AUTHORS: A Quick Guide to Character Description

silhouette-1180300-mYesterday we discussed how important a character’s physical appearance is or isn’t. Today I want to continue that discussion and take it to a final conclusion: that sometimes you have to stop thinking about what you’re writing and how you’re writing and just let yourself WRITE.

To start off, I think to say, “let’s talk about a character’s appearance” can be misleading. It simplifies a complex subject to a large degree.

Much more than we realize goes into the appearance of a person and the first impression he or she makes. This is also true for characters. We’re dealing with:

  • gait and how someone walks
  • posture and how someone holds oneself.
  • clothing, both what it looks like and how it fits. Clothing can give away everything from a person’s occupation to religion, as well as income level.
  • skin and skin tone. color? freckles? moles? scars?
  • hair: color, length, style. straight or curly? wavy? frizzy?
  • eye color
  • shape of the face: cheekbones, chin, forehead. People generally have oval, heart-shaped, or circular (like me) faces.
  • height
  • weight

And that’s not even touching speech: accent, dialect, tone, pitch, speed….

Character description in fiction can get tricky because there is NO WAY you can describe all these things at once without seriously affecting pacing and overloading your reader with too much info.

You can try to give the info in pieces, but then you face a specific danger: inconsistency between your new info and the image the reader has already created.

Let’s say you’ve never said anything about a character’s height. This character has a strong and powerful personality, and he’s a guy. I, for some reason, am likely to picture such a character as tall, or at least of average height.

Let’s say on page 89, you mention that this character can walk beneath a low-hanging bar and doesn’t have to duck. Or you flat out have someone else make a joke about him being short.

As the reader, I’m going to be jarred from the story and a bit confused because that doesn’t fit the image I’ve created of the character on my own. After all, I was given nothing to go on.

I had nothing to make me assume the character was tall, that’s true. But neither was there anything pushing “short” into my head.

CONCLUSIONS TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS REFLECTION

1. DON’T PANIC ABOUT THIS POSSIBILITY. It happens to all of us as readers, and we keep reading. The fact is it’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to ensure your reader can never form an image of a character that will be contradicted later by the text. All you can do as a writer is:

  • Make sure your descriptions are consistent from scene to scene
  • Address any comments related to appearance that beta readers and editors make. If one of them tells you, “I thought this guy was tall and now I’m seeing he’s short,” you can do something. Maybe ask, “What made you picture him as tall?”‘ and make some changes.

Beyond that, you’re just worrying about things outside your control, which is never productive. You can’t predict your readers’ life experiences and how those will lead him or her to fill in the blanks. And every reader is different. This is reader territory, and you don’t belong there.

2. FOLLOW YOUR GUT. When writing, I know I can’t describe everything. So when a first draft is developing I focus on what strikes me as most important in a character’s appearance. What is striking, what is puzzling, what people would focus on if for some reason a policeman came up and said, “Describe this guy. We need to find him.”

I polish up during editing, and add or take out information as the final story dictates is appropriate.

3. WHEN YOU’RE DEALING WITH CHARACTER DESCRIPTION, YOU’RE ALWAYS CREATING A BALANCE BETWEEN WHAT YOU NEED/ WANT TO SAY AND OVERKILL. I always feel such a balanceΒ  comes about best when I let it evolve naturally. I don’t think about forcing a balance; balance is science. Writing is ART. IΒ  focus on getting info on the page that can guide the reader.

4. REMEMBER YOUR READERS WON’T BE CONSCIOUSLY FOCUSING ON THIS STUFF. If your writing flows well, feels natural, and gives your readers a foothold, their brains will naturally fill in the gaps in a way that makes sense for them as individuals. They’re not going to sit there thinking, “How tall do I think this person is? 5 feet 10 inches? 6 feet 3?”

For the most part, information not stated is trivial (unless it’s critical information purposefully withheld, to be revealed at a more suitable time). If it matters that the character is tall, you’ll make sure to get that across to the reader. And if it doesn’t matter, it’s not worth wasting hours worrying about.

5. SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO WRITE. Seriously. It’s fun to discuss things like this in theory, but when it comes to practice, just get writing. Give some thought to what major points of description your readers will need. Give some thought to a couple of extra points to make your characters really pop. And then let it go. Don’t agonize about it.

I have mental images of a character named Zate that vary greatly from how I have him described on the page. I’ll continue editing the draft I have for a while and see whether I naturally reconcile the old picture to how I view him now.

If I still see him differently, then I’ll change the description and that’s that. I imagine that’s how things will end up. It’s not a big deal. It’s nothing to stress about, for SURE.

It’s kind of fun, theoretically, to write posts about. But in practice: I’m not going to go back and forth, back and forth. I’m just going to make Zate in the novel match how I see him in my head.

So, what do you think about character description? Is it hard for you? Do you find it comes easy?

Feel free to comment and share your thoughts. And if you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page.

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35 responses to “AUTHORS: A Quick Guide to Character Description

  1. I read a lot of books (especially YA) with outright descriptions, and most aren’t bad, just enough. However, I’m not a fan of describing so bluntly. I was wondering, what is the best way (or rather: which way do you prefer) when describing a POV character’s, say, eyecolour? At the moment, I have it as an adjective in the first few pages – ‘her hazel eyes scanned the blindfold of fingers’ – but I suspect that doesn’t work from a reader point.
    I find character description pretty easy mid-novel; it’s the introductions of characters in the beginning that I am prone to stumbling over.
    I love this series on characters, Victoria! It’s really making me think. “Give some thought to a couple of extra points to make your characters really pop” is something I forget a lot of the time.

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying it! Eye color is always tough…. There really isn’t any way to give that info except to state it directly, I think, without feeling like you’re going to extravagant and unnecessary lengths to avoid something you could say in two words: blue eyes. green eyes. brown eyes.

      One thing, if eye color isn’t important to you as the author, would be to avoid mentioning it at all. I don’t think I even notice when a character’s eye color isn’t given.

      The character who really got me thinking about eye color was Scarlett O’Hara. Her emerald green eyes are such a memorable and highlighted aspect of her appearance….

  2. Great post, Victoria. I think the way an author approaches character descriptions depends on the type of POV used in the story. When writing from an unrestricted omniscient POV, an author can describe just about anything at his or her leisure. Writing from a limited third- or first-person POV and describing something that can’t be viewed by the POV character could be more jarring to the reader.

    For instance, describing the protagonist’s eyes as hazel easily works if the POV is omniscient. It also works in a more limited POV if the POV character is someone other than the protagonist. But in a limited POV with the protagonist as the POV character, describing the protagonist’s eyes as hazel is better done when the protagonist is looking in the mirror or is thinking about his/her eyes for some reason, such as in comparison to another character’s eyes. (She stared at him with a piercing gaze, her narrowed eyes an even darker green than his own.)

    I like your point about the reader not consciously focusing on this stuff. I know I don’t when I read. But I will often notice inconsistencies or “technical glitches” (such as describing some feature of the POV character that he/she couldn’t possibly be viewing and obviously isn’t concerned about at the time), and we as authors want to avoid such inefficacy. Some readers won’t be bothered by it, but some will, especially those of us who are not only readers but experienced writers too.

    • That is a GREAT point, Michael. POV is huge with this. Depending on the style of narration you use you will definitely have limits…. I find it hard to think a first person narrator would go into detail about eye color unless the person described is a love interest, for instance. LOVE Your example about third person limited comparisons!

      POV definitely gives boundaries we authors need to work within. I hadn’t touched on that at all. A third person limited, if tied to a character’s consciousness, will be stuck describing what that person notices.

  3. This is a wonderful post! Like yesterday’s, it is very thought-provoking.

    First of all, I think that we as writers don’t really have control over how readers will picture a characters. I still find it hilarious how many of my friends have pictured Professor Snape as bald or blonde for ages, even though his hair is mentioned on a regular base πŸ™‚

    As I said yesterday, I’m fond of vague descriptions. Of course, I need to go into detail if the character in question isn’t human (for instance, I have a race that has dwarven ancestors, so I need to mention size) in a way that I wouldn’t with human characters. And often I do a compact description when the character is introduced (hair-color, height or weight if it is important), and then only refer to distinctive features, like accents, extreme height differences and so on. On the other hand, I often fear that I’m not detailed enough. And the introductory description I mentioned before can be tricky, too. Sometimes it works quite well, sometimes it definitely slows the pace. I need to check out where these descriptions worked and why they didn’t on other points of the story.

    I agree with Miss Alexandrina, by the way, this character series is awesome! πŸ™‚

    • Aw, thanks, glad you’re enjoying it! I don’t mind vague descriptions myself. I hardly realize I’m the one envisioning the character…. I just read in my happy oblivion picturing this as I want to πŸ™‚

      And oh my gosh…. the thought of Snape as bald or blond…. that’s hilarious!!! πŸ™‚ Authors really need to remember that we don’t have the control. That’s a fabulous example!

  4. Great advice. Something I do to minimize the ‘shock’ of character traits is I try to hit on the basics throughout the first chapter section of a character. I do an exposition paragraph at the beginning to describe what they’re doing and set the atmosphere. It’s a stage setter and character intro, but the details get mixed in as the section commences.

  5. I saw a novel (grin) way of approaching character description the other day in a romance, where how people look and how that changes from scene to scene is probably more important than any other genre. The author gave very light descriptions of the main character, who was the narrator, but provided very detailed descriptions of her (gorgeous/handsome) family – mother, brothers, etc. I thought it was a neat trick. I am trying that with my character, who is mixed race and needs to be clearly mixed race because it’s important to the story, but I’m thinking since it’s an important aspect of the story I may need to be clearer about what she looks like from the start.

    • That is a neat trick, indeed!!! So cool!!! Implies certain things strongly about the narrator without having the narrator describe herself, which most people wouldn’t do πŸ™‚

      I totally agree that if the character being of mixed race matters to the plot and to story development, it will help your readers to clearly understand that he or she is of mixed race and looks it. The important points CAN be made subtly, but they should always be clear. Subtle I don’t think would work great in that instance.

  6. I find it very helpful to hunt for magazine or newspaper photos that resemble my mental image of my principal characters–or that help me develop that image. I scan these into a file in which I write up each major character’s background story and answer questions such as those you posted above. This helps me to be consistent, and it also helps me to feel closer to my characters, able to picture them clearly.

  7. Reblogged this on Rantings of a Closet Vamp Princess and commented:
    Excellent! Things to think about…

  8. I usually try to pick something distinctive that adds to the character rather than rattle off all vital statistics. So one character will have short red hair and purple glasses, another a nose piercing and impeccable dress sense. I don’t like to go overboard.

    • Going overboard isn’t good…. I LOVE your examples…. those are fabulous, concrete details that talk to personality but still leave much to the reader’s discretion (which is how I like it) πŸ™‚

  9. I’m loving this series. For me its all about the details. Every char in my books have a 2page form filled out on every detail about them. Anything you might want to know from toes to head, fav things,colors foods etc, personality quirks and idiosyncrasies, scars, tats piercings….everything. That doesn’t mean you as the reader find all that out at once, but I love to do it through impressions…other people’s eyes, is first meetings, special events, etc. Its alsofun when you let more than one person share their iimpressions.

    • Thanks for sharing about the character sheets you make! I’ve always heard that’s a great idea and very helpful, and it helps me (who has never made one) get a clear picture of how you go about it.

      I guess I don’t make them because I write without an outline, so half the time, I don’t know who my characters are all going to be when I start writing and I don’t want to interrupt the flow to make up a sheet. Writing sheets after a first draft could really help me edit, though!

  10. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: Point of View and Character Description Go Hand in Hand | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  11. “inconsistency between your new info and the image the reader has already created.” GAH! This is so true. It’s one of those little things that I forget all the time, but always makes me so grateful for having a beta reader, or a great editor, that picks up on it.

    I also agree that sometimes it gets to the point where have to just write, without regard to how good it is or what is said, or anything else. Thanks, Victoria. Spot on, as always!

    • Glad you enjoyed it!!! Its not as though I can’t recover as a reader when an image I created of a character is dashed, but it is a jolt, for sure πŸ™‚ like you say, betas and editors are our best friends as authors to help us avoid creating that situation!

  12. One of the hardest things about character development if finding the right name–especially for the central characters–after I figure that out the rest usually comes naturally.

    • Oh man, I agree. Finding a name can be KILLER. I was just thinking about that last night!!!

    • I keep a list of interesting names I come across, since I get papers submitted from around the world. Finding the right one is still tricky though! I just redid a whole bunch for being too difficult or confusing to pronounce.

      By the way, in trying to find out what some of the names I’ve come across meant, I discovered that Wikipedia has pages and pages of names from foreign countries. Try looking up Turkish names, for example πŸ™‚

  13. Personally, I have issues with description. Sometimes I think I’m describing too much, but most of the time I feel like I’m describing too little. My characters don’t seem to have that problem, I guess, but my setting and the world around my characters just kind of flops. It’s like I have this image in my head that just doesn’t come across very well on paper. I also have issues with names.

    • Names are always tough. And I feel the same way about my setting descriptions!!! Sometimes I feel like I don’t describe enough. I have a temperament that kind of likes minimalist description, I guess, so when a setting is pretty mundane I don’t give more details than required.

      The good thing about describing the way we do: readers seem to like putting their own spin on things πŸ™‚

  14. Pingback: How Video Game Combat Helps With Characterisation | Miss Alexandrina

  15. Great post. It has addressed a few questions that I’ve been harbouring about my characters descriptions. Trouble is, I can’t remember at what points in the text I have actually mentioned anything about looks. Oh dear. Time to start reading…

    • oh, hahaha, no worries, I have been there too!!!

      I have found for stuff like that it helps to just read through the entire draft and take notes about things that strike you and/or need changing. Don’t stop to edit, you’ll get out of the flow of the read. Just take notes as you read through and then use your notes to edit afterward πŸ™‚

      At least, that’s my approach. It works pretty well for me. πŸ™‚ Good luck and have fun!

      • That’s a very good idea. I always seem to get caught up in making alterations as I go, which interrupts the flow of reading like you say. Thanks. I’ll try this.

  16. Pingback: Authors: How much description is too much? Too little? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  17. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden.

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