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‘When using description, pick out specific, interesting details’

Revealing character through description

The most obvious way to reveal characters is by describing what they look like: handsome or plain, wrinkled or smooth face, color of hair, height, slim or average or fat, what kind of clothing they wear, and so forth. Beginning writers overuse this technique, and often blurt out everything the first time we meet the character:

Leon was a short man with a perpetual frown on his face. He was given to wearing colourful shirts, often with a floral pattern. His eyes were blue and beady…

And so on, with nothing happening. It’s too much description, too soon.

People writing in the first person have an even harder time. Typically they end up with something like this:

I looked at myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. My blond hair was sticking up the way it always does in the mornings, and I thought once more about getting a nose job to fix that funny bump I have. At least my body looked in good shape for my age, 33, and I’m glad that at 6’ 3” I’m taller than average…

It’s an overused solution and it’s clumsy.

When using description, pick out specific, interesting details. Try to stay away from generic descriptions like “handsome” or “attractive” or “motherly” unless you’re just giving a quick indication of a minor character. For your major characters, provide specifics. For inspiration, consider the people you know. If you want to make readers aware that one of your male characters is attractive to women, think of a real person who fits that description. What do they find attractive about him? It could be his resemblance to Brad Pitt, but it might also be that he always finds a way to pay every woman he encounters a genuine compliment. When you base your descriptions on reality, you are less likely to fall back on clichés.

You don’t need to reveal everything about a character’s appearance right away; just the most important or relevant aspects. More details can be added as you go along. However, don’t hold back anything that is likely to contradict the mental image your reader has created up to that point. For example, if I describe someone and then only 100 pages into the novel mention that she is hugely obese, that’s going to be jarring for my reader.