QOTW! Describing Characters

19 Aug

Last night Hannah Celina emailed us with this question:

What is the best way to describe the main character with 3rd person limited point of view? If I am telling the story from the point of view of Viola, I want the reader to know what she looks like. Yet, I want to avoid the cliche look-in-a-mirror trick. What do you recommend?

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I think describing physical characteristics of the MC in third person limited is slightly easier than doing so in first person. Even with a very close third, there’s still that extra layer of “distance” there, so things like “Viola fidgeted with her hair, running her fingers through the coarse blonde curls” sounds better than “I fidgeted with my hair, running my fingers through the coarse blonde curls”…though in my opinion, the second isn’t so bad, either.

The most important thing, I believe, is creating a situation where it makes sense for the character to be noticing things about her own body. This is why the mirror trick works–when a person looks in the mirror, they’re examining themselves, so it only makes sense that they think about their physical appearance. However, this trick has been used so much in literature that it does annoy some people.

Try thinking of other situations in which someone would note their own looks. Say, if they say someone related to them and thought “Viola imagined her mother was the carbon copy of how she herself would look in thirty years, when her blonde hair started showing streaks of gray.” Or maybe compare and contrast Viola to someone else: “The man was barely taller than Viola, and that was saying something.” (we get the hint that Viola isn’t exactly statuesque).

Tying physical description with physical movement is also a good trick. The fidgeting with hair line is one example. Tall characters can have to duck through low doorways. Short ones might have trouble reaching something high up. Things like that 🙂

-Kat Zhang

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Also, there’s a recent post from Janice Hardy answering the same thing!

What tricks do you use to describe your characters?

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6 Responses to “QOTW! Describing Characters”

  1. authorguy August 19, 2011 at 8:55 AM #

    Unless it matters to the story, I wouldn’t bother.

    • Biljana August 19, 2011 at 1:22 PM #

      I don’t know, as a reader, I find it extremely distracting when I don’t know what a character looks like. I also find it further distracting if, halfway through the novel when I’ve created an image of a blonde with green eyes, I suddenly find out that the character actually has brown hair and blue eyes. It makes me wonder why I thought of them as blonde and why the author made them a brunette. Suddenly I feel like I can’t relate to the writer just because we have differing opinions over what the character should look like, and it impacts how I view the book as a piece of writing, even though it maybe shouldn’t.

      I say always give a description to the best of your ability. Unless no description has to do with the plot or the fundamental spirit of the work, it won’t hurt. And you can play around with character development through the use of hair dye or contact lenses.

    • Kat Zhang August 19, 2011 at 7:40 PM #

      I do find that in some shorter pieces of work or in highly literary pieces of work, physical characteristics get pushed to the wayside. However, I do find myself wondering how a character looks if we are to spend any great length of time with him or her. Having absolutely no physical characteristics can become as distracting as having far too many.

  2. Asia Morela August 19, 2011 at 6:20 PM #

    Good tricks! Like Biljana, I like to know what characters look like… Moreover, I can think of very few cases in which it wouldn’t matter to the story. What we look like impact who we are and how we interact with people, in so many ways. Why would it be different with fictional characters?

    However, that’s also a good tip: describe only what matters. I often read amateur fiction in which the characters are described very mechanically: colour of hair, colour of eyes, whether they are good-looking or not. Not only is this boring if you do that with every single character, but it fails to convey anything meaningful… I say if your character doesn’t have remarkable eyes, we don’t need to know anything about them. Unless them being unremarkable is something you specifically want to tell. Focus on what’s striking or important about your character, and that selection in itself will tell even more than the words themselves.

    • Kat Zhang August 19, 2011 at 7:37 PM #

      Thanks, Asia! And yes, having a laundry list of physical characteristics of every single character is hardly necessary 😛 In fact, choosing a few important traits often makes a character stand out more for me.

  3. Rowenna August 23, 2011 at 8:48 AM #

    Great points! I can hear what authorguy is saying..because as a reader and writer, I don’t feel the need to know too much about looks. I do like having a few physical descriptors, though–little touchstones so that some of the image is shared but readers can create the rest of it themselves. The tips you shared were great, Kat–I do a lot of comparison, and I also think it’s ok when a character does notice things about him/herself–for instance, that they look bad in yellow because of their hair color or burn easily because of fair skin. I think it’s about making sure it’s in context, instead of plopped down without a reason 🙂

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