Thursday, December 27, 2012

So, You Want to Describe Your Characters...

How, exactly, does one go about describing a character?  Vomiting character details?  What about personality, do we just throw details out there about that too?  How do you create a character that readers care about?  These are questions I'm going to attempt to help answer here.  Feel free to ask more questions in the comments--I'll be happy to help.

Now, on to character development! 


Too often, you see new writers doing something like this:

"Johnny had brown hair and blue eyes.  He was 6'3" tall, tan skin, and had really white teeth."

Perfectly ok for a description, but does it catch the reader at all?  The answer is no.  That kind of description is ok in some very few circumstances, but mostly it's not ok to use.  Here's a better example:

"Johnny's brown hair waved slightly in the wind, his blue eyes sparkling in the sun."

Now, note here, we get the impression that Johnny is outside somewhere.  We've also left out details about his height, skin, teeth, and clothes.  This is because how you build your character description revolves around the building of a scene, not a recitation of what attributes the character has.  The second example sentence above is a scene, while the first example sentence is a recitation of facts.  As much as possible, you want to stay away from the first and go with the second.  For instance:

"Johnny's brown hair waved slightly in the wind, his blue eyes sparkling in the sun.  His tanned, weathered hands were evidence of the long days he spent working outside.  He stood, and his shadow stretched before him, long in the afternoon sun."

Now, while the above is not the best use of a scene to describe a character's appearance, it is much better than using a recitation of facts.  Ideally, you would spread the details around in building a scene, and may even spread them around several scenes.  But the above example gives you a good starting point for throwing in details about your characters.  

As you can see in this example paragraph, we don't directly say his skin is tanned--the reader can deduce that for themselves by knowing that his hands are tanned.  We also don't come right out and say he's tall--we describe how tall he is by the length of his shadow.  The point is to describe, not explain.  We don't want to explain he's 6'3", we want to describe his height in a way that makes the reader use his/her imagination.  Also note we've left out anything about the teeth, because his white teeth are completely irrelevant to the scene we're building.  We can always add that detail somewhere in another scene--one where he's smiling, for instance.  You don't need to lump every single detail about your character into one scene, and it's better if you don't.  Spread the details around, and let your readers' imaginations do the work!


We also see new writers doing this:

"Jen was very shy and nervous, and at the same time had a really short temper and liked cupcakes."

Ok, that's quite frankly horrible.  Again, this example is a recitation of facts, and does not describe the character.  The way you describe who the character is, is through dialogue, actions, and at times, inner thoughts.  Let's try this:

"Jen's hands shook as she stood surrounded by the crowd.  Never one to go out and mingle, she was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people that now swarmed around her."

What have we done here?  Once again, we've built a scene, and some of the character's personality is evident in this scene.  We describe her shaking hands, her dislike of social mingling, her feeling of being overwhelmed in a crowd.  The reader, having this all described to them, automatically infers that she is nervous, shy, and socially awkward.  We didn't tell the reader that's part of who Jen is, we described it and let the reader paint the picture themselves.


"Jen's hands shook as she stood surrounded by the crowd.  Never one to go out and mingle, she was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people that now swarmed around her.

'Hey, watch it!' Jen yelled as a woman rudely bumped into her.  Even as uncomfortable as she was, she still hated others' lack of manners.

A sign caught her eye, and Jen decided to bravely push through the crowd toward it.  She had always loved sweets, and the allure of a baked goods kiosk was enough to overcome her dislike of wading through throngs of people."

Oh ho, look at that!  We've shown her nervousness, shyness, temper, and love of treats all in one scene, all without reciting facts to the reader.  Also note how there isn't even a description of Jen of any kind in that scene, yet I bet you were able to imagine Jen just fine!  This is an example of how you describe through building a scene, as opposed to just vomiting out facts about your character.  We've even thrown in an extra detail here--Jen hates rude people.

So, now we know Jen is uncomfortable around people, especially crowds; she hates rudeness; has a short fuse; and likes baked treats.  We don't need to specifically name cupcakes right now as her treat of choice--you can build on the scene to include her buying cupcakes if you want, and that would add that little detail to the building of the Jen character.

But as you can see, we've covered all the bases here without coming right out and saying "Jen is nervous, short-tempered, likes cupcakes, and hates rude people."  We painted a picture of Jen and trusted that the readers' imaginations were sufficient to glean all the pertinent facts from the description.  And that's what you want, right there--let the readers imagine it for themselves.  When you write, you are painting a picture with words instead of paint, and you want your readers to feel the picture you're painting.  They don't want all the details lobbed at them in a laundry list format.

Readers don't feel bare recitations of facts.  They do feel imagery, description, and words that paint a picture they can imagine while they're reading.  Aim to paint a picture, rather than just provide character facts, and you will be on the path to creating a character that readers not only care about, but ones that also capture the readers' imaginations.


  1. Love this. Thanks for posting it, makes complete and total sense. now if i can just get back to writing... :( lol.

  2. I was carrying on a conversation on twitter about it, and I decided to give up explaining there and put it all on here because there's too much to say to fit into 140 characters, LOL. I'm glad it helps :)