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.


Krystle said...

Hi! Krystle from wikiHow here. This is fantastic. I dug it up on wikiHow and restored it, with some edits to make sure it complies with our style guide. I also incorporated some tidbits from the previous revision, but the article is so much better off with your contributions. Thanks!



Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see a 'scientific' method of describing characters. I tend to 'see' my characters and I use little description, just enough to get readers to form their own images of what they think my characters look like.

I always hold out for something a reader will notice as 'authentic'. My main character is a freelance assassin who is very observant, which manifests itself in the way she views other characters:

Dolfijn stepped from his cubicle and approached her with the fluid grace of someone long used to his own obesity. His prissy mouth turned into a smile that revealed expensive bridgework but failed to reach his pale grey eyes.

The intruder’s closed eyelids were riddled with white scars. His slender hands were wrapped around the wooden grip of a long white cane with red bands with the worn leather strap curled around the long fingers of his right hand.

His smile turned smug again and he held out his left hand. Katla placed the box on his palm and studied the blind man as he opened the lid and examined the tsuba with his fingertips. The smile lingered like an afterthought in the stillness of his scarred face. Apart from the white slashes covering his eyelids faded traces of tiny cuts peppered his face. His facial bone structure seemed intact so force and penetration must have been negligible.

The examples above are 'pure description', but they are strewn around, interspersed with action, narrative and dialogue.

Unknown said...

Thanks for those examples. They fit into what I think of as defining or symbolic characteristics.

I don't think my suggestions are especially scientific, though. As with much of my editing, I am obliged to find a language for thoroughly articulating what a writer needs to do, when there is a problem. But an awful lot of what writers do instinctively works very well for them - as your examples do - and in such cases it isn't necessary to analyze.