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We all know that how to write great character descriptions is essential to writing good fiction, but it’s not always easy. How do you keep them from sounding flat? How do you get inside your character’s head? How do you show them from different angles? The answers to these questions are the same for all good fiction, but the techniques for how to write great character descriptions are as varied as your imagination. The more you write, the more you’ll develop your own approach to how to write great character descriptions, and the more comfortable you’ll become with it.
Description is not about the physical appearance
This might sound like a novel concept, but description is not about physical appearance. It’s important to the way you describe the setting, but it’s even more important when describing your characters.
Instead of concentrating on physical details, think about what’s going on around them instead. Quotes are a great way to give the character’s personality. The same character, after putting on a new set of clothes can be described differently. The reason is that people behave differently depending on the setting, depending on what they wear and on what is happening to them. A careless character will still be careless after putting on a becoming dress.
Show what your character is doing that moment, as much as possible. Don’t describe your character from the outside, concentrate your efforts to describe what’s out of the norm for your characters behavior. It is a written activity, instead of a static thing. To do so you will be giving them a specific occupation. As you are writing instead of describing the occupation, the reader will be reading, humming and feeling it. This will allow the reader to feel the personality of your character.
See your characters descriptively
When you describe a character, it isn’t enough to say that they are beautiful or stubborn. You need to think about the way they are beautiful, and whether their stubborness is a product of their youth or their age. If a character’s stubbornness is an inherent trait, then you would describe them as “stubborn to the core” but if it’s a recent development, you would describe them as “gives-in easily, but has been doggedly set against this one thing”.
Each character should have a distinctive voice, but even by describing one character’s voice, you can help readers get a concept of voice in general. When you describe, you don’t have to do it for every character. Two or three distinctive characters per chapter is enough.
As the author, you are the ultimate creator of your characters, so rather than gaze outwards at the way other people act, you should be looking inwards and constructing people that you as the creator want them to be.Consider the details that you choose. Will you be able to observe the way that your character walks? If they move clumsily, their clothing will make a sound when they do so. Consider the signals that you are sending out with the detailed choices you make. It is good not to be excessive with describing your characters, since if your characters play an important role in the story, they will be repeatedly described.
Use a real person as a reference
One way to add depth and dimension to your character descriptions is to use a real person as a reference point. Imagine yourself, from the outside, fleshing out your main character’s physical appearance. You might not be quite as in tune with yourself as your readers might be — after all, you know what you look like and what’s behind your appearance, while your readers don’t. Fix this disconnection by using a favorite actor or actress as a reference point — use them to give your character descriptions a focus and a dimensionality that will help you produce the most memorable portrait of your character you can. The more dimensional the portrait, the more connected your readers will be to and impressed by your character, and the more involved your readers are with your story, the more likely they are to enjoy it.
Physical appearance isn’t the only feature to include in your description, though, and even written out to-the-letter, this can be disorienting. People are both visually physical and active, which means they need a lot of basic biographical information simply in order to function. How old is the character? Where did they grow up? What’s their orientation in terms of religion, sexuality, and family? Is their physical appearance typical for their culture and family, or is it distinctive? What about their temperament? Are they characteristically jumpy and anxious, or calm? The list of basic things to convey in your character description may seem daunting, but by using a real person as your reference point, you can give yourself a solid foundation from which to build upon.
Turn how your character looks into a personality
Aiming for boring here is the worst possible option. Everyone wants to hear how amazing their favorite characters are. And the easiest way to do this is through characters’ personalities. This is particularly true of protagonists. Writers need to know how to pick the right details in order to really bring out “who” their character is. The key is to pick relevant aspects of how your character looks or how they move that will actually reveal personality. To do this, you want to pick two or three aspects of your character and candy-coat them with razzle-dazzle details.
Think about what size this character is — what that means for their experiences in life, what types of things they can and cannot do. Think about what the character feels about being small, whether they think it’s due to something they can fix about themselves, or just an inherent quality that they have to cope with. Think about hairstyle, clothes, occupation, gender, age, and race. Think about background, how many siblings this character has, and their parents. Think about those blue gloves and why the character keeps wearing them. Think about how the chapter plotline fingered the female main character, and how she doesn’t like it that they’ve gone out of the room to discuss something. These are all questions that can, or should, be answered when you’re writing character descriptions.
See the world through their eyes
This makes it easier to draw the reader into the story and makes your character more relatable. And for what it’s worth, we’re all a little misanthropic — which is what can make characters so rich and interesting. So while it’s important to think about how other characters see your main character, how the main character sees the world is just as important.
Of course, magic users aren’t always going to see things the same way that normal humans would. Sometimes, limiting your human character’s perception of said magic user is a good way to differentiate them from those around them. The limits of your character’s objective perception should inform their prejudices, perspectives, and general outlook on their world. Consider exaggeration within reason — there’s a world of difference between the way the reader imagines a character and the way their characters see people. Your characters won’t notice every little detail, but they’ll notice the important ones, particularly in the beginning of the story. At that point, they’re pretty reactive — and even though their wiser and funnier sides don’t manifest until later in the story, you still want to keep that grounded point of view throughout.
Let your characters describe themselves
A trick with creating memorable descriptions is to avoid being boring. After all, who wants to sit and read a laundry list of physical attributes? To get around this problem, give your primary characters an opportunity to tell us their own stories. How do they feel about their physical appearance? Are they more comfortable dressing one way or another?
Don’t get too hung up on details that aren’t germane to the story, like every single freckle on their face — nobody wants to stop the action to look at a character’s freckles. Just pick and choose one or two that are particularly characteristic. How can you find those spots? Put yourself in your character’s shoes. How would you feel if you had to describe yourself to other people? Would you get nervous if someone took a lot of time telling you how attractive you are, or would that compliment be an old hat, part of you and already taken for granted? Use what your characters think about themselves to add depth to their overall personalities, and remember that everyone is insecure, no matter how attractive they seem in the description of their genre.
Even if you’re writing in the third person, and not giving the characters’ perspectives in their own physical descriptions, you should still use a character’s internal dialogue to further substantiate the depths of their description. How do they feel about their appearance? If they have an obvious “do-over,” would they get rid of their extra weight or surgery, or do they think they’re breaking gender stereotypes? In the same vein, when you’re considering your character’s personality descriptors, consider how they feel about themselves. Safe and unadventurous? An unfeeling kill-joy? A goody two-shoes? Whether they like themselves or not should be plain from their dialogue.
Using dialogue to describe characters works through identification. When you see the words of a character, you’re forced to hear their voice — but not necessarily consciously. This helps establish your characters’ personalities and familiarizes the reader with their spoken voice. A well-written character description should give readers information that they’ll revise when they hear the characters’ speech, so mix it up. Sometimes write what they look like, sometimes what they say, and other times how they say it. Let the reader piece together your character’s personality by giving them only bits and pieces. Be creative and try mixing and matching.
Tell your reader the traits that matter to the plot
The essential elements of your characters’ personalities will depend on the plot and the conflict that’s at the heart of your story. When writing your character descriptions, be sure to tell the reader what traits help your main character overcome your novel’s conflict—not just his body type or eye color. For example, if your story is about an escaped slave under pursuit by the authorities, you should tell the reader your main characters’ mental and emotional abilities that help them to manipulate others or to outfox the cops. Or if your main character is a solo-act entrepreneur trying to get his new business off the ground, you should draw attention to the exceptions he makes to his carefully-cherished rules, not his hazel eyes or height.
But before you do so, take a moment to evaluate how many points of view you’ll be using. If you’re writing from multiple perspectives, only mention the traits that are most important from the perspectives you plan to use. For example, if you’re writing a mystery about a woman who becomes entangled in a black-market organ-harvesting ring while trying to solve the murder of a powerful government official, readers wouldn’t care about your main character’s physical description if they’d never see it. Give the most attention to traits that impact the plot, and the least attention to the ones that don’t matter.
Make them human
When you think about your characters abstractly, you tend to attribute everything to their roles in your story. They’re the hero, the villain, the sidekick, the love interest, the mentor, etc. In this mindset, it can be tempting to write their description without human moments, making them inhuman and making readers think, “Well, they are kind of flat…” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even characters who are inhuman, such as a robot or an alien, need to be humanized. Let’s take Deckard from Blade Runner, for instance. He’s clearly not human, but by using human language in his description, the audience immediately knows he’s a person who feels pain, even if he doesn’t have the same emotional context as humans do.
A good character description will be specific and unique. It’ll bring your character to life in a way that’s specific to that person — their background, desires, quirks, and flaws. But just knowing those things isn’t enough. To write a great character description, you’ll need to take all those details and boil them down to one central image. It can’t be just a list of individual characteristics, or your readers won’t be able to keep track of all the information you’re giving them. But when you can bring all the details together into a singular image, your character will come alive for your readers.
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