How to Write Character Descriptions

In one of my previous posts “Know your Characters,” I wrote about the importance of discovering the ins and outs of your characters.

I discussed the different character types, how to identify a dynamic character, and suggestions to start your character worksheets.

So by now, you should know your characters like the back of your hand.

Now what?

Now it is time to learn how to impart this knowledge to your readers.

But before we get into strategies, let’s discuss a few things to avoid.

When writing out your character descriptions avoid:

Over-saturating

After all of your hard work, (weeks, maybe months of planning) it can be hard to contain your excitement.

However, you must resist the urge to introduce all of your characters in chapter one.

Readers do not particularly enjoy being bombarded with a bunch of names that they haven’t had an opportunity to get to know yet.

Think back to your days in high school English class. You picked up a Shakespearean play and all of a sudden you were thrust in the midst of a four way conversation with characters whose names you could barely pronounce.

It wasn’t all that fun was it?

Try introducing a few characters at a time.

Allow your reader to grow accustomed to their names, looks, quirks and mannerisms before adding to the list.

Word vomit

As tempting as it might be, you don’t want to write out your character’s rap sheet right off the bat.

I know, I know: you can see your characters as clearly as if they were sitting next to you.

You want your readers to experience the awesomeness, to see them just as clearly as you do.

I hear you.

But don’t throw it all at you readers in one dense paragraph.

Let’s look at an example:

Her hair, which he knew to be a dark brown, shimmered black as the moon reflected its light off of the water droplets, which clung to each strand like small, clear leaches… Her shapely, moderately full lips kept their salmon hue.  Her deep-set, hooded eyes with their emerald glow never dimmed.  All of her features fit together and nothing looked odd or a touch out-of-place.  Even in the smooth scar about a thumb’s length long on her right cheek could not dampen her looks.  Somehow the boomerang shaped scar fit her well and seemed to complement her other features nicely

An embarrassing quote from my first attempt at a novel

That was rather boring to read, no?

What if I told you that this description came after an intense and bloody battle with another fight promised at dawn?

Talk about a drag right?

I’m not saying that you can’t share the full extent of your imagination. Just share it in small doses.

Character Description Writing Strategies

1.) Don’t always try to reinvent the wheel

It can be difficult to think of new and innovate ways to describe your character.

We all want our writing to be engaging and unique, so we tend to shy away from being plain-spoken.

But do you know what’s worse than being blunt?

Being cliche.

Most of you have probably come across some form of the following description:

Her hair was red as fire.

I’ve read this description in so many manuscripts that I literally shudder every time I see it used.

Sometimes, she was a redhead is enough.

2.) Focus on a specific character detail or facial expression

One well-chosen characteristic or quirk can tell your reader more about your character than your entire character sheet.

For example, you are introduced to a character whose only description is that his/her nails have been bitten down to the nub.

Already you can gather that this character might suffer from anxiety, boredom or chronic loneliness.

Do you see how that one little detail told us so much?

3.) Choose your descriptions carefully

Maybe whenever you see your character in your head, he/she has long brown hair with golden streaks.

Cool.

Do your readers need to know that?

I’m not saying that you should scrap any description that is not relevant, and I’m not saying that you have to tie every aspect of your character’s appearance to the story.

Just consider how much your readers do and do not need to know (and when).

4.) Focus on your character’s interests or habits

Remember, your characters are so much more than their appearance.

Learning that a teenage cheerleader has a collection of classic rock records can tell your reader far more than the color of her hair and how tall she is.

These are just a few ways that you can scatter your wonderfully detailed character descriptions throughout your work. For more ideas and tricks, contact a writing coach.

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