How to write descriptions of characters

If the tone of this post is not in keeping with my usual stuff, then it's because I originally wrote this as an attempt at a wikiHow. My attempt was, I think, a little too wordy to satisfy the sensibly rigorous simplicity requirement of wikiHow, but I wrote it because the original how was, in my NVHO, completely wrong.

== Introduction ==

All writers and readers realize the importance of writing strong descriptions of characters and settings. To a reader, a vivid description seems well-imagined, and helps to picture either a person or a place. It may at first seem counter-intuitive, but what you expect to be a good description is all too often the opposite.

Readers do not usually "picture" a character when they are reading; they don't imagine all the visual details of the person. They get a vaguer, more general "feel" for what the character looks like. Even when the character has an important physical attribute like being very tall, or very blond, or wearing round spectacles, the reader often won't imagine the character like that.

This is because the character's personality is much more important to the reader. The way the reader pictures the character arises more from the reader's memory than from the description given by the author. As the reader gets a feel for the personality of the character, they will start to picture him physically resembling a person or people that they know with a similar personality.

The character needs to be built up gently, therefore, and with a minimum of physical description, and the reader needs to be allowed to "get to know him" through the character's actions and words, rather than through what you tell the reader about the character - in much the same way as you get to know a real person that you have just met.

== Steps ==

1. It is essential to know your character well before you start trying to describe him. Write a few paragraphs about what the character does in the story: 
  • Where did he come from?
  • Why is he there?
  • What does he want?
  • What will he do?
  • How will he do it?
  • and so on.
2. Write a paragraph or two about how you want the reader to feel about the character. Will the reader like him? Will the reader trust him?

3. Does the character have any defining physical characteristics. "Defining" is a term to be applied with discipline in writing fiction. If, at a key moment in the story, the character has to reach up for an object on a high shelf, to give it to someone who could not reach it, then his height is a defining characteristic. If he is going to be mocked for his handlebar moustache, then his moustache is a defining characteristic. Any physical feature that does not feature in the plot or events of the story is not defining, and need not be defined.

4. Does the character have any symbolic physical characteristics? Symbolic physical characteristics are those which communicate to the reader (and to other characters) something about the personality of the character. If the character is gluttonous you might want to say that he has bulging jowls and multiple chins. If he is dynamic and active you might want to say that he is spry or athletic.

5. If you want the character to have a particular physical trait, then try to come up with a reason for it that is either defining or symbolic. If you can't, then keep the detail to yourself.

6. When you come to write your story, when you introduce the character, you will need to "establish" him. Establishment is giving the reader a firm and recognizable picture of the character, so that next time the character appears you will not have to remind the reader of who he is. You should always try to do this with as little detail as possible. Select a defining and or a symbolic physical characteristic. Select a couple of defining personality traits, and use only those.

7. Try to refer to characteristics and traits obliquely or indirectly: 

instead of:

John was tall and thin, and wore his tee tucked tightly into his pants. He was always fastidiously neat.

try something like:

John's tight blue tee was stretched down his long, lean torso, and tucked fastidiously into his freshly pressed pants, whose knife-edge crease sharpened his long, thin legs all the way down to his sensible oxfords

A good trick is to avoid "was" or "is", and for clothing to avoid "wear" and "wore"

8. Say what the character is doing when you introduce him, and use that as a way to tell the reader about his personality: 

instead of:

John was the anxious sort; he was always worried about trivial things.

try something like:

John stood on tiptoes, just back from the curb, trying to hail a cab with one hand and keep his umbrella over him with the other, all the time watching for the next car that might pass to close and splash dirt over his clean chinos.

9. Once you've got your character established, you can add more details about him at your leisure - you don't have to tell the reader everything right away. Just like getting to know a real person, let the reader find out more over time.

10. Characters need to develop. This means that their personality can evolve and change in response to what happens in the story. This can affect their physical appearance (in which case the change may be both defining and symbolic). Think of how the events in the story might affect the character. Perhaps by the end, John will be less obsessed with the neatness of his clothes.

== Tips ==
  • Avoid talking about hair color - but do talk about style
  • Avoid talking about clothing patterns and materials unless the character takes a lot of care over this - but do talk about general clothing style.
  • Use small details to give a bigger picture - for instance, describe a particular item of jewellery in detail, to give an overall sense of what the character likes to wear.
  • Use adjectives as little as possible.
== Warnings ==
  • Don't ever tell your reader that a character is handsome or beautiful. Ideally you should get the reader to think it without saying it. You can just about get away with statements like "everyone thought she was gorgeous" or "women kept saying how handsome he was".
  • Don't tell the reader that a character is charming, attractive or charismatic, either. These are all things that the reader will expect to be able to decide for himself. And remember, your reader might dislike a character that you like. People don't all like the same kinds of people.
  • Avoid exhaustive detailed physical descriptions. Not only do they take time, but the reader has to put a lot of effort into working out what you mean. Stick to a few small details that suggest a fuller picture.
  • The worst thing you can possibly do is say that a character is an ideal physical beauty AND then describe their physical appearance in minute detail. Your idea of perfection may be very different from your reader's. Establish that the character is physically attractive through generalizations like good skin and hair, athletic or healthy physique, physical symmetry, and let the reader imagine his or her own ideal.


Another Publication Announcement

Colin Taber (Ossard Trilogy) has just released the first book in his new United States of Vinland series.

Hard alternate history from Colin this time, as the United States is founded not by Christian fundamentalists but by Vikings! This first book recounts the landing and first settlement as a few survivors of a Viking shipwreck struggle to tame the wilderness.

Publication Announcement

Jerry Ballarotto has released his new book, Worthy of Trust and Confidence

This is a book that delivers on its promise, while keeping you guessing. Jerry has an eye for detail, and an appreciation of people, that sometimes catches you out. I don't really want to say too much about it because I don't want to spoil the pleasure of discovery for the reader, so I'm going to keep to a very generic observation that comes from my rather particular world view:

This is an old school spies 'n' gangsters period thriller, and if you love the 1960's Bond, you'll enjoy it. What sets it apart for me is that unlike Bond, Jerry is not a "misogynist dinosaur". He's an insider who is also an outsider, and his observation of people is intimate and detailed, but non-judgemental. Even the Big Bad comes across as (almost uniquely for this particular Big Bad in this particular genre) human.

I also ought to shout out loud for Laurie Skemp who copy edited this book. Jerry has a strong and distinctive style, and her careful and attentive work really makes it sing.

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