This week, the question comes from Marina, who asks:
Is there a right or a wrong way to describing characters?
I think one of the most important things to consider when describing a characters is WHO is doing the describing. From whose point of view are we seeing the description? The way character A sees and describes character B says LOADS about character A.
For example, a generic description would be: “Mary is tall.”
But how does Mary see herself? “Gawd, I’m tall — like Amazonian tall. When I grew up all the kids asked if I played basketball. I hated that question. Hated it.”
How does Philip see Mary? “Philip watched her across the waiting room and wiped his hands against his khakis. The woman stood out, but it wasn’t her height that caught his eye. It was the way she carried herself — shoulders back, chin high. She was poised. Confident. The kind of woman he would love to talk to, but who would make him feel shitty about himself. Yeah…the kinda woman he could only admire from afar.”
See how much those descriptions tell about the point of view characters?
Susan gave some amazing examples! But I disagree, I do think there are wrong ways to describe a character. You could describe them for three paragraphs, for example, and turn them into the physical version of what you want to be yourself. It’s not a character at that point, it’s a Mary Sue. Plus all that description is boring. Never let your character descriptions go on too long, because it’s a sure way to have someone call Mary Sue.
You could also try too hard to be unique and use funky metaphors in describing your characters. “Selma had the stable personality of a table.” Um, what? “Allan’s moods could spike like a sparrow twirling in the fall sky.” Fail.
Worst of all, like Susan said, you could tell instead of show. “Catherine had a fiery temper, but also possessed the gentle coyness of a kitten. When she wanted.” Those types of descriptions should always be apparent through their actions. You shouldn’t have to say them.
There may not be a “wrong” way to describe a character, but there are “better” ways…
Take these examples:
Anna came in the door. She was taller than any girl Mark had ever seen, with short blonde hair that reached right below her chin and brown eyes. She wore a sweater with black and white stripes and dark slacks, giving her an air something between dressed up and comfortable. Peeking out from beneath her slacks were a pair of scuffed sneakers. She was thin, too, and haggard looking, as if she hadn’t slept in far too long. She wore no make-up to try and disguise this.
“Had a long day?” Mark said, smiling at her.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she said, clearly in a bad mood.
Anna came in the door. Mark stood to wave her over, and she acknowledged him with a slow nod. Her eyes seemed dull, and she walked slowly, as if she were in three inch heels instead of just scuffed up sneakers.
“Had a long day?” Mark said, smiling at her. She slid into the booth across from his, trying unsuccessfully to arrange her long legs so they were comfortable. Finally, she just cursed loudly and stuck them out into the aisle.
“Did you have to pick such a hole-in-the-wall place?” she snapped. She struggled out of her sweater, revealing a rather ragged T-shirt underneath. It contrasted rather amusingly with her formal black slacks. “It’s like a furnace in here. And the kitchen smells like a rat hole.”
“Well, the food’s good,” Mark said. “And you need to eat more–“
“I eat plenty,” Anna said.
“–and sleep more. And just all around relax. Try brushing your hair, maybe?”
Anna made a face at him and jerked her fingers through her short, blonde hair. “Thank you, Mother.”
The second example integrates the description into the story much better. The first block of description slams the story to a stop in order to info dump. The second allows the story to continue. Now, I didn’t actually HAVE a story to continue with this snippet, so the plot doesn’t actually go anywhere, but it does allow Mark and Anna’s personalities to come through a little better.
So I guess to sum things up–spread out your description!! Let your characters’ actions be linked to your description 🙂
I think how much or little characters are described is pretty subjective and up to the author. Personally, I like very little description of appearance — it bores me, so I tend not to include too much of it. Usually, I’ll only describe what people are wearing when it’s weird/significant, otherwise I tend to think too much detail bogs down the story.
Despite this personal preference, in the end, I agree with Susan that there isn’t necessarily a ‘wrong’ way to go about it, although I also agree with Kat that it’s usually best to spread out your description. But maybe you like chunkier descriptions, and maybe you can select all the right details to make those two paragraphs worth reading. Some people can pull that off. It all depends on the way you write, in my opinion.
Unless, of course, you’ve written one of those dreaded character-stares-at-self-in-mirror-and-analyses-every-detail-of-their-face. To be clear, I’m not against mirror scenes being used to describe characters, although some would claim it’s a cliche. I just think it’s unrealistic for a character to ramble about their appearance in a mirror for three paragraphs, or so. I mean, surely they’ve seen themselves before, so their appearance isn’t quite that noteworthy?
The answers above have covered just about everything! I can only add one little pearl about character description. I wish I could remember who deserves the credit for this, but unfortunately, I read it a long time ago. But once, reading through a handbook for screenwriters, I came across a comparison of two ways to describe a character. The first went something like this:
The man was short and stocky, with a barrel chest and a look of durability in his stout frame.
The second went like this:
He was a fireplug of a man.
I try to remember this example when I find myself describing my characters too literally. The second example is much more visual, and reflects much more accurately the way a person thinks when they take in a person for the first time.
Aramis Nightshade Ebony Maufisant was 5’7″ with long midnight hair streaked with purple and pink highlights. Her eyes were naturally violet. She had knee-high leather boots, a ripped black t-shit with *obscure punk band*’s logo on the front, and hot pink fishnet fingerless gloves…
I’m going to say there is a wrong way to describe characters, but everyone reading this is probably long past that stage. Nobody likes an info dump, and when it comes to long descriptions of appearance people tend to have even shorter attention spans. Of course, there are plenty of right ways to describe a character, including ones that put most of the information in one place, like the descriptions of Katniss in The Hunger Games. Up front descriptions do make it much easier to visualize a character immediately. But, I tend to prefer descriptions that are more woven into the rest of the story, mentions of eye and hair color here and there, heights referred in comparison to other characters or the furniture, and other characteristics revealed through interactions, that let me come up with more of my own idea of what a character is like.
How do YOU like to handle character descriptions?