Tag Archives: description

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?


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


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

What tricks do you use to describe your characters?


Slipping in Character Description

11 Apr

by Kat Zhang


How much physical information a writer should put in about his or her characters is a pretty well-debated topic. Some readers like to have everything about the characters described the very first time they show up. Others just like to have the basics—hair color/length…eye color…tall or short…slim or heavyset. Others don’t care about physical description at all and like to have a blank canvas to draw their own mental picture of the protagonist and minor characters.

I’m in the middle. Well, actually, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a super-detailed description of every single character. I’m a very visual reader, and I like books that allow me to see the scenes in my head like a movie. That’s basically how I write, too, except the other way around. I see the scene like a movie in my head, and then I describe it on paper.

Trouble is, there’s really no way you can describe everything. It would slam the action to a halt, and while I say I like detailed explanations, I know that a book that is actually full of them would drive me crazy. So what’s a writer to do?

First off, remember your voice. This is especially important for first person and close third. You’re not just describing someone, you’re seeing them through someone’s eyes. Everything they notice or don’t notice should make sense. Think about what you notice when you see someone. You don’t meet your friend for lunch and run over their entire outfit and the eye color and hair length before saying hello, right? You might notice if they’ve recently had a haircut or if they’re wearing a skirt when they never wear skirts or something, but otherwise, you probably won’t even notice their clothes.

However, it is nice to let the reader know some physical description of the characters, so you’ve got to find ways of subtly slipping it in.

This is an example of just describing someone:

He was tall, about 6 foot 1 with short blonde hair and blue eyes. Also, he wore a white shirt with horizontal blue shirts and camouflage-patterned, baggy cargo pants. His shoes were heavy boots with thick soles, and he had a ring on his ring finger that was just a band of polished gold.

A couple things that could be improved on this description. Right now, it’s sort of just sitting there. Whatever was happening before the protag saw this guy has ground to a stop while you, the writer, describe his appearance. Weaving your description into the story’s flow of action can improve it a lot. So can spacing out the description so the reader’s picture of a character is built little by little. Of course, if you take too, too long, the readers will start filling things in on their own, and it might be a bit of a shock if, ten chapters in, you describe your love interest as having green eyes and the reader has imagined him as having dark brown ones.

So let’s try weaving the previous description into some action:

He waved to her from across the room, and when she smiled back, started making his way through the crowd. She bit back a laugh when he stumbled; he’d used to be graceful, but the recent growth spurt had added a foot to his height and an ungainliness to his walk.

“Hey, soldier boy,” she said when he was in hearing distance. “Nice pants.”

He grinned, automatically looking down at his baggy camouflage-pattern cargo pants. Along with the heavy boots and the crew cut she bet had taken a lot of convincing on the part of his mother to make happen, he looked almost like he’d stepped out of one of those Army Strong pamphlets her older brother used to bring home. Only his preppy white and blue striped shirt broke the image.

“Laundry day,” he said, still grinning, and ran his fingers through his hair. Probably had to get used to how short it was. She was about to say something back when she noticed the flash of the ring and choked on her words.

Right, so not the best material out there (I probably wouldn’t usually try to cram so much physical description in at once), and I missed out on some of the detail in the first example, but this way, the story didn’t stop completely. Yes, I used more words overall, but we also got a bit about the guy’s age (teens if he’s recently grown a foot in a relatively short period of time), about his relationship with the girl (close enough for her to tease him and him to smile), about their families (she’s got an older brother who was/is interested in the army; his mother wants his hair short, and he disagrees), and about the ring (she hasn’t seen it before).

I’ve got lots more to say about things like this, but I think that’s enough for today 🙂 If you guys are interested, though, I’ll continue the series during my next post!


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID–about a girl with two souls–recently sold to Harper Children’s. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.

Scene Craft

19 Jul

Recently, I’ve been thinking about scene craft. When I was just getting started writing, years and years ago, I was actually afraid of not getting enough words. I wrote everything out as long as I could, struggling to achieve as many pages as possible. Now, it’s quite the opposite! I want my story to be concise–all lean muscle and no fat.

But there’s so much to include in every story–how does one fit it all? By making every scene serve double, triple, or even quadruple duty! Every scene in your story should, ideally, accomplish as many of the following as possible:

1. Further the plot: This is the most obvious, I’d say. If you have a scene that isn’t furthering the plot, you should probably question its existence. This is especially true in commercial fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction, I suppose you have a bit more leeway with this, but in that case, your scenes better serve to…

2. Further character development: Static characters are one dimensional and not much fun–static relationships between characters even less so. Every scene should either be revealing more about a character or showing how he is changing, however little. Are the story’s events making him stronger? Weaker? More angry? Happier? As far as character relations go, the question is: are they becoming closer? Is one trusting the other more or less? Are tensions developing or dissolving?

3. Answering or raising questions: In the beginning, the focus will obviously be on raising questions, and toward the end, the opposite will be true.

4. Cultivating setting: This is essential in fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, etc–anything that isn’t set in anytown, anyplace, Earth. Info dumps on culture, food, and landscape are not a good idea. Weave these facts into every scene, a little at a time.

Try to keep these four things in the back of your mind as you craft each scene. Of course, not every bit of your story will be able to accomplish all four, but I challenge you to try! You might find your story stronger than ever. In fact, I’m asking everyone who reads this to write a scene bearing these four things in mind. If you’d like, post it on your own blog and add a link to it below! I promise to check it out 🙂 If you don’t have a blog or don’t want to post it there, just put it in the comments!

If you want an example of a great scene, I’d recommend reading pg 10-11 (in my edition, anyway) of ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card. I don’t want to type it all out (that’s probably copyright infringement…), but the bit where Ender interacts with Val and Peter is brilliant. In the space of two pages, it sets up the dynamic between the siblings, introduces the idea of “Buggers,” reveals a ton about all three children’s personalities, and makes the reader wonder about the importance of Ender’s monitor. Really, it’s fantastic. Great, great scene. Great, great book.

Now, go write your scenes! I promise I’m doing the same. Don’t forget to link if you’d like!


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She spends most of her free time either querying HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–or pounding out the first draft of her work in progress. Both are YA novels. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.

Mission: Description

29 Apr

Hey all, just a quick reminder, we are still having a Comedy Contest, the deadline for which is May 1st (this Saturday!). We’ve got some entries already, so crack open your arsenal of hilarity and crack our ribs in the process!

And another reminder for the fantabulous Book Cover Contest which is also still running! The deadline is this Saturday, May 1st as well, so break out the colored pencils and flaunt your visual art skills!


Vanessa Di Gregorio

As with dialogue, description is where you’ll often find overwriting and underwriting. Most people, however, will underwrite their description; it isn’t often that you see description that is overwritten anymore. But be aware! There should be a decent balance to your dialogue and description.

So, what is the point of description? Like dialogue, it often helps advance the plot with the actions of your characters. But it should also help readers visualize the people and places in your manuscript.

Picture Perfect

The best way to go about writing description? Visualize it! Where are your characters? What is surrounding them? Are they in a lush tropical forest, surrounded by greenery? Or are they riding a camel through the desert, surrounded by endless mounds of blowing sand for miles and miles? And don’t feel that your description needs to be in huge chunks happening before and after your dialogue. Incorporate your description into your dialogue as well. Think of a movie (or heck, real life!) – people aren’t standing stock still when speaking. What are your characters doing? What is the setting? Are they walking, sitting, or lying down on the bed talking over the phone? Then picture what a movie would do. What might they be doing then? They might fiddle with the phone cord, wrapping it around their fingers as they lay in bed on their stomach. They might be standing but decide to sit down. Do they ever get distracted during the dialogue? If they do, what is it that distracts them? A black cat? A knife being suddenly thrown at them? A flash mob? Do certain things in their setting make them talk about certain things? Ask yourself a lot of questions – especially when you’re struggling with something.

Make Sense of Everything

But visuals aren’t EVERYTHING. Not only do we see, but we touch, taste, hear, and smell as well. You need to include all the senses in your writing. I’m not saying to always include all 5 senses all the time; that’s a bit extreme. But every now and then, stop to consider it as well. If we go back to the tropical forest, what is it that you would smell, taste, touch, or hear? Perhaps you would pick up on the sounds of the rainforest, such as the constant buzz of insects, or the sudden bird call. And when I say touch, I mean, what do your characters FEEL (and not just with their hands)? Perhaps the oppressive heat bearing down, or the sweat trickling down their neck.

Show, Don’t Tell

Often, a lot of writers will begin to tell us things that have happened. Instead of TELLING us that something happened, SHOW it actually happening. Use action to convey information instead of just stating it. For example: If a mother and daughter get into a fight, don’t just mention briefly that they fought (especially if it is integral to plot/character development). Try showing the actual argument itself, dialogue and description and all. Another example (but much more basic):

Elena was agitated.

-> Elena drummed her fingers on the table.

See how even with something so simple, you can still flesh it out to tell us rather than show? Picture what your character does when agitated, or annoyed, or upset. How can you convey that visually? Go through the first few pages of your manuscript; do you have lines like that? Can you visualize an action instead?

What’s Your Tone?

Description is a great way to set the tone and atmosphere. When choosing words for your description, always keep in mind what kind of tone you’re trying to set. Is the sewing and thread shop full of cobwebs and creaky floorboards, with boarded up windows and candles? Or is it bright and cheery, with dolls lining the shelves and bright-colored threads everywhere? Description doesn’t have to be boring; it can keep your readers on the edge of their seat as well.

Details, Details…

But remember: don’t go overboard! Don’t write five paragraphs of detailed descriptions. Sure, little details are great; maybe one character fiddles with their wedding ring a lot. But pacing is important. The little details become a bit irrelevant in a chase scene, for example. Running through alleyways and swerving around cars while your character is chasing a criminal works for a scene like that; but mentioning how much graffiti is on the alleyway wall and the wafting smell of the Chinese restaurant probably won’t work in that chase scene. You need to target what you want your readers to focus on. Again, consider your pacing and your tone; if a lot of action is going on (and I mean heart-pounding, edge-of-seat action), you probably don’t want to mention all the little details. It’ll slow everything down. But the little details are great in the calmer scenes.

Editorial Trick of the Trade

Not sure if you have enough description of your characters or settings? Try this: Make a list of all your characters, and go through it, highlighting or writing down what you are told about them. Write down physical description and well as family relations, and anything relevant to their character development. Then look at your list. Is your character described only visually? Or only through important events? Do you think what you have makes them in-depth enough? And with setting, try making a map of a certain scene. Does it make sense? Can you map it out roughly? Or does it not make sense at all?

Write Away!

My best piece of advice? Practice. Take a notebook with you everywhere you go, and observe people. Are you drinking coffee at a small little café? Or on the subway heading to work? Jot things down; how would you describe the place, such as the café or the subway? And then take a look at the people around you. How would you describe them? What are they doing? Writers are observers; so pull out your little writers notebook, and write away.

Some Prompting

Instead of coming up with brilliant writing prompts myself for you to do, I thought I’d share some great descriptive writing prompts I found. Try it HERE!

I suggest at least doing the first one. It takes into account that everyone has a different writing style (so some of you might write more detailed description, and others will be very sparse). Let me know if you tried them out, and if they were at all helpful.

And if you really want to practice writing description some more, try writing a description of a tropical forest setting, and use at least one sense other than the visual. Try to incorporate some sort of tone and atmosphere as well (perhaps go dark and scary like Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, or perhaps have a hunter who feels at home – go nuts).

So, get to writing! And have fun!


Vanessa is an intern at The Rights Factory, a literary agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program, and is trying to figure out where in the world of publishing she wants to end up in. Currently, she is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.