Okay, so last time we began the climb up the mountain that is character creation, and we made it to base camp. Our Sherpa guides have helped us along the way, and we’ve been able to spend a relaxing time sipping hot drinks as we listen to the howling wind outside our yurt, while we prepare for the next leg of the ascent. Since the basics are now behind us, let us now turn our attention to another challenging part of creating characters, how to describe them.
Sure, there are many ways to do it, but how many of those ways feel like a natural part of the story? In my opinion, there’s good ways to do it, and ways that don’t feel as natural. Do we want our readers to know what the character(s) in the story looks like? Absolutely! But the mind is a funny thing. It forms pictures all on its own, and therefore only needs a little bit of guidance to help it on the way.
One question to ask yourself as you begin crafting your story is, how important is description for this person? In some stories, this is very important. Physical appearance is going to give not only an idea of what they look like, but also character traits. So what do we pay attention to when describing a character? What’s important that the reader needs to know?
The Basics- are nothing more than a simple list of vital stats: hair and eye color, skin and teeth, physical build, age, etc., this is great to have, but unless there is something specific mentioned that stands out about the character- like blue eyed, blonde haired Cro-Magnon Child in a group of brown eyed, brown-haired Neanderthals, you don’t do much more for your character or story than use space you might need elsewhere. However, it is possible there’s something within those basics that does stand out, and in doing so adds flavor to your character as something the reader needs to know. These are distinguishing features like, a misshapen nose, one blue eye and one green, a mole on the side of the nose, a chipped tooth, facial or body scars, multiple piercings of the face, body, or ears, laugh lines, the list is long, but any one or several can say a lot about the person being described. Is the person with the misshapen nose a boxer? Or maybe the one with the piercings is a witch, and she pierces herself to work blood magic?
Type of Clothing- fits in with those distinguishing features too. It can say a lot about class, social and financial status, self-esteem, beliefs, political stance, and much more. Do the clothes fit well, or are they a second hand knock off? Is the dress tailor made, or made of homespun? Add to that the presentation of the clothing. Is it clean and worn? New and stained? Pressed or rumpled? This speaks volumes on how the character thinks of themselves and about the situations they find themselves in.
Poise and Body Language- Does the character stand proud, or slouched in a corner? Do they walk with confidence, or slink in the shadows? What about facial expression? Do their eyes keep to the ground, mouth grim and taut? Or maybe they’re always smiling, as if to convince the world of a happiness they don’t really feel.
All of these things add depth to your character, and can say a lot about them. You’re giving the reader information without having to spell it out detail by detail. Which brings me to the next part.
How do we describe a character to our readers?
Most often, I see two methods used. The mirror, and the info dump. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s one thing to check one’s perfect teeth in the mirror for stray bits of broccoli and notice the hair is unkempt and needs combing, but it’s quite another to get a full on description from that same look in the mirror. Doing this can feel forced and take the reader away from the story while they read the text entry on what your MC looks like.
The same could be said for the info dump. Giving a complete description of a character in a paragraph or two at the beginning doesn’t do much to help move the story. Instead it creates a feeling of trying to get some information the author feels necessary out of the way so they can move on with what they really want to say. Better to provide that description a little at a time, like you would piece together a puzzle.
A useful example to look at:
In the Harry Potter books, Rowling only gives enough on the appearances of the characters to show what sets them apart: Harry has messy brown hair, which refuses to be combed, he’s the spitting image of his father, but has his mother’s eyes and a lightning bolt shaped scar on his forehead. Each of these mentioned things are vital to this character. We learn that Harry’s Dad, whom he has never known, looks much like he does. His eyes, which he gets from his mother, was her most distinguishing characteristic, and so important, that they’re the last thing a dying Snape wants to see. (Spoiler alert if you’ve not read the books). The scar is of significance because it’s the proof that Harry is the only one to survive the Killing Curse. Each of these listed items say something about the character, but they’re not given all at once. They’re presented a little at a time, mostly over the course of the first half of the first book. Rowling goes into far less detail on the other characters, but still keeps the descriptions to what is needed by the reader to understand and move on.
The point here is this. Your reader doesn’t need to know every detail about every character. Not even about those vital to the story. All they need is just a few key things to set the character apart and give an impression. They can fill in the other details themselves.
Written by Writer’s Carnival Team Member
Tim Hillebrant, husband to one, father of four (one daughter, 3 Shih-Tzus), and aspiring writer/photographer. Born and raised in Idaho where he lives still. Also loves family, fishing, and most SF/Fantasy.
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