Shop Mobile More Submit  Join Login

Enjoy my Work?



- Watch Me

- Check out My Gallery

- Note me


Writing Tips



- The Drafting Process

- An Argument for "Said"

- More from Inkfish7


Fiction Selections



- Final Frontier

- Archetype


Questions?


If you have any questions related to my writing guides or about writing in general, feel free ask. We'll see if I can help!


Writing Better Character Description
by Michael D. 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. 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.


Character Description:

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.


Specific Description:

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?




Enjoy my work?

Watch, share, or comment below!




Learn how how to improve your character descriptions with this easy guide.
Add a Comment:
 
:iconbinks95:
Critique by binks95 Jun 6, 2012, 3:16:01 AM
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.
What do you think?
The Artist thought this was FAIR
142 out of 148 deviants thought this was fair.

:iconsingingflames:
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.)
What do you think?
The Artist thought this was FAIR
22 out of 22 deviants thought this was fair.

The Artist has requested Critique on this Artwork

Please sign up or login to post a critique.

:iconlucian-ciel:
Lucian-Ciel Featured By Owner Mar 30, 2014  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
nice to have a reminder if I forget.
Reply
:iconpixiepot:
pixiepot Featured By Owner Mar 11, 2013  Student Artist
This has been featured here! Have a great day! :love:
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
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
Reply
:icont-bones101:
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!
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2012  Student Writer
Glad to hear it helped! And I hope the short story went well ;)
Reply
:iconavaliable:
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
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2012  Student Writer
No problem! Glad you found it useful :D
Reply
:iconfehnwrites:
Fehnwrites Featured By Owner Sep 29, 2012
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?
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
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.
Reply
:iconfehnwrites:
Fehnwrites Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2012
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
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2012  Student Writer
Sounds good!
Reply
:iconsingingflames:
SingingFlames Featured By Owner Sep 28, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Featured here: [link]! :)
Reply
:iconfaraleigh:
Faraleigh Featured By Owner Sep 22, 2012  Student Writer
I know I already commented on this buuut....

Ages ago, I read a bit of my former favorite author's blog. He tackled the issue of character description and mentioned something that's haunted me since. Find a unique physical descriptor for each character and use it consistently. It doesn't have to be much. Just a word or three (I say the less the better). From then on, that unique descriptor can be used to reference that character in place of a name. An example, from his book, is a mob boss named Marcone. He has eyes the color of faded dollar bills. Once that was established, the main character can catch a glimpse of eyes the color of faded dollar bills and the reader instantly knows who's there without it having to be said. An additional plus to this is that the reader gets to feel clever for figuring it out. The author left a clue and they got it. That level of trust aimed at the reader really adds to the author's credibility and popularity.
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Sep 22, 2012  Student Writer
An interesting idea. I could definitely see it working, as long as the detail really is that unique and it's been thoroughly tied in.
Reply
:iconfaraleigh:
Faraleigh Featured By Owner Sep 22, 2012  Student Writer
I've attempted to implement it myself with minimal success. I just haven't really sat down and applied myself. It seems like it could be a valuable tool in symbolism but I suck at that and try to avoid it at all costs. :lol:
Reply
:iconfhclause:
fhclause Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2012
This is really helpful. Thanks ^v^
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2012  Student Writer
Yep, no problem!
Reply
:iconvi0letdreamer:
vi0letdreamer Featured By Owner Aug 13, 2012  Student Photographer
Mr. Jed sounds a little like danny devito to me...
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Aug 13, 2012  Student Writer
Haha, a little bit
Reply
:icon914four:
914four Featured By Owner Jul 13, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
I keep a spreadsheet with my character descriptions, and when introducing a new character I fill in everything I "know" about them at that point. As the story progresses, I fill out any details I learn about them. I'm always amazed at how much they grow and how little conscious input I seem to have. :-)
Reply
:iconsekrain:
Sekrain Featured By Owner Jul 10, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
this is very helpful really
Reply
:iconleeanderson56:
LeeAnderson56 Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2012
Thanks for this, it will be alot of help for me later on!
Reply
:iconfree-spirit13:
free-spirit13 Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2012
thanks this was really helpful!
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2012  Student Writer
No problem! Glad you liked it.
Reply
:iconaloafofbrad:
aloafofbrad Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012  Student Writer
thanks for this. i'm at a point in my writing where reading this is probably more helpful than anything else.
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jul 4, 2012  Student Writer
Well, I'm glad it proved helpful!
Reply
:iconaloafofbrad:
aloafofbrad Featured By Owner Jul 4, 2012  Student Writer
me too. x3 you're a wise man.
Reply
:iconkethwef:
kethwef Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2012  Professional Writer
oh...wow, this is deeply amazing for someone so young! I am so envious.
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2012  Student Writer
Haha, well thanks ;p
Reply
:iconcrystallinearmor:
CrystallineArmor Featured By Owner Jun 22, 2012  Hobbyist
Thank you very much, this is very helpful! ^_^

How do you feel regarding other descriptions (like surroundings)? Does it follow the same rule, and if so, what parts are best to include?

I hope you don't mind my questions ^^;;
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2012  Student Writer
Haha, don't worry, I don't mind questions at all.

As for surroundings, I think it depends on a few factors, the most important being the kind of story you've got on your hands. Is setting important to it? Just as an example, can you imagine reading The Lord of the Rings without all those descriptions about the world? Or imagine if Avatar were made into a book. Wouldn't you feel cheated if all that wonderful ecosystem didn't translate somehow? In such situations, the setting is a point of intrigue, and so it helps to describe more than you would, say, in an urban setting, where the setting is generally familiar.

I usually don't write stories where its setting is a huge focus, so in general, I'm generally into a bare-bones kind of setting description. Nothing too expansive, but some quick bursts of imagery that don't holdup the pace much. You'll find yourself getting away with such strategies much more easily in modern, relatable settings. But they can also be applied to foreign ones as well, as long as the setting doesn't prove monstrously important.

However, setting description does have its uses, even if you're describing something people are already familiar with. For example, it can set a mood. If you describe an old shack creepily enough (preferably without directly calling it "creepy"), then your readers will feel creeped out themselves. Likewise, let's say you enter a character's room for the first time. That room could tell us a lot about its owner (cigarette stubs in an ash tray, dirty laundry on the floor, etc), resulting in some more of that desired characterization.

So really, it varies. Like I said, I like bare-bones for the most part; but I'd say that's my opinion, not a rule.
Reply
:iconcrystallinearmor:
CrystallineArmor Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2012  Hobbyist
Thank you :3
Reply
:icondino-blankey:
Dino-blankey Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2012  Student Artist
This is glorious!
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2012  Student Writer
Haha, well thank you
Reply
:iconstellune:
Stellune Featured By Owner Jun 16, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you, this is amazing help! :heart: Your suggestions are to-the-point and meaningful.
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 16, 2012  Student Writer
Thanks! Glad you liked it :)
Reply
:iconkimmiekimblee:
kimmieKIMBLEE Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2012  Student Photographer
wow. this will help me a lot. thanks! :D
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2012  Student Writer
No problem!
Reply
:iconlocodela:
locodela Featured By Owner Jun 11, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Wonderful! And very helpful! Thank you!
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 11, 2012  Student Writer
Thanks! Glad you liked it :D
Reply
:iconbornlegandary:
BornLegandary Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for the guide. It really helped. And the liberating statement: "Character descriptions, to a great extent, aren't necessary." :D

Just a question, how would you effectively describe a character written in 1st Person?
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2012  Student Writer
Do you mean, how would you have a first-person narrator describe himself?

Truthfully, I'd just avoid it. It's really awkward for first-person narrators to describe themselves because they rarely have a reason to. Unless the narrator's appearance is vital to the story or its events, I'd say it would be better to leave out. Besides, the thing about first-person is that it's the most characterization-potent point of view you can write through. That being said, it's not too hard for the readers to put some kind of image together.
Reply
:iconbornlegandary:
BornLegandary Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks a lot. Feels like a weight just got lifted off :phew: Now I can focus on furthering the story :D
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2012  Student Writer
Haha, good luck with it ;)
Reply
:icondamonmuse:
DamonMuse Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks for this. This is really helpful.
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2012  Student Writer
No problem!
Reply
:iconnear-kitten:
Near-Kitten Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
A really fascinating and informative read, thanks so much for sharing!! :heart:
Reply
:iconinkfish7:
Inkfish7 Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2012  Student Writer
Yeah, no problem!
Reply
:iconfaraleigh:
Faraleigh Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2012  Student Writer
Just from reading this, I have developed an inordinate like of you.

Now that that creepy bit's out of the way, I have a bit to add. Sparse description (or lacking description in Card's case) lets the reader create their own image. By doing that, they forge a very personal connection with the writing. If a writer forces their own images on the reader, it's harder for them to really get into it. Your version of a plain or beautiful character could be a far cry from what someone else considers plain or beautiful.

:heart: Keep it up. I love teaching people to write better but the best I do at the moment is teaching through editing.
Reply
Add a Comment:
 
×

:iconinkfish7: More from Inkfish7


Featured in Collections

Journals by Kayline09

Journals by anim3admir3r


More from DeviantArt



Details

Submitted on
June 5, 2012
Submitted with
Sta.sh Writer
Link
Thumb

Stats

Views
36,344 (16 today)
Favourites
3,050 (who?)
Comments
588
×