WHAT DID SHE LOOK LIKE

HOW TO DESCRIBE A CHARACTER

One of my weaknesses is character description. I have such trouble sometimes visualizing the characters in my head, so naturally, this has been a place of research for me. I’ve been trying to figure out how to effectively describe a character without seeming so obvious that I’m describing a character.

Every now and then, I’ll have a stroke of genius, and the description of a character will just fall off my fingertips and onto the page.

Other times, I found myself almost doing a mantra just to conjure up an image of the character in my head. However, if I see a person, I can describe him almost instantaneously.

Now that I’ve vented, let’s get to work! It’s Monday! Wake up people!

One of my favorite books about writing is called How Not to Write A Novel. For one, I found myself laughing HYSTERICALLY at some of the examples that the authors used. But, also, they give some really good insight into things that writers tend to do.

One thing that Middelmark and Newman talk about is how people describe themselves. A common scene in a first-person POV novel is to have the main character look into a mirror and describe how beautiful she is. This NEVER happens in real life, and if it does, you’d better believe that your reader is going to assume that you’re writing about a conceited, well-to-do, snob of a main character.

FP POV characters need to be described by other characters and by the POV character’s personal frustrations with her appearance.

Here’s something you should avoid if you are trying to gain sympathy for your POV.

WATCH:
Looking in the mirror, I love the way my orange hair falls over my slender shoulders, and how my perfect lips light up my face with gentle smiles that everyone’s going to love tonight.

She just lost my vote.

A FP POV character needs to be described differently.

WATCH:
Of all the colors my hair could have been, it had to be orange. Not to mention how thick and unmanageable it was. I guess with an hour or so, I can turn this mess of a bed-head into something presentable for tonight’s dance. At least I hope so anyway.

Notice the difference here. The character is not impressed with herself, but subtly she knows that with some work, she can perhaps be beautified. This is how most people think of themselves. We don’t always see the greatness. We see the blemishes. Other characters’ perspective of your main will bring out her beauty as the story progresses. But at least the reader has some details to work with.

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13 thoughts on “WHAT DID SHE LOOK LIKE

  1. mariathermann

    I tend to write a little dossier on each character in my stories – like a “suspect” description by the police…age, hair colour, height, any distinguishing features, profession (if any), hobbies (if any)…this allows me to go back and use some of these shorthand bits to weave into dialogue between my characters, one commenting on the other’s appearance (how it might have improved/deteriorated because of things that have happened in the course of plot) or their habits/hobbies/job that might have been affected by what’s been going on in the story.

    Reply
    1. William Stadler Post author

      That’s a great way to do it, Maria. In fact, from what I’ve read, that seems to be the most productive way because it gives you a way to know the characters better yourself.

      That said, I have not done with with my characters. Their stories seemed to have unfolded as the story developed. But even I would not suggest my own method because it can be tough as the story progresses. Having a written description of them on-hand is so much more helfpul.

      Reply
      1. mariathermann

        I’m quite forgetful as well, so in the past I found i suddenly made my red-headed protagonist blonde half way through a story or the shy retiring heroine was suddenly a brazen little thing – now that I use a dossier on them, I can look up what characteristics they started off with without having to read through my earlier chapters just when I’m “in the zone” and writing flows well.

        Reply
  2. rich

    i only write descriptions of what’s necessary. if her hair color does not matter, i don’t write it. if her height or age is not important, i leave it out. i recently finished a first draft and had a couple of friends read it. i did not mention height, age, weight, body type at all, and those who read it never asked. i described the guy as “conservative” and that he was a math teacher. i described her as having “golden hair that fell down the back of her black shirt.” and the only reason i described that much was because i needed something visual that he would easily notice when he saw her again later in the story after first seeing her and later actually meeting her. i think most people will imagine their own details how they want. that’s what i do.

    Reply
    1. William Stadler Post author

      That’s a good approach, IMO. Some people go to great lengths to describe a character, and that can be overwhelming. But I like your approach since it allows the reader to generate an image of who the character is.

      Reply
      1. rich

        when i read a book or something, i pick actors who i think fit the character based on movies i’ve seen. then, even thought the author may have written a different description, i’ve got people in mind anyway that will supersede what they’ve written. maybe that’s not fair to the writer, but as the reader i have the right to handle it how it’s best for me to read.

        Reply
        1. William Stadler Post author

          i certainly agree with that. it’s interesting because i rarely ever go by the author’s description of the character. i usually make up my own ideas of what the person looks like. strange.

          Reply
  3. Layla

    In my WIP, which is written in the first person, I had the MC describe himself in relation to his father, i.e. “where Father was tall and broad, I was small and lean; he had deep-set, stern brown eyes while mine were the color of maple,” etc….

    Basically, I had him illustrate the differences between his appearance and his father’s, both to describe them as well as to highlight the fact that my MC feels a bit like a black sheep in the family.

    Reply
    1. William Stadler Post author

      That’s interesting and realistic way to do it, and you get the two birds with one stone factor! I like that.

      Reply
  4. Vikki (The View Outside)

    I flick through magazines and try to find a photo of someone who looks like my character 🙂

    There’s a web site, but I can’t remember what it’s called (I bookmarked it on my old laptop that died) where you can do like a police identikit picture of your character. I did ones fr the characters in my current WIP….it was great fun 🙂

    Xx

    Reply
    1. William Stadler Post author

      Now, Vikki, that might be the best advice I’ve heard about discovering a character. I may need to scour the net / magazines to find pictures. I usually just wait until I encounter someone in life. Funny thing is, sometimes I want to take a picture of people, but that’s wayyyyyy too creepy: “Hey I’m writing a book, and you look like one of my characters. Can I take a picture of you?” hahaha not gonna’ happen.

      Reply
      1. Vikki (The View Outside)

        Ha ha ha, ummmm, no, don’t try that one, you might find yourself arrested! LMAO 🙂

        Try google searching something like girl with long black hair, or whatever else is striking about your character 🙂

        Xx

        Reply

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