Writing Tips

Character Descriptions are Hard

Let’s face it, describing people’s looks can be difficult especially if you try not to go overboard. How many times have you described someone as having ears the size of watermelon, pointed at the end and covered in freckles? Never, right? Most of the time, you say, “well, um, they’re tall… brown hair, brown eyes…” That’s about as far as most descriptions go in real life. Of course, prose is a bit more relaxed and there you have the ability to go a little overboard. Even so, descriptions are hard.

My biggest problem describing characters comes from the lack of originality. There are only so many hair colors, eye colors, etc. What has to make the character interesting are the little things – a lopsided mouth, bug eyes, stringy hair, etc. It’s easy to make someone ugly, but making them pretty? A bit more difficult.

In order to describe your character, you really do need to know who they are ahead of time. Are they adventurous (do they have scars from jumping off the roof or river rafting?)? Are they meek? Do they stay indoors a lot? What do their parents look like? Did they get their good features or their bad or a mix?

One thing to keep in mind is that simple is better. If they have blue eyes, say blue. Don’t say cerulean. You can qualify it with things like clear, ice blue, light, etc. Shades of blue vary but it’s still blue.

Don’t over-describe. We don’t need to know what the character is wearing right down to his socks. Unless the socks are super important to the plot. Then mention the socks. If you do need to mention what they’re wearing, do it only once, especially if multiple characters wear the same thing. Don’t describe it for each character.

Be subtle about your descriptions. There is no need for a whole paragraph dedicated to describing someone. Add it into the story naturally – “he ran a hand through his brown, lanky hair.” If there’s nowhere to do it, use the mirror trick. Characters often look in mirrors. You can use that to help find a place to describe them.

The main thing is that the description is memorable and weaved into the story without an awkward paragraph stating facts about them. Read good books and see how they do it. Some authors even get away with never describing anyone, but that can leave the reader with only a vague shadow of a character in their mind, so I would hold off on that.

Do you have any tips or tricks on how to make a character memorable?

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