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Writing Better Character Description
by Michael Bjork
We writers have a particularly tough job: bringing nonexistent people (our characters) to life in our readers’ imaginations. While it’s never easy, we usually accomplish this magic by writing each character with two qualities in mind:
1) Their personality
2) Their physical appearance
Personality is usually expressed through characterization, and appearance through physical description. Admittedly, that doesn't sound so complicated.
But there are two things I’ll suggest today: first, that description needs to do more than just craft appearance, and second, it’s good characterization, more than anything, that’s the key to conjuring vivid characters.
Let’s take a look at the following example.
1) When I entered Mr. Smith's office, he stood from his desk and smiled. He had a big nose, brown eyes, and short, blond hair. He wore a dark suit. I shook his hand.
What can you tell me about Mr. Smith from this brief scene? The physical details tell us he has a big nose, brown eyes, and short, blond hair. He’s wearing a dark suit. You can visualize him—but I wonder, can you tell me anything about his personality? His life or past? I suppose you could gather he’s a businessman, considering the suit and office, but what does his big nose say? His brown eyes? His short, blond hair?
Although these details provide an image, what they don’t really do is tell a story. Effective details do, giving readers a glimpse of the grit and eccentricity of the character.
With that in mind, let’s take another crack at this scene, but this time using storytelling details.
2) When I entered Mr. Smith's office, he stood from his desk and smiled. He wore a dark suit, with the shirt collar unbuttoned to reveal the red plume of an ascot. I shook his hand. The knuckles were rough, callused, his grip strong.
Now what can you tell me about Mr. Smith? Well, looking at the suit and ascot, we can tell he has a flamboyant sense of style. There’s confidence there, too, because really, nobody’s pulled off an ascot this well since Fred Jones. As for his rough, callused knuckles and strong grip, maybe he used to work with his hands. Or maybe he isn’t unfamiliar with knocking a few heads together now and again.
This should conjure a far more compelling image of Mr. Smith in your imagination. The key, again, is storytelling details. You need purpose with your descriptions, an aim or goal. As for those "checklist" details, the details you include to satisfy an imaginary quota (like his big nose, brown eyes, and short, blond hair), they're more often than not worth cutting.
Surprise the reader! Avoid the expected in your descriptions, and your character's nuances and personality will come to life.
As for how to do this, the simplest tip I can give is to be specific.
Not just a dark suit, but a suit with the shirt unbuttoned to reveal a red ascot. Not just a handshake, but the feeling of callused knuckles. When you get specific, the details will start to say something about your characters, whether you want them to or not.
For example, if Lucas tells you he wears cologne, you don’t learn much about him. But how does your image of him change when you hear he spritzes his neck every morning with Acqua di Gio? Or gasses his chest with Axe Body Spray? Heck, I once knew a kid who'd spray himself with Fabreze after gym class.
We’re all human and love to make assumptions. All we need are the tiniest details to get started, and hey, if the fish are biting…
Deciding on Details:
To figure out the details appropriate for your character, you could sit down and fill out a character sheet if you'd like: DeviantArt has a bunch of them. But really, I think you just need to start writing, build on your characters as you go, and think about how their personalities might be expressed through description.
But here's a quick word of advice: don't feel the need to spend paragraphs describing your characters. Some writers do, and some writers don't. I used to write heavy descriptions because I thought that was good writing, but it didn't feel natural, and when I finally eased up, it was like a breath of fresh air. You can't write like someone else. You need to write like you.
However, I will say one last thing on the topic.
Characterization over Description:
Character descriptions aren’t actually necessary. Characterization is necessary, but stories can flourish even with very little character description.
My favorite example of an author who understands 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 given only age, gender, and ethnicity to go off of, cold imageless facts, but his characters still come to life. Why? Because of his excellent characterization. We already picture the characters on the intimate level of the soul, so we don't need 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 that 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. We need both types writers for both types of readers.
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 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.
In parting, here’s a phrase worth keeping in mind: it's not how much you describe, but what you choose to describe that matters.
After all, you could describe every hair on your character's head, every pimple, if you wanted to. But who’d want to read that?
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