A few weeks ago, I did a post on description in fiction, but today I’m going to talk specifically about character description, meaning how a writer describes a character, either when they are first introduced or throughout the story. Since description is one of the three main parts of fiction writing, along with dialogue and action, the way we think of a character is based on what the writer tells us about them, as well as what they say and what they do.
This is an area where writers will disagree. Some writers do not give much description of what a character looks like (or sounds like, etc) but others feel it is important to give more. Also, it is not as common these days to give detailed character descriptions. But, I am going to say what I have found to be the best.
What do Describe
Take a look at the following sentence:
The girl walked down the road.
Can you picture her? What color is the girl’s hair? What color is her skin? What is she wearing? If the writer does not mention details, the reader will fill in details, usually with whatever you think of as “normal” or just randomly. This is okay if the details are not important to the story. However, if they are important, make sure to mention it so that people don’t get the wrong image in their heads.
For example, let’s say that the girl is a rich girl who has lived inside her whole life. She is just coming out for the first time in years and looking around her in amazement. You want to add some details so the reader is not picturing a tanned farm girl in jeans and T-shirt.
The girl walked down the road, her Louis Vuitton high heels clicking rhythmically on the baking asphalt. Her thin, bone-white hands twitched nervously but her dark eyes looked around in wonder.
This gives us a lot more detail but it’s not random description. We don’t know how tall she is, what color her hair is, if it’s long or short, if she has glasses, etc. because those details aren’t important to the story. Your job is to tell a story and every word should help out with that. Let’s look at what we know (or can guess) from this description.
- She is rich → wearing Louis Vuitton shoes. Even if you don’t know that brand, you can guess that any brand named after a person is probably expensive
- She stays indoors a lot → bone-white hands. Obviously, there are many reasons why someone might be very pale, but this is at least a hint.
Through the action (hands twitching, looking around in wonder), we can learn more but this already gives us a rough picture. We don’t know what else she is wearing but we can guess it is nice since she is wearing expensive shoes.
Let’s look at a further example, of using even more detailed description.
The girl walked down the road. Her hair was long and golden and tied in a neat ponytail that bounced as she walked. From her Brunello Cucinelli hat down to her Louis Vuitton high heels, she looked she had walked straight from a summer gala in Paris. As she walked, her hands twitched nervously, the fine blue veins standing out on the alabaster skin. Her lightly rouged lips were parted and her dark brown eyes looked around in wonder.
There is probably not a good reason to go into this much description, but that depends on the story. For instance, if she is the main character and the whole story is about her leaving the house it might be worth it. The problem with description is that it slows down the action. The main action in all three examples is the same: The girl walked down the road. The difference is the first examples says that in 6 words, the second example uses 31 words and the last one uses 79 words. So make sure you only use this much detail when it is very important.
Here are some principles to consider when thinking about character description:
1. Make it important to the story.
This is a general principle for anything you write. Every word you write should help the story in one way or another.
2. Describe things you could get from your senses (sight, hearing, smell, etc.)
This will depend on your story and sometimes it is faster to just tell something about a character that we can’t see (for example, “He was a man who knew how to find things”). However, it is usually better to show that kind of thing.
Imagine you are watching a movie and a person walks on screen. You can immediately see what they look like and you can hear what they sound like (you can’t get smell, taste and feel, although those senses are not used as much anyway). However, what you don’t know is if the person is kind or mean or optimistic or smart or has a good relationship with their mother. Instead, we learn these things by watching the movie. There is no narrator (you would hope) saying “Mary was smart”.
The same is true with writing. It is usually best to only describe things people could get from meeting the person in real life. For everything about their personality, show that through the action and dialogue in the story, don’t just tell it. It will make for a better story to watch Mary solve a difficult math problem than just to say “Mary is good at math.”
3. Mention any important or unusual details right away
If you were watching a movie and saw a character with blue skin, that would be the first thing you noticed since it is so unusual. When you are writing, remember that if you do not mention details, the reader will fill in the gaps themselves with what they think of as normal, meaning in this example they will naturally picture a person with white, brown or black skin. If halfway through the story you mention that the character has blue skin, it will cause a “wait, what?” moment as they readjust their image of the person. This causes confusion and in storytelling, confusion is bad.
Jim got up from the table. He put on his John Deere baseball cap and sighed.
“I guess I’ll go home now. Nothing more to do here.”
“Take it easy,” Alex said. “Call me tomorrow, after you’ve talked to the wife.”
“Alright. Bye, Shawna!” Jim called to the waitress and waved. Then he went outside, spread his wings and flew towards home.
Wait, what? Jim has wings? What is he, a giant bird, or an angel or what? This is the kind of moment you usually want to avoid. Of course, this is in the middle of the story so maybe we were told this already earlier, but you get what I’m saying.
You may want to make this a twist, which is fine if the wings are hidden. Then it could be a surprise that he has wings. However, if this was a movie and you could easily see the wings, you really should mention it as soon as you introduce Jim in a story.
Not all character description has to be stated directly
In #2 above, I said you usually shouldn’t directly state things you can’t see. However, you also don’t have to state things you can see or hear either. You can put these into the action and dialogue too. For example, here are three ways to say that Ana has long hair.
Ana’s hair was long and blonde.
Shown in action
Ana yelled indignantly as Mateo grabbed her braid and tickled Helen’s face with the end.
Shown in dialogue
“I’ll be down in fifteen minutes,” Ana said, “right after I finish brushing out my hair.”
When to Describe it
The obvious time to describe a character is when we first meet them. This is true, although you should remember that description slows down the action, so if you are introducing three characters in the first few pages and you take half a page to describe each one, it is going to be a little boring to read. The reader might even stop reading, which would be too bad. As I said before, the best thing to do is just mention the most important things right away (as well as anything unusual) and add other details later as they come up in the story.
Now it’s your turn
- The next time you start reading a story, see how the characters are introduced. How much description does the writer use? How much are you filling in yourself?
- Write a story and decide what description is important to give about the main character. What parts can you show through the action and dialogue?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.