Now that I’ve written a bit about personality and the nature of strengths/weaknesses, I thought I’d say a bit on the nature of physical descriptions, and how you can make them work for your characters.
Physical descriptions—especially initial appearances—are vital because this is your chance to inform how the reader will picture a character. A few ways that these can go wrong:
Not describing the character soon enough. If too much time goes by before the character is given a description, readers begin to fill in. This means that any details that you introduce later might not jive with the image in the reader’s head, which can temporarily break their immersion in the story.
Too much description. This one is actually two separate problems. The first is when the sheer volume of detail bogs down the story, especially if it all comes out in one block. As I explain here, the amount of description should be directly proportional to the thing’s importance.
The second problem is the fact that any details that are being given by the narrator are assumed to be things that the POV character has observed. Unless the POV character has been established as a particularly astute narrator or unless they have a good reason to be observing someone, it reads oddly when they lavish description on the minute aspects of another character’s appearance.
Ineffective description: Some descriptors don’t pull their weight. Chief among these is eye color. Eye color tends to receive loads of elaborate description, but it provides almost no information. If I know that Jasmine has luminous amber eyes, I do not know anything about her as a person, or even about what she looks like. Eye color is not indicative of personal history, emotional state, style, or really anything besides, well, the color of someone’s eyes. The same goes for excessively vague, bland, or subjective descriptions (see this article on why “beautiful” doesn’t cut it).
“I looked in the mirror and observed my gently waved auburn locks:” Mirror descriptions are clunky, done to death, and generally awkward. There are ways of describing first person narrators but this isn’t one of them. I know for a fact that when I look in a mirror, I’m not thinking about my gently waved anything. I’m either checking for wardrobe malfunctions or trying not to poke an eye out when I put in my contacts. As such, I suspect that this mode of description feels inorganic because real people don’t think about themselves in writerly or poetic terms. Also because putting the character in front of a mirror tends to stall the story.
Describing skin color of non-white characters only. This makes it sound like white is the default which alienates readers. Alternately, it’s come to my attention that there’s a trend of providing unnecessarily detailed description of ivory skin (don’t. Please don’t.) while shying away from describing POCs. If you absolutely must wax poetic, at least make the purple prose equal opportunity.
Fortunately, all of these mistakes can be avoided. Here are some tips for ramping up and writing like a boss:
Describe characters when they first appear, even if it’s just a sentence or two. This goes for minor characters too. A little description helps the reader keep track of who they are, and gives you a distinguishing feature to build off of if they appear later or end up increasing in importance.
Gravitate towards descriptions that help us understand the character. How do they carry themself? What do they wear? How do they do their hair? Have they got any tattoos or scars? What do they sound like when they speak? How do they smell? These things are important because they speak to the character’s personal choices. Someone who smells like soap has spent their day quite differently from someone who smells like pine needles and wood smoke. Things like hair color/texture, skin tone, face shape and body type are all useful for visualizing a character so don’t leave them out, but do mix in a few descriptions that provide insight into that character’s lifestyle.
Mix description in with action. Not all description needs to come in large blocks. In fact, it’s better if it’s interspersed with action. Action creates movement and stops the descriptions from stalling the story. In fact, it makes these descriptions feel more organic by providing them with context. If a character is braiding their hair, it’s easier to fill in details about its length, color, and texture that would be clunky elsewhere. If they’re running, it makes more sense to comment on their long (or short) legs. It also gives a chance to show how the character performs these actions.
Photos courtesy of morguefile.
How do you describe your characters?