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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.
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.
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?