance of a character if the story is being told from that character’s perspective. (We’ll look at some examples later.)
  • “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as they say. There are multiple interpretations of this expression, but it’s useful here. If you read in a story that someone is beautiful, what does that mean? If you read that a character has “stunning eyes and beautiful long blonde hair” what do those things really look like? And does it matter unless those subjective ideals are being viewed by another character?
  • Finally, there is more than one way to go about describing a character’s appearance, and providing physical descriptions peppered with adjectives may not be the most effective.

Let’s explore.

Ways to Describe a Main Character

As I mentioned above, it’s important to take care in describing the appearance of your main character. Why? Because what the reader sees is what the character sees, and the character does not see himself or herself.

It can be done. But it must be done while staying inside the point of view (e.g. first person or third person) and character perspective (whose viewpoint we see) of the story.

Here are two examples of a vignette in Janet’s perspective, told in third person point of view (POV):

  • This does not work: Janet sat down at her desk and fiddled with her books, sensing all eyes on her. She hated being the new girl. As she waited for those first terrible moments to pass, her pretty eyes sparkled with tears.
  • But this does work: Janet sat down at her desk and fiddled with her books, sensing all eyes on her. She hated being the new girl. As she waited for those first terrible moments to pass, she blinked to control hot tears that threatened to fall.

The first example does not work because we are seeing this fictional world from Janet’s perspective. She would not see her own eyes sparkle, or be aware that they are pretty.

The second example does work because we stay in Janet’s head. We see and feel what she sees and feels.

Characters Can Describe Themselves

It also possible for characters to describe themselves, such as their own physical or emotional states or how they believe they are perceived by others. But it must be done thoughtfully, without stepping out of the character’s perspective, whether it’s told in first person or third person POV. Here is an example of a character description, told in first person.

I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe. Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.

This vignette, from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, demonstrates how a character can describe himself. We may not know what color his hair is, but we do know something very important about him that sets the stage for the story.

If you want to describe the features and appearance of the main character when the story is told from that character's perspective, there are a few possibilities:

  • The character could pointedly describe his or her own features or traits for a specific purpose, just as the character does in The Invisible Man. For example, a character could assess her own appearance:
    • First person POV: I know I am not pretty. My hair is a mousy brown, and my eyes a dull gray. Who could love someone like me?
    • Third person POV: She knew she was not pretty. Her hair was a mousy brown and her eyes a dull gray. Who could love someone like her?
  • The character could observe his or her own features in the mirror. For example:
    • First person POV: I dared to look in the mirror, a terrible idea the morning after a binge. My eyes were bloodshot, my skin pale, my shit-brown hair sticking out at all angles like an electrocuted cat.
    • Third person POV: He dared to look in the mirror, a terrible idea the morning after a binge. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin pale, and his shit-brown hair sticking out at all angles like an electrocuted cat.

You Can Fold Descriptions Into Narrative

Another method of depicting the appearance of your characters is through actions and dialog. This is an artistic challenge, and by mastering it you can magically elevate your writing. For example:

  • If a wizard pulls his cloak about him, this gesture shows us that he wears a cloak, and we learn something about what he looks like.
  • If grandpa bends to pick up the newspaper and cannot stand back up again, we know that grandpa is old and frail.
  • If Mary Jane's mother cannot reach the money jar on the top shelf, but her father can, then we know her father is tall and her mother is short.

By sprinkling your writing with action and dialog that alludes to physical traits, you can help the reader's imagination come to life without having to tell the reader what the character looks like. (See the tips post on “show don’t tell” for more information.)

In Omniscient POV, You Have Free Rein

If the story is told in “omniscient” point-of-view, then you are free to physically describe everyone in the story, including the main character, because we are not inside any one character’s perspective. There are some potential pitfalls of omniscient point of view, however. For example, it is probably the most difficult POV to do well, and it can be difficult for readers to feel connected to any one character.

Note: We’ll cover POV in future articles, but meanwhile there is a nice guide here: https://thewritepractice.com/point-of-view-guide/.

Ways to Describe Characters Without Excessive Adjectives

Let’s say you do want to describe the physical characteristics of a character. Adjectives like "tall," "short," "handsome" or "brunette" can fall flat. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Adjectives are highly subjective. Think, for example, of people from cultures all over the world and their many different ideals of beauty.
  2. Adjectives tend to over-simplify a character, which is exactly the opposite of the desired effect. We want complex characters that come to life in the imagination of our readers.

Let's look at some alternatives.

Use Analogies

Of course we want to avoid clichés, such as “her eyes were like limpid pools.” But innovative, well-done analogies can be very effective. Here are two examples.

  • Rudyard Kipling’s, The Jungle Book:

“A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.”

  • Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel:

“My brother Ben’s face, thought Eugene, is like a piece of slightly yellow ivory; his high white head is knotted fiercely by his old man’s scowl; his mouth is like a knife, his smile the flicker of light across a blade. His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light: it is delicate and fierce, and scowls beautifully forever, and when he fastens his hard white fingers and his scowling eyes upon a thing he wants to fix, he sniffs with sharp and private concentration through his long, pointed nose… his hair shines like that of a young boy—it is crinkled and crisp as lettuce.”

Use the Main Character's Observations

You can use the observation of your main character to examine or highlight another character’s traits. The idea here is that the description helps us to understand the secondary character, and the role that character plays in the main character’s world. Examples:

  • Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin:

“I could picture the smooth oval of Laura’s face, her neatly pinned chignon, the dress she would have been wearing: a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours – less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in.”

  • Kate Quinn, The Alice Network, when Charlie meets Evelyn:

“Abruptly the electric wall lamp switched on. I blinked in the rush of harsh light. Standing over me was a tall gaunt woman in a faded print dress, her graying hair straggling around a time-ravaged face. She could have been fifty, or she could have been seventy. She had the Luger in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other; she kept the pistol steadily trained on my forehead as she raised the cigarette to her lips and took a long drag. Bile rose in my throat as I saw her hands. Good God, what had happened to her hands?”

Or just go ahead and use adjectives, as a way to quickly and believably share a character’s view of himself or another person. For example, here is Donna Tartt’s character, Richard Papen, in The Secret History:

“My father was mean, and our house ugly, and my mother didn’t pay much attention to me; my clothes were cheap and my haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like me that much; and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.”

I saved this rule breaker for last for a few reasons. One is that it is important to learn the fundamentals and best practices of fiction writing first, then venture out once you have mastered them.

Another reason is that Richard Papen’s description of himself and his life is so effective because it is surrounded by rich and descriptive language of places, people and events. For this reason, Richard’s description of himself stands out, as a plain old barn does against a bucolic landscape of mountains, sky, and meadows.

Resources:

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

Writing Tip #13: Character Types in Fiction

Writing Tip #14: Clichés - Avoid the Conspiratorial Wink

Writing Tip #15: Developing Memorable Characters

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