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June 5, 2012
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Describing your Characters

Tue Jun 5, 2012, 1:16 PM

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Describing your Characters

As writers, one of our primary goals is to bring characters to life in the readers’ imaginations. To do this, a character needs two things:

1) A personality.

2) A physical appearance the reader can imagine.

The first is created through characterization, and the second is said to be done through physical description. While both statements are true, what I’d like to discuss is how physical description needs to do more than just craft appearance, and more than anything, it's characterization that contributes to vividly imagined characters.

Character Description:

Take a look at the following example.

1) When I entered Mr. Smith's office, he stood and smiled at me. He had a big nose, brown eyes, and short, brown hair. He wore a dark suit. I shook his hand. 

What do you know about Mr. Smith from this brief scene? The physical details I’ve given say that he has a big nose, brown eyes, and short, brown hair. He’s also wearing a dark suit. You can visualize him, but can you tell me anything about his personality, something about his life or past? I suppose you could gather he’s a businessman considering the suit and setting, but what does his big nose say? His brown eyes? His brown hair? 

Although these details provide an image, what they don’t do is tell a story. The effective details do, and those are the ones worth pursuing. With that in mind, let’s rewrite this scene with useful, story-telling details.

2) When I entered Mr. Smith's office, he stood and smiled at me. He wore a suit with a crisp tie and pearl cuff links. I shook his hand. The knuckles were rough, callused, his grip strong. 

Now what can you tell me about Mr. Smith? Well, we can see that he's a more finely-dressed businessman now, with his crisp tie and pearl cuff links, not just a man in a dark suit. He feels more successful, too. As for his rough, callused knuckles and strong grip, they could possibly allude to humbler, rougher origins: a man who used to work with his hands, or maybe a man who used to get into bar fights.

You should have a much more compelling image of Mr. Smith in your imagination after that. The key, again, is the story-telling details. You need purpose with your descriptions, an aim or goal. As for those "checklist" details, the details you include to satisfy some imaginary description quota (like his big nose, brown eyes, and short, brown hair), they're more often than not worth cutting.

Now that you see the difference between these two types of description, I'm going to give you an easy tip to bring out the story-telling variety.

Be specific:

Not just a dark suit, but one with a crisp tie and pearl cuff links. Not just a handshake, but the feeling of callused knuckles. When you get specific, the details will begin to say something about your character (whether you want them to or not), because specificity forces you into characterization. For example, to hear that Lucas wears cologne won't tell you much about him other than the fact he cares how he smells. But how do your perceptions change when you hear it's Acqua Di Gio he wears? Or Axe: Dark Temptation? Heck, I once knew a kid who'd spray himself with Fabreze. We humans are assumptive creatures. We jump on any and every clue to make those assumptions, and hey, if the fish are biting...

That being said, you shouldn't just come up with a big list of random, highly specific details for your character. Sure, the image might be better than if you'd just gone through the checklist, but if the details are disjointed and going in different directions, the overall effect will flop. So what do you do?

Build with an image in mind:

When you're describing a character, you need to think about what it is you're trying to convey. If you want to fly by the seat of your pants for the first draft, go for it; but especially when you're editing, you need to be sure that all your details are working toward a desired image. This image may reflect or contradict your character's personality, but in the end, it needs to lead to a better understanding of the character.

Description is a part of characterization. Just keep that in mind.

Deciding what details to include:

To figure out the details appropriate for your character, you could sit down and fill out a character sheet if you'd like: dA has a bunch of them. But really, I think you just need to start writing your story, build on your characters as you go, get to know them better, think about ways their personalities may manifest physically, and then implement it.

But here's a quick word of advice: Don't feel the need to spend paragraphs describing your characters. Some writers do, and that's fine. But some writers don't, and that's fine, too. I used to write with heavy descriptions because I thought that was what made good writing. But it didn't feel natural, and when I finally eased up a little, it was like a breath of fresh air. You can't write like someone else; you need to write like you.

There is, however, something worth noting. Character descriptions aren’t necessary. Characterization is necessary, but stories can get by and even flourish with very little character description. 

My favorite example of an author who exemplifies this is Orson Scott Card. If you read any of his books, you'll quickly realize how little time he spends describing his characters. You're often only given age, gender, and ethnicity to go off of, cold image-less facts, but his characters still come to life. Why? Because of the excellent characterization. We already picture the characters on an intimate level, so we don't necessarily need all those visual details to carry us along.

There's an argument that goes: the more you describe a character, the more you tear down the image already formed in the reader's mind, an image the reader quite liked; and I believe that's true. At least, it's true for me when I read a story, so I incorporate it into how I write.

Some people think otherwise. They like to be fully immersed in an author's vision, to see as the author sees, and so they revel in heavy description. That's fine, too. That's why we have writers who write that way.

Again, the choice is yours. What's important, whether you go heavy or light, is that your details shouldn't be of the checklist variety. They need to say something, have purpose, direction.
 You shouldn't have to tell us that Lisa is a brunette with hazel eyes and high cheekbones. You don’t need to give us her hair color, eye color, height, weight, bust, yada yada. Just guide us to what's important, and we'll do the rest.

On that note, here's a phrase worth keeping in mind, whether you're describing characters, settings, or what have you: It's not how much you describe, it's what you choose to describe. After all, you could describe every hair on your character's head, every pimple, if you wanted to. But who would want to read that?

In this guide, I explain the purpose of character descriptions and the kind of details they should include.
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Firstly, well done, this is a well thought, beautifully written and thoughtful piece of work. Your ideas are put across clearly and are backed up nicely with understandable reasons. I really think this is something that will be helpful to aspiring writers, beginners and even novices. You make some very good points and people could stand to learn from what you have written.
However, there are things like this quite often on the front page about characters and other tutorials (although, not always for writers which is what caused me to read this in the first place). While not necessarily original it still made an impact on me. Also, not everyone's going to agree with you unfortunately. Conflicting views are very likely which means it's not going to have the same impact on someone as it is on someone else.
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This is a very well thought out and helpful tutorial. I liked how the different forms of character description (personality and physical) were broken down and explained. Even better, I liked how the author explained how to show the character's personality through his/her physical description(s). The examples were clear and easy to follow. Another good point was how =Inkfish7 acknowledged that characters personalities can contradict their physical appearance, but the author should build those characters with that purpose in mind.

There is plenty of useful advice in this piece, and =Inkfish7 explains how to use it well, providing examples and hints. I've read similar advice before, but not recently and I find it's always helpful to have reminders, especially for beginning writers.

(Just a note - there's a typo when you're describing Mr. Jed's nose. In most places you stated it was "fat," but one spot you used the word, "flat." I didn't count this off when rating you. I'm sure I will have typos in this critique, even though I will reread it several times before posting it.)
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Lucian-Ciel Featured By Owner Mar 30, 2014  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
nice to have a reminder if I forget.
pixiepot Featured By Owner Mar 11, 2013  Student General Artist
This has been featured here! Have a great day! :love:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner May 14, 2013  Student Writer
Whoops! Sorry, I somehow missed this comment. Thanks! I'm honored you found it helpful enough to feature. :D
t-bones101 Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you soooo much for posting this! My English teacher sent me here for writing a short story, this helped my writing and flow of words improve tremendously!
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2012  Student Writer
Glad to hear it helped! And I hope the short story went well ;)
avaliable Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
This gave me a pretty fresh perspective on characterization, and honestly got me a little excited to start writing again. :) When I make the time to do that I'll look back on this and remember some of the useful things you've listed, so thanks for posting this! :D
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2012  Student Writer
No problem! Glad you found it useful :D
Kitsunechann Featured By Owner Sep 29, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Hello! This is very nice :3 I have a small problem that you might be able to help me with. In the story I'm writing, the characters dress a certain way, and that style of dress tells a lot about the era they live in. I have elaborate outfits in my mind for them, but I can't figure out how to put them into the story nicely. I find myself listing a lot (She wore this kind of dress with this kind of pattern, held tight in the middle by this kind of belt, and she wore this and that accessory, yada yada). The outfit isn't extremely important to any character at any time, but I do want the readers to have an idea of the dress. Should I just give up, shut up, and cut out the clothing descriptions? Or should I just find a different way to go about them?
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2012  Student Writer
From what you've said, may I assume this is historical fiction you're writing? If it is, you're mostly off the hook; because when it comes to certain genres (especially historical and other setting-based stories), the explanation I give in "Describing your Characters" is less applicable. I say "less applicable" rather than "not applicable" because a basic principle still applies: the details must have purpose.

With your story, you'll probably find that this "purpose" is more broadly defined. The descriptions of your characters' clothing, as you said, is necessary to accurately reflect the era (and often enough that character's social standing). As such, I'd say you probably want to include those descriptions.

Do still be on the look out for "storytelling" details, though. Even with these fancy dresses, you may be able to sneak in some characterization while you're at it.
Kitsunechann Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you very much! I will try that. I do have once scene where one of the less wealthy characters is given an outfit by a wealthy character and is utterly clueless about putting it on. That gave me a pretty nice opportunity to describe the outfit. :3
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