Writing Homework #21: Improve Your Character Description

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

There’s a standard set of traits many writers will default to when introducing or describing a character: height, eye color, hair color, skin tone, sometimes weight. I include myself in this group–I made a big deal in the What We Need series that Paul was tall and blond and Nina was short and dark-haired. I tried not to refer to those traits too often, and I know plenty of other description happened too. But if someone who read my books once was asked to describe them years later, I’m sure they’d give an answer similar to what I just said.

I’m not saying these things aren’t useful to mention–the reason they’re so common is that they’re generally obvious, the sort of traits you’d notice right away when meeting someone. (Eye color maybe not so much; I’ve seen a strong pushback in various writing circles against making it a key feature, because eyes are small and hard to see clearly without being quite close to someone. In a long-distance relationship I had in my younger days, I misremembered my boyfriend’s eyes as brown after we met, and when I saw him again they were actually hazel with lots of green!)

The problem comes when a) that’s all you get for a character, height, hair color, general body shape if you’re lucky; or b) when it’s treated like a checklist, and the story breaks for a full paragraph including all of the traits the author has decided are important, for every single character. (No, no, I haven’t forgotten that torture, Dreams Underfoot.)

I want to make it clear, I’m not advising anyone to never use these traits. I want to examine what can be done when you’re not limited by them.

What else do people want to see in your characters?

  • Imperfections. A skin tag on the side of their neck. Acne, chicken pox scars, stretch marks–they’re not just from pregnancy, or limited to women. A spot on their jaw where they missed using foundation. Makeup not hiding their freckles even though they tried. Even beautiful people aren’t perfect, so show us that.
  • Details that tell us about more than their appearance. A wrinkled shirt might be a sign they don’t care for their belongings, or that they had to wear it overnight for some reason. Rounded shoulders and sagging posture could mean they’re simply tired, but also might indicate they hunch habitually, to seem shorter or less threatening, or because of a sedentary job. Jeans torn out at the knees might be a fashion statement, or they might belong to a hobbyist skateboarder who bails a lot.
  • Go beyond the visual. We notice how people look when we meet them, but also how they sound. What’s their voice like? Their laugh? And what about how they smell? It won’t always be obvious, but any scent strong enough to notice would convey information. Perfume or cologne implies a certain care for how they present themselves, even if the scent itself isn’t great to other people. If someone smells like cut grass, they might be a landscaper. Shampoo or lotion can smell like just about anything, and choosing a scent says something about what they find pleasant.
  • Body language. How much personal space do they keep around them? Are they a hugger? How do they stand or sit? What are they doing with their hands while they talk?

Compare:

Ryan was tall and raven-haired. His blue eyes stared at me from across the bar, and I shivered under the intensity of his gaze. [yes, I went full-on bad-romance description, thank you for noticing]

Even after Ryan sat down and ordered his drink, his head was level with mine. The bar lights added gleaming bits of pink and blue to his dark hair. His pale eyes tracked my movements as I mixed his cocktail, but I wasn’t sure I liked the attention.

The first description is serviceable, sure. We might be able to pick Ryan out of a random lineup with that information. But what do we learn from the second description that we don’t get in the first?

  1. The narrator-bartender is probably fairly short, if a tall man sitting down is still on an even eye-level with her.
  2. The bar is lit with pink and blue, though it’s not clear what kind of lighting: neon, strings of Christmas-style lights, or something else.
  3. We don’t know his precise eye color, but given the established setting, it’s more reasonable to notice his eyes are light instead of dark. Would naming an exact color even be accurate with the colored lighting already mentioned? Probably not.

And I didn’t even get to things like his scent (probably not applicable in a bar setting) or his body language or his imperfections. Body language cues would be a natural next thing to include as he took his drink; imperfections would only come up if the bartender sticks around long enough to notice.

As usual, I’m only scratching the surface. Character description is a deep topic, and though I’ve given general advice to shore up common weaknesses, you could go a lot further, and what traits to include will also depend on your personal style and the needs of the story.

On to the actual homework: If you have a WIP currently, revisit your primary/initial description for each major character. Note your tendencies on what’s included and what you consistently ignore. Rewrite each description in a separate file (I’m not ordering you to change your actual project for my homework assignment!) but hang on to it if you found the exercise helpful.

If you don’t have a WIP handy, find pictures of people from image sites and practice on them. Try to give the barest possible “standard” description you can, while including details you usually wouldn’t. Because this is practice, make them as long as you want; longer than you’d probably use in a story. Do this for at least three individuals, and try to use models that don’t look anything like each other, so you have lots of ground to cover.


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