Thursday, June 21, 2012

How Do You Describe Your Characters?

How do you describe your characters? We're told over and over again that we should never spend paragraphs telling our readers what our characters look like. Yet, how many times have you read a story where the MC, at least, is vividly described: "Her hair was the color of fresh honey with lighter streaks of pure gold. Her beautiful eyes reminded him of pools of liquid amber, surrounded by long, curling lashes, while her sweet lips were red and perfectly heart-shaped." And on and on, ad nauseum.

Then there's the old mirror trick, where the MC stands in front of a mirror, and sees herself... sometimes as she really is, sometimes as she would like to be: She combed through her blonde hair, and spent thirty minutes carefully arranging it so that it would look wind-blown and casually unkempt. She blinked her brilliant blue eyes, moving closer to the mirror to apply layers of mascara to her exceptionally long lashes. Next, she moved slightly away, examining herself minutely as if to prove to herself that her black silk dress fitted her full and natural curves, emphasized her tiny waist, and swirled softly around her graceful legs...etc. etc. etc.

Boring! When I get to a passage like that... although it's often a full page or more...I simply turn the page and  move on to something more interesting...hopefully. Yet I've found that kind of character description in both MG and YA stories, more often in YA, but I'm sure it's enough to turn teens off, too.

To be honest, I recently used "the old mirror trick" in my current WIP. Well, sort of. Here is the way I used it:
The mirror shimmied in front of her, emphasizing the jagged scar on her face. Her torso was fat and mishappened, her dark curls shriveled up, and her legs seemed ten miles long. It was a distortion mirror straight out of the Fun House, and she hated it, but it was the only mirror her mother allowed.

You do get a sense of what she looks like: she is slim, has dark, curly hair, and a  scar on her face. But you also know that she still doesn't look exactly like what the mirror shows, because it is a distorted image. What else does that passage tell you? Doesn't it suggest that her mother is controlling? Doesn't it make you want to ask: WHY is that the only mirror her mother will allow?

There are many ways to describe our characters, without reeling out a litany of their many attributes. Here are a few:

1. Kiley stormed into the classroom, spurs ( which weren't allowed in school) clanking against the tiled floors. He slapped the dust from dirty jeans, slammed his Stetson hat down on the desk, and slid into the seat. His brown eyes glittered, and his hands balled into fists. He was ready.

What does this tell you? Hmm...spurs, dusty jeans, Stetson hat. He's a cowboy or ranch hand, rides a horse, and works ( or his jeans wouldn't be dusty and dirty.) But he's not ordinary 'hand,' because a Stetson 'cowboy' hat is one of the most expensive you can buy ( true statement, remember I was a rancher for many years), so that suggests he probably owns or his family owns the ranch. He has brown eyes that glitter so he is angry. His hands are balled into fists,  he is 'ready.' Obviously, he is expecting trouble to walk through that classroom door.

That is a great opening sentence, because it a) introduces the character; b) describes the character; c) gives you a good first impression because right off the bat you know that whatever is going to happen, he is ready and waiting; and d) makes you start asking questions right away: Who is Kiley? What kind of 'cowboy' is he, working hand who happens to own an expensive hat, or son of rancher owner who is wealthy? Why is he expecting trouble, in school of all places? And who is going to come through that door bringing trouble with him?

2.  Let's try describing our MC from the POV of 3 different people who happen to know her well:
A) Her Best Friend: "Oh, Kenzie is just wonderful! She has this great sense of humor, and she's so smart she makes straight As all the time. I just love her blonde hair and those beautiful green eyes. She's friendly to everyone, and she is the captain of the Cheerleading Squad. She wears all those gorgeous clothes that really show off her figure, and she's even offered to loan some to me that she doesn't wear any more!

B) Her Former Best Friend Who Lost The Competition for Captain of Cheerleading: "MacKenzie is a snob. She flaunts her looks around by wearing all those designer clothes her mom buys for her, and thinks she's better than everyone else. She is shallow and selfish, and she's not any better at cheerleading than I am. She just got to be captain because she agreed to go out with that dorky son of the coach. She's not funny at all, she just makes snarky remarks that all the boys think are funny. And besides, her blonde hair is bleached, because in real life, her hair is almost the same color of brown mine is."

C) The Boy Who Used To Be Her Boyfriend: "MacKenzie is two-faced. She shows the world this wonderful, talented, smart person, which she can be when she wants to, but in private she is egotistical and arrogant. She wants everything to be exactly the way she wants it, and she wants everyone to do exactly what she says. She IS beautiful and smart and all the rest, but she knows it, and she feels like she's entitled to do anything or say anything she wants, even if it hurts someone else. She wants you to be where she can reach you 24/7, and if you're not there to do what she wants, she starts screaming at you... in private, of course. She broke up with me because I told her I was going to my sister's birthday party on the same night as a party one of MacKenzie's friends was throwing. She demanded I go with her, and when I didn't she broke up with me.

Here you have 3 different but descriptive mini-portraits of the same person.  Is any one of them completely true? Probably not, but instead, you have bits and pieces of one person that, collectively, make up a whole multi-dimensional character. If you interviewed her parents, her siblings, perhaps the 'nanny' who took care of her when she was young, you could add to those mini-portraits until a whole, conclusive picture emerged.

These are just a few of the ways you can go about describing your characters. You don't have to list their physical attributes in some long and boring monologue, which will do nothing but turn your readers off. In using some of the above ideas, you not only introduce your reader to your MC and give them some idea of what their physical appearance is, but you also give them a glimpse into their personality, their emotional make-up, and maybe even a peek into what their home life is like. You set the stage for a first impression, and/or you set the reader up to expect something specific from your character... which may or may not be or come true. Either way, you have your reader hooked.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. I let character descriptions come through as needed. I'll mention his/her hair when it's relevant. Does her hair tangle in the seatbelt? Things like that. Otherwise, it's an info dump and it will bore the reader.

    1. Exactly, Kelly. I've found that sort of "info dump" most often in adult reading, but also in YA, especially in some of the books about vampires. For me, a little goes a long way!

  2. I do like a little description but like you, Mikki, if it's too long, I get bored and move on. The same with settings. Give me a little treat but don't go on forever. I like your description of Kiley. Just enough info to give me a clear picture of that character without boring me.

    1. The description of Kiley is from an old story I wrote several years ago. I try to give a little more insight into the character than just a physical description, but sometimes it's hard to keep it short and concise. That's when I know it's time to regroup and rethink what I'm writing.

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