August 30, 2012

Describing Characters

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Two weeks ago I wrote a post on descriptive passages in general, and the topic of how to describe characters came up in the comments.  We all want our readers to draw a vivid and accurate image of our characters from the book.  But how do we manage to plant that image without abusing adjectives?

I don't believe there is one right way to go about this: it's something determined by style.  There are definitely, however, wrong ways of doing it.  We all know those introductory passages where so much is said about the character's beauty/intelligence/ah-MAZing skills that it turns your stomach.  Should we all have ugly, stupid characters, then, so as not to irritate readers?  By no means: oftentimes the fault comes not in the merits of the character, but from the delivery.  I can get just as frustrated with over-described dolts as with over-described geniuses. 

One of the main problems, I believe, with the attempt to describe a character (especially a main character) is that we have this idea that if we devote enough words to his features, we can translate our own mental image into the reader's mind.  But at least for myself, I don't find that to be the case.  The mental image I have of, say, Tip Brighton is probably not the exact image that a reader would piece together; and I doubt that an image I have of another author's character is quite what they had in mind.  The most important means of communicating who a character is have little to do physical descriptors; they're far more visceral - actions and quirks, not bone structure and eye color. 

All that to say, we needn't depend on descriptions to summarize a character.  That isn't to say we should rid ourselves of all descriptions, however, only that less can be more where adjectives are concerned.  The amount of description for any character should be determined by the circumstances of his or her introduction, and by the style of narration.  I mentioned in the comments on my previous post that I tend not to describe my main characters much beyond hair or eye color.  This is because my main characters are my narrators, and even in third-person, it's awkward to have the character appear be describing himself.  (Apparently mirror-scenes are cliche to the nth degree, so I can't recommend them.)

It is possible to get around this in means other than the mirror-scene, though, especially if a novel has two point-of-view characters; I do this a little in The White Sail's Shaking, since I switch between Tip and Marta.  When Marta first meets Tip, there are certain things she fixes on at once: his hair, which is always sticking up, and his laugh, which sounds like a cork coming out a bottle.  When Tip gets to know Marta, he's much more attuned to her looks than she is to his.  (And he has this idea that she's pretty, which is silly, but what can you do?)  If you do have more than one narrating character and they interact, I think it nice to show their first impressions of each other and what features stand out in their eyes.

Another good thing to do - and I mentioned this briefly in a post I did almost a year ago - is to allow other characters to comment on your narrator in subjective terms.  Charlie Bent is always quick to point out how plain Tip is.  (What else are friends for?)  A seaman who rumbles briefly through The White Sail's Shaking very kindly remarks that Marta's features look like a boy's.  I like these dashes of outsiders' thoughts, so long as they are in general and not specific; unless the speaker is lovesick, I doubt they would go into detail about the narrator having blue eyes and perfect teeth.

There's more freedom in describing secondary characters, I find, as long as the setting is appropriate.  Note - if the main character meets a person while they're both running away from the Gestapo, that's not an appropriate setting.  But in normal circumstances, some description from the narrator's eyes is good.  Try to incorporate the main character's feelings, rather than conveying mere lifeless adjectives - it makes it much more enjoyable to read, but also to write.  I just picked up The Lantern Bearers last night, and the first chapter is a good example of this.  The main character, Aquila, has just come home for a visit after a year away and is seeing his sister, who has grown up in that time; the descriptions are tinged with nostalgia and affection.

Emotions are the best means of adding color to the characters on the page, for they introduce the element of subjectivity that gives reality to the mind of the narrator.  No matter how you go about bringing them into play, they must be present.  Without them, people are not people at all and the only images the writer communicates will be of colored carboard-cutouts.


  1. Great thoughts, Abigail! I, for one, do like a bit of description about a character because I have a horror of misunderstanding an author's character. But I don't necessarily like illustrations. :D And yes--secondary characters' observations are extremely helpful. :)

  2. Oh, Abigail, this is so helpful! I shouldn't be surprised if I come back to it every so often. :)

    P.s. Did you receive my last email? I tried to send it to you, but was immediately notified it had not reached you; so I sent it again, but received the same response. I was just wondering if you happened to get it despite what I was told?

  3. Yes, I usually stick to the basics for main character description, especially when I'm in their point of view. I don't know about you, but I don't usually walk around the house musing over my "luscious black hair and aquamarine blue eyes" (neither of which, I actually have!)

    I liked your point about using other characters to comment on your character's appearance. Very clever!

  4. Rachel - I don't like not having anything to go on when I meet a character. It's terribly annoying to go three-fourths of the book thinking the fellow has black hair only to discover in the second to last chapter that he's blond. Not fair!

    Emily - I'm glad you enjoyed it! No, I'm afraid I haven't gotten that email. I hope it's not my inbox that's causing the problem. Have you tried again since then?

    Gillian - Are you kidding? I go around thinking about my flowing chestnut locks all the time. Pfft! You're such a strange person.

  5. "luscious black hair and aquamarine blue eyes" and "flowing chestnut locks"... oh, you girls are hilarious! And I in turn go around thinking of my wavy auburn tresses and my saphire blue eyes. :-) You're not the only one, Miss Hartman. ;-)

    But on a more serious note, I really needed this post, and thank you so much for writing it up for us, Abigail! I also find it annoying to discover that a character who was SUPPOSED to have blond hair ends up having black hair. And yes, one of my characters did this to me. She had quite the nerve! Argh!

    Hmm, and the point of view thing got me thinking... what do you think of author intrusion? I read a lot of Isabella Alden's books (she was quite a popular author in her time), and she does (ahem) a lot of author intrusion. And with POV's, what method do you go about to switch characters as not to have POV all over the place? Scene breaks? Chapter breaks? etc?

    Thank you again! So. Much.

    A fellow writer,

    P.S. After I graduate, I'm determined to start a writing blog and join you guys! :-) I just don't have the time to start a blog until then. :-( And I'm hoping to enter NaNoWriMo next fall.

  6. Oops, meant to say, "after I graduate next year"...


  7. I have a problem with describing character's faces. It's hard to know what phrases to use(their nose was sharp, their chin was in a C shape, etc.) and how to make them up. I think one phrase that is overused is, "Their fierce eyes" and "eyes pierced". I do this too for lack of better phrases. We need to practice being creative, finding words that go with each-other in a charming way.
    This is a good post, and reminds me of Skeeter in the Help who was called Skeeter because she looked like a mosquito because she was so thin.

  8. This is very helpful, Abigail! I often find myself struggling against the cliche "the whind whistled through my long golden curls, and brightened my bold blue eyes," type of sentance. So tempting, but so...not right. ;D

  9. Patience - Hmm, author intrusions... I don't really have a fixed opinion on them; some writers, like C.S. Lewis, pull them off artfully, and that's the goal for whatever style you write in. There's nothing to prevent you from trying your hand at it and seeing if it suits you. As far as POVs go, I use scene breaks to delineate between different ones: chapter breaks for every POV change would, I think, be too much.

    I'm looking forward to your writing blog, and hopefully next year I'll also be participating in NaNo. (I might be this year, but I haven't decided.) May I ask if you're graduating from high school or from college?

    Writer - Yes, fierce eyes do tend to be overdone, although I can't say I notice much unless the writer uses the phrase repeatedly in one story. While it's good to think in original ways, I believe it is possible to try too hard; I'm personally not fond of writing where every line of description, or simile, or what-have-you is startlingly new. Sometimes a nice well-worn phrase is just more comfortable to read, and fits better in the context.

    Bree - They are tempting: they're just so easy! For myself, I tend more toward not giving enough description since, all in all, I don't pay much attention to characters' looks. I'm pretty sure I never even mention what color Tip's eyes are. Hazel...?

  10. Thank you, Abigail! I seem to find author intrusion a little bit of a distraction - rather pulls you out of the story when you see those "I" thoughts. But of course everybody's different, and although I'm not a huge fan of author intrusion for personal use, sometimes you almost find it a necessity! :-)

    I agree with the POV; I use scene breaks as well, but in my last book I mostly used chapter breaks with some scene breaks - I was alternating mainly between two characters, a young man and a young lady. I was just curious to see what you did. :-) Thank you again!

    Oh, that put a smile on my face - I am glad you are looking forward to my writing blog!
    Good - we can participate together. :-) NaNo sounds like so much fun, and (ahem) a bit wild... in a good way! I will be graduating from high school in June of next year; sorry I didn't specify that!

    Thanks again, Abigail!

    A fellow writer,


  11. Lovely post! And I agree!

    Ya know, you never really out right described Fiona, but I have a perfect mental picture. I almost like it that way better. I like having a rough sketch of the character, and filling in the rest myself.


  12. I like to have a little description of the main character looks like in the first few pages of a book, so I won't be surprised later on by finding out that he or she looks nothing like what I was imagining. It helps to avoid the "shes blond?!?" moments later on.
    I really liked this post, and sense I am just starting to edit one of my books the information here will come in handy fairly soon. Great post, and excellent timing.
    Morgan J

  13. This was a lovely, helpful post, Abigail :). (sorry for the late comment; I've read this post a few days ago, but only now, I happily have found free time to comment!)

    Perhaps one of those things that I can see to an embarrassingly high degree in my earlier writings especially, is how they were so littered and cluttered with "character descriptions" and blazing paragraphs of how handsome and good Valerius was or how beautiful, winsome and sweet my female protagonist appears... Blah! I admit that though I am much better than before in this aspect, I can still fall into this annoying habit of exaggerating a character's looks, or giving far too much detail that is boring and useless to the reader's imagination. In fact it sort of hinders it, instead of helps as I see now.

    I actually enjoy reading an amount of description to a character if it is pulled off well... but in moderation... and those suggestions you gave us about how to go around describing characters (especially from another character's subjective point of view and through emotions as well) is excellent advice, one that I now want to put into practice! And describing a character has a lot to do with POV, doesn't it!

    You don't know how helpful your writing posts are to me (and to all of us readers I am sure!), Abigail. I was mentioning to my sisters the other day that since getting to know you and Jenny and a few other writer's blogs my literary knowledge has expanded and developed a lot, and I think my writing has improved too!

    P.S. I noticed Emily asked in the above comment if you got her e-mail... it just got me curious to know if you actually received my last e-mail that I sent you (it has an attachment of A Love that Never Fails in it) and I just wanted to make sure you got it? If you did get it, please take your time answering it as I totally understand how busy life can get... just wanted to make sure, that's all :).

  14. A very enjoyable post! (As usual.) I agree, over describing a character can be irritating. (Though under describing one, can be, too. The key is finding that gray area between "too little" and "too much".)

    On a side note, I like the description of Tip's laugh. I think I would like his laugh, if I ever heard it.

  15. Abigail, just thought I'd update you on the fact that the last email I sent appeared to have (finally!) actually worked. :)

  16. I loved this post. It was a very helpful explanation! Since discovering yours and other writing blogs, I've been anxious to join all of you. Maybe soon I'll have my own blog.
    I tend to think a lot about describing characters, and I can't say that I've found a tried-and-true way yet that I'm sure works. I implement most of the things that you mentioned, so it's good to know that I'm probably doing the right things. But I will keep referring to this post to make sure I stick with your suggestions!
    One thing that seems to be effective is to have a character (major or minor) have one or two traits that are striking about them and that say something about their personality. (Tip's hair that always sticks straight up conjures up a very specific image to me of both his looks and his character!) It works that way in real life, too - I have long red hair, it's what most people notice first and all the time, and it goes with my old-fashioned, literature-loving self. (Medieval princess, anyone? :D )
    I've heard of "chunk description" and "morsel description" (coined by a member of my writing club, I believe). Don't dump a shovelful of description into your reader's lap about a character when you introduce him or her. Sift out only what is relevant at each point time - it makes for easier and more interesting reading. (I think Elizabeth Rose's guest post mentioned something of this sort.)
    Thank you for all the helpful and enjoyable posts you do, Abigail. They're a blessing! I can't wait for your next two books to be out.
    - Kelsey (aka Elinor Ferrars)

  17. I forgot to add one thing - I myself enjoy an amount of character description right off, like Joy. I have no problem with it from authors who do it well. But since I have the tendency to describe too much, I have to check myself sometimes. :)

  18. Patience - As a matter of fact, Lord willing, I'll be graduating high school at the same time. A pleasant coincidence!

    Ashley - I'm glad you liked that! Jenny mentioned in her follow-up post that one of her characters has brown hair but is a blond sort of fellow; Fiona has brown hair, and yet I always envision her as ginger. Oh well.

    Morgan - That happened to me in an Agatha Christie novel. It was perhaps the third Tommy & Tuppence mystery I'd read and I had always envisioned them both as quite good-looking...and then Christie had the gall to describe Tommy as "homely"! I was most offended. The cheek!

    Joy - You make me groan over the memory of my first attempts at writing. The sheer amount of over-described Mary Sues and Gary Stus in those (now deleted) stories just makes you want to run off and be sick, I assure you. And I was so convinced that they weren't over-described - that was the worst part!

    I like a decent amount of description, too, explicit or implicit. Sutcliff uses descriptive passages upon introducing main characters (although I confess, I envision her protagonists mostly from the FSG book covers). One of my favorite bits of tacit description is in R.L. Stevenson's "Kidnapped," Alan Breck Stewart's touchiness over being called short. He's such a vain, sweet fellow, is Alan Breck!

    Alex - Really? Because I think his laugh would annoy me to no end. It's so abrasive and explosive at once. Oh well, he can't help it, poor man!

    Emily - Yes, I got the email! Our inboxes finally cooperated. ^.^

    Kelsey - Oh, I like your penname. People talk about Elinor Dashwood and always seem to forget that she was Elinor Ferrars in the end. (Spoilers! Oh no!)

    Chunk versus morsel description - I like that very much. And some writers can even pull off that chunk description; it's got to do with style and voice, not "thou shalt not's" and "thou cannot's". That's my opinion, at least. But for myself, I find it easiest to drop in a bit of description at a time, introducing readers to a different aspect of the character as it becomes important. It gives, I think, more depth and reality to the character. They become more human. (Yes, Elizabeth did incorporate this into her guest post! I was glad to find that my post followed so nicely from hers.)

    Also, you have long red hair? Gorgeous!

  19. Wow, Abigail, that is a pleasant coincidence! :-)

    And by the way, I have red hair as well, Kelsey; my mom says that it makes me look "old-fashioned". But I insist on calling it auburn. I wish I had brown hair though! Which, ahem, is probably the reason that I always want to give my characters brown hair in various descriptions (for example, chestnut locks, etc).


    P.S. I enjoyed reading all these comments!



meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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