She was tall and thin, with slender arms and long brown hair.
He loomed like a bear; his dark eyes glittered like ice.
The man’s dark cowl hid his every feature, except for a very long, pointy nose that reminded her of a hawk.
The woman raised her eyebrows and shook a pudgy finger at the rascals.
What in the world am I doing here?
Well, I’m describing people. Four different people, each with a different description. With the exception of the middle two, these are all obviously different people.
Are these good descriptions?
There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of tall and thin girls in the world, thousands of people have slender arms (like… if you don’t work out, your arms are probably slender), and millions of people have brown hair.
Thus, the first person I described could be any random girl you picked out of a crowd.
The second description tells me nothing about the man you speak of, besides that he’s tall-ish and has dark eyes. That fits… the majority of men in the universe.
Our third description isn’t so horrid; at least it gives us a defining feature: a nose. We know about this person's nose, and enough to guess that this person doesn’t want to be recognized and is therefore suspicious.
Lastly, we have a lady with pudgy fingers. That… really means nothing to us, because all we can see is a vague female person and a pudgy finger wagging in midair. Very helpful.
Poor character descriptions are a common fault in books. Authors tend to wander toward the extremes: either they describe everything or nothing. The reader might get every detail: exact height, weight, hair color, eye color, skin tone, lip and nose sizes, eyebrows, eye tilt, eyelash length, clothing styles and brands (and prices of those brands in comparison to others), and the length of fingers. If not every detail, the author gives nothing but vague ideas: this character has a face and body. They are a gender and have the features of their gender such as the stereotypical hair length and muscle proportion.
Which would you rather?
Myself, I’d pass on both. The one sounds like a criminal records file (please, I don’t need to know your character’s weight to the nearest ounce and height to the nearest millimeter) and the other sounds like a blob of almost-sentient goo.
Unless you’re literally writing a criminal records file or literally writing about a blob of almost-sentient goo, the extrema of character description are dangerous places to be.
How does one describe a character?
Well, that depends on the character. The more important the character, the more the reader needs to know. If the character is a servant who disappears after their debut scene, no need to give us more than a sentence. If the character is vital to plot and story, we’re going to need a bit more description.
In writing a fantasy, don’t jump to the cliché differences in characters like different-colored eyes. Don’t lunge for the skinny farm boy and the fashion model love interest. Handsome knights who turn villainous are as cliché as ugly hags who turn out to be witches in disguise.
In writing contemporary fiction, don’t grasp at the straws of “skinny, pale girl who is insecure about her looks even though every male character finds her attractive”, nor the “buff, muscular macho man who is super sensitive about how his hair looks”. Those straws are just that: fragile pieces of grass that will break upon closer inspection
-Survey the facts
Truth is, more people have brown eyes than blue or green (thank you, genetics) and more people have black hair then red (again, thank you, genetics).
In certain countries, you’ll find more dark-skinned people than olive-skinned (thank you, culture and the landscape of ethnicities).
This is not to say you can’t have a character with green eyes and blond hair. But it is to say you can’t have ten of them in the same novel without a very, very, very good reason.
On Friday I talked about this, but I wanted to poke it a bit more. Unless your story takes place in a time where no ethnicities mingle (as I mentioned in that post), there are few chances that your main character won’t interact with others of differing ethnicities.
But don’t just expand your horizons to characters of differing skin colors and races, what about physical build? Not all guys are buff, not all girls are rail-thin. Body shapes come in all sizes, not just the four found in movies, nowadays (buff guy, nerdy skinny guy, super-thin-model girl, not-so-thin-but-still-model girl).
-Be vivid and concise.
This is more important than all the others.
When you describe, don’t be content with the common words. Use strong, vivid descriptions. It’s okay to skim over things in the rough drafts, but it takes time to perfect a description.
Don’t be content until it’s a description worth being content with.
The description of a character should do more than just tell us what they look like. It should do more than just inform us of their presence.
Characters come alive through how we see them. We combine their physical traits and their personality to form a human being. How down those two things – physiology and personality – combine to create a real, sentient life that interacts with the world as a realistic person with thoughts and feelings and looks and attributes?
Descriptions bring your story to life. Not just the setting and the plot, but the characters. Without a vivid, concise description, your reader can’t create an image of your story in their mind.
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Heroic Introductions, Part 1 - Externals (Brandon)