Being a Better Writer: Character Descriptions

This post was originally written and posted November 17th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s topic inspired was by a bit of a firestorm I saw with regards to a story that someone had written. And while the firestorm in question will definitely not be the subject of today’s post, nor do I wish to get into that as it is nearly an entirely separate topic, today’s topic will brush up against it for a brief moment.

Today, I’m going to talk about character descriptions.

Character descriptions are something that every new writer struggles with, and often many somewhat experienced writers as well. Because when we get right down to it, character descriptions fall into one of those writing areas where no one teaches you how to do it, and everyone assumes that it’s fairly straightforward and to the point. “You shouldn’t need to be taught about this,” the public mindset seems to say. “How hard can it be? You just describe your character!”

Well, as it turns out, and as most new writers discover when they put their pencil to paper for the first time, describing your characters is much more difficult than it appears. It’s hard. Many writers, in a fit of panic (or without realizing it), will simply throw out a narrated description of basic looks—eye color, hair, figure, etc—and then just jump right into the story, without realizing how jarring and unappealing to the reader such a description is. Only upon going back do most of them realize how truly unappealing it is for a story to start off with “Bob was Asian, five-foot-seven-inches, with brown hair and brown eyes … etc, etc.” Only when they do realize how unappealing it is does the real panic set in, when they realize that they have no idea how to do any differently.

Which is why I’m talking about this today. Because to many readers, how you describe a character can be a make-or-break point for the entire book. Young writers don’t quite realize how important something as simple as a character description can be to the reader’s acceptance of a work. Plenty a time has been the moment when a reader has picked up a book, read only a few paragraphs, run across a poor character description, and put the book back on the shelf. Why? Because even if they don’t consciously realize it, a poor character description is often an indicator of other problems with the book, be they weakness of story, poor attention to detail, or just in general a low-quality read.

Yikes. Suddenly the amount and care for detail you put into your character description takes on a whole new level of importance, doesn’t it? It might not just be something that’s a nice part of your work, it’s something that the very reading of your work may hinge upon.

Kind of makes it important to get right.

So, where do you start? How do you go about making sure that your character description is going to be something that keeps your reader flipping through your pages? Well, to start, you’re going to need to know a few things about your work.

Perspective and Voice

First of all, what perspective is your book going to be using? You need to decide this and acknowledge it in your introduction of the character. Because trust me, very few things will make your reader put a book away like a narrative that jumps to an entirely different style or out of character to introduce someone. If you’re going to write in first-person limited, you cannot jump to third-person omniscient to introduce your character and then back (especially if you stay in character, with one very specific case exemption). It’s horridly jarring.

In other words, keep your introduction in perspective. This might seem obvious, but then again, I’ve seen numerous novice stories where the writers have made just this mistake without even realizing it. So first-person stories stay first-person with their character descriptions, and third-person stories stay in third-person. Omniscient stays omniscient, limited stays limited. More on this in a bit when we get to the how.

But before that, we also need to discuss voice. Voice is make-or-break with character description, though it matters more if your perspective is first-person, as it’s much more apparent. What is voice? Voice is how the character talks, speaks, and acts, and combined with perspective, breaking voice can be incredibly jarring to the reader. Let me show you want I mean through an example. Here we’re going with a first-person, omniscient, direct perspective (ie, the character is telling you a story) and I’m going to give him a voice. Now let’s watch what happens when I break that voice.

It was a cold morning that morning, like most mornings were back then. Cold. Dark. Wet as a piss-poor boot on a rainy day. I still don’t know why I bothered to get out of bed that morning. Maybe I was tired of rolling my face into that mildewed pillow over and over again. Maybe I though it’d be worth thinking about going to work. Or maybe I just wanted a nice, stiff, hot cup of coffee. Although in all likelihood, I’d only get one of those things. The local coffee shop was a right pisser when it came down to it: always busy, always getting your order wrong, and never happy to see you unless you were some well dressed posh boot-licker with a stick shoved up his backside. And that wasn’t me.

I’m nothing ordinary. I look very normal. I’m five-foot-two inches; so short. I have dark hair, usually unkempt, and I’m not particularly fit. I have blue eyes, a larger nose, and a bit of stubble around my strong jawline. I’m a bit on the thin side, and I’m usually listening to a pair of headphones.

Ow, that actually took some work to force myself to write. But did you catch how jarring that was? We start off with this very well-defined voice, things are going great and then POW! The voice is gone. Instead we have bland, everyman description. We could have cut those details straight out of a character file and simply changed the perspective and tense to match the prior paragraph.

And all I really did was change the voice. With the voice gone, the character’s unique attitudes and perspectives either vanished or became flat. Would the one telling the story in the first paragraph have used the phrase “pair of headphones” or “a larger nose?” Not at all! He would have said something like “My nose has always been a bit on a ugly side, sort of like a squashed Mr. Potato Head has taken up residence on my face.” Or something like that.

While this may seem obvious, you’d probably be surprised how many new writers make this mistake, or worse, published writers. I’ve cringed at many a book (some of which were otherwise fine) where every time a new character came onto the scene the author would break perspective, character/narrator voice, or both when describing them. Crud, I’ve read one book (and this was a published bestseller, more’s the tragedy) where every new character completely broke perspective and voice, going from third-person limited to what was almost a direct, to-the-reader paragraph written by the author. It was bad. really bad. Then again, so was the rest of the book.

So, keep perspective and voice in mind when it comes time to describe a character. Reread your descriptions later—out loud, if needed—to see if they flow with the rest of the story around it. If necessary, make changes. But of course, before you get started, here’s something else to think about when it comes to character descriptions.

Reason, Scene, and View

Originally, view was going to be a different perspective form, but I figured that’d be too confusing. So we’re going to go with Scene, View, and Reason. Because as important as perspective and voice is, there are other things to consider when introducing a character.

Reason is the first thing you should consider. It’s AMAZING how many authors mess this up, but let’s think about this for a moment. Say your character is in a firefight. Things are exploding, the situation looks bleak—and suddenly a new character bursts onto the scene to save the day, midst gunfire and explosions. Now, how much reason at all does the main character have to give a detailed description of the character in question, considering they’re trying not to die? Very little. And in such a scene, certain details are going to be much more important to the character than others.

Even outside of limited perspective writing, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just drop all the details on the reader. Pacing (something I should do a post on later) is incredibly valuable. Dropping a full description of a character into the middle of a climactic scene? That pulls the reader out of the scene and ruins the pacing. So every time you think to describe a new character, don’t hesitate to ask what reason you have for doing so in the first place, and what reason you have for writing the details that you do. Please, do not be the author who pulls us out of a story talking about the new female character’s cup size and behind. You’d better have a good reason for that if you do (and yes, there can be reasons for that, regardless of the sex of the primary character or the author).

Even with your viewpoint character, you need reason. A lot of newbie writers just make the assumption that a character who’s starring in the story should be described immediately, but that’s not really true. How many of you wake up and then do a mental catalog of all your features? Maybe if you’re a narcissist, or if you’ve got a reason to care about one particular aspect or feature for some reason, then yes, you’d think about it. But how many of you do a daily rundown?

You don’t. Reason. Sure, you can hand-wave it, but that pulls the reader out. Give your character a reason (such as the “looking in a mirror” character description trope). Or better yet, just let the description come naturally with the elements of the story.

Now scene. I touched on that above, but I’ll go a bit further here. Remember your scene and the context therein, not just with regards to emotion and events, but things in the room. It’s a bit jarring for characters to react in random ways with character descriptions that aren’t contextually related to the scene around them. Use the scene to let your character’s looks be known. For example, when Steel dunks his head in the water barrel at the beginning of Rise, the resulting splash and description of him cooling off also describes much of his body type and coloration, easing the reader into a natural picture of what he looked like (this was also something that a certain well-known fiction site’s pre-reader disliked to an incredible degree—they actually demanded I dump it and just start with a generic, straight description, one more reason why they’re as about as competent as a bunch of kindergartners when it comes to fiction work, and why you should take care with what advice you get from the internet).

Lastly, view. This is a subtext of voice, really. Basically, what it asks is that when you describe a character, make sure that you’re doing it not just from the proper perspective, but with their view. What’s important to the describer? What details would they notice that are both important to them and also useful to the reader? This can really flavor your book, your characters, and most often seems to become a stumbling point when a writer writes a gender aside from their own. I think we can all see where that goes.

Point is, your character’s viewpoints matter when describing someone. They might see things through a lens that isn’t fully correct, or view motivations falsely. This is entirely fair, and we shouldn’t be afraid to pull punches when this happens. Even if the reader disagrees with an observation a character makes, it tells them something about both characters.

The Details Themselves

All right, we’ve talked about everything else up to this point to set the stage. Now let’s talk about the nitty-gritty specifics with all that other stuff in context.

First of all, you don’t need to describe everything. Remember the lessons above, but also take in this bit of wisdom: A perfectly visualized character often is not a perfectly described one. This is because like characters, we often remember and fixate on specific details rather than the whole. A mark of clever, experienced writing often is that when describing characters, the author will give you just enough specific details to get your attention, but let you fill in the rest of the details. Let us take Harry Potter, for instance. What specific details were we given about Snape? If you’re like me and most readers, you remember that he was thin, gaunt perhaps, and that he had greasy hair and a greasy nose. JK Rowling didn’t dump many other details (at least, not that I recall right away). She gave you just enough to envision him, and envision him you did.

Stephen King is a master of this. Go ahead, reread one of his works and pay attention to the details he offers. They often aren’t many, no more than three or four details that interestingly enough can paint a very broad picture. And yet when reading his books, readers praise the descriptive characters and how well they can envision them. Despite the fact that he’s only giving you a few direct details.

Tricky, tricky, Mr. King. He knew exactly what he was doing too: giving the reader the details that were important to know or to visualize, and then letting all the other blanks just sort of fill themselves in.

Perspective matters again here, as different characters will observe different things, and here’s where we get to the elephant in the room: race.

Unfortunately, race (in America) has become a sort of screwed up version of “The game.” Basically, if you mention it, everyone loses.

Uh-oh. It’s sad, but true. There is literally no good way to tackle this that will please everyone. In the United States, where you can—and will be—publicly blasted for “not being (insert race here) enough” and race and culture—two separate elements—have become so hopelessly intertwined as to be indistinguishable to most people. Character race is basically an open invitation for an absolute storm of rage to descend on your work.

And nobody wants that. So how do you dodge it?

First, never—and I mean never—unless you have a very character-specific point to raise, begin a character description with “They were -insert race here-.” Seriously, do not. That is the path of the storm, because the moment you use any sort of racial identifier, anyone who at all has any baggage attached to whatever identifying word you used will unzip it and set up shop. And every word thereafter will be, unfortunately, picked through by that entire baggage set’s personal handlers, who will interrogate everything you write to look for “problems.”

Yeah, seeing the issue here? Don’t use racial terms without careful, careful consideration.

And first ask: Do you even need to? Well, actually … No. No you don’t. First of all, culture and “race” are two distinctly different things that, in the United States, have been slammed together despite not being the same thing. And you don’t need to directly address either in order to describe a character.

Think back to what I said about Stephen King’s writing, or Rowling. Drop the details people need. You don’t have to say “I’m Hawaiian.” You can have a character mention that they grew up in Laie, Hawaii. Or you can observe that they have tanned, tough skin.

Truth is, you can dodge a lot of the controversy just by giving the important details. Maybe hair color. Or their favorite food. An accent. And none of these are declarative statements of race. It’s tricky, but in the modern climate, it’s something you just have to deal with.

Summary

In conclusion, when describing characters, think about perspective and voice. Then bring that into play with the reasons, the scene, and the view of the character. Then, lastly, consider which details are important. Do this, paint the scene, and walk away with a character description so natural it’ll seem like your reader really knows them.

Good luck! See you all next week!

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