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Meghan Ward

I'm a freelance writer and book editor represented by Andy Ross of the Andy Ross Literary Agency. You can read an excerpt of my memoir, Paris On Less Than $10,000 A Day, and visit my website for more info about me.

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How to Write Kick-Ass Character Descriptions

I’m guilty of it, too: The description of a new character who has just entered your story as having “big brown eyes and frizzy black hair” or “ginger hair that cascaded down her shoulders and eyes the color of jade.” No matter how creative you get, describing a person according to his or her hair and eye color is A) Lazy B) Boring C) Ineffective D) Not memorable. Really—does telling you a woman has brown eyes and frizzy black hair give you ANY sense of what she looks like? Does it reveal anything unique about her that doesn’t apply to 500,000 other people? Does it reveal anything about her character? Nay, nay and nay. And adding an age doesn’t help much either.

Right now I’m reading The Night Swimmer, a wonderful novel by Matt Bondurant, that I just love, love, love. Listen to how he describes the protagonist:

“I have skin like a walrus. I have a condition called congenital hypodermic strata. Essentially is it a thin, even layer of subcutaneous fat deposits under the skin all over my body, all the way down to my fingers, giving my skin a dimpled surface.” (8)

and …

“My skin has helped to make me a good swimmer, as does being six feet tall with the wingspan of an albatross.” (8)

We do learn that Elly has ginger hair, but it’s only mentioned because the story takes place in Ireland, and locals mistake her for Irish although she’s German-American.

Another great description from The Night Swimmer:

“Sheila Flaherty wore a man’s flannel shirt, untucked, and had the calm, almost sleepy, indifferent manner of a longtime bartender.” (33)

And my favorite:

[Ariel’s] “fingers wrapped completely around the bowl, extra long at the final joints, like the soft appendages of a gecko.” (44)

Don’t you feel like you can picture Ariel, even though you have no idea how old she is or what color her hair or eyes are? And at the very least, you’re going to remember her. You’re going to think, “Oh yeah, she’s the one with the gecko fingers.”

So, from this day forward, please, please, PLEASE, go forward and write great character descriptions. Don’t be lazy. You’ll bore your readers, and they’ll have trouble keeping your characters straight. (“Wait, is she the one with the curly black hair and blue eyes or the straight brown hair and brown eyes?” YAWN!)

Be creative. And have fun. This is why we’re writers, because it’s fun!

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37 comments to How to Write Kick-Ass Character Descriptions

  • Ann Best

    Reminds me of the screenwriting adage: character is action. And character is also dialogue. Keep the physical descriptions to a minimum (Orson Scott Card also advocates this, and puts it beautifully into practice). And when we do use such description, we should, as you say, be creative, as Matt Bondurant clearly has been. Well said, Megan. I'm in total agreement. I'm going to link to this post, if that's okay with you, in the next post I'll be writing either today or tomorrow.

  • annerallen

    I'm so with you that a "police report" description of hair eyes, weight gives very little important information about a new character. I always remind students that all Jane Austen ever told us about Elizabeth Bennett was that she had "fine eyes." Instead she tells us WHO Lizzy is–and everything else happens in the reader's imagination.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for mentioning Pride and Prejudice. I'm going to be on the lookout for more memorable character descriptions, and will post a list once I pull one together.

  • mainecharacter

    Kick-ass advice, for sure. Deft descriptions invite readers to use their imagination and cast the characters as they wish. In fact, by the time an author gets around to telling me what a character looks like, I've often already formed an image in my head, and I usually keep that image rather than what they want me to see.

    In the ye olde days, of course, long descriptions were the style, but take a look at the beginning of Gone with the Wind:

    SCARLETT O'HARA was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin.

    All she needed was that first line.

    • Kristan

      So, I'm of two minds with this issue, and the quote about Scarlett O'Hara is a perfect example of why.

      I do agree that all that was NEEDED is the first line. And if I were Margaret Mitchell's crit partner, I very likely would have recommended that she delete the rest.

      However, as a reader, I quite enjoy the rest of the paragraph*, and the more detailed picture that it paints for me. Will I remember it as distinctly as the first line? Probably not. But once that image is in my mind, I don't really need to remember the words. It's like a disposable cup; its work is done. Because I've already created that Scarlett for myself.

      Would I still have created her without the rest of the paragraph? Yes. But would she match Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett? Not likely. So the question is, do you as the author care? And I think some authors do, while others do not. And I think in some stories it's more important, while in others it's not.

      On a somewhat related note, I think about the controversy surrounding the races of certain characters in the Hunger Game series. The text very clearly indicates that certain characters are not “white,” and yet many readers still read them as such. So on the one hand you could say, it almost doesn't matter how you describe your characters, because some readers are going to read them however they want anyway. On the other hand, I'm so glad that Suzanne Collins specified certain features, because it showed us just how far we still have to go as a society.

      *It helps that Mitchell's paragraph is beautifully written. I think that's another problem when it comes to describing hair color, eye color, height, etc. Many writers don't bother to do it in an artful way.

      • mainecharacter

        Since you like Margaret Mitchell, have you seen the American Masters show on her?

        It's fascinating how she came about writing Gone with the Wind, which starts at about the 26 minute mark.

        http://video.pbs.org/video/2218395311

        • Kristan

          So, I have to confess, I have never actually read GONE WITH THE WIND, only seen the movie (which I love). But thank you for sharing this video! Perfect inspiration for an afternoon writing session. :)

      • meghancward

        Kristan, Thanks for such a well thought-out comment! I'm not against all physical descriptions. I love the description of Eleanor in The Night Swimmer as being six feet tall with ginger hair and the wingspan of an albatross (scattered throughout more than one sentence), but those details are pertinent to the story. Like I mentioned above, she is mistaken for Irish because of her ginger hair and she is an amazing swimmer partially due to her extra layer of fat.

        In the case of Scarlett, I pictured a very different Scarlett after the first line (not beautiful) than I did after the entire paragraph (I did imagine her to be beautiful after reading she had an "arresting" face with "pale green eyes" and "starred" lashes–all of which are positive traits that do suggest beauty.)

        So I agree that it depends on how you want your reader to envision your character. But, like you said in your footnote, most people just aren't very good at physical descriptions. The hair-and-eye color combo leaves me with almost no image at all in my head. I spoke on the telephone recently with someone who described herself as "blond haired with large breasts." I know how old she is, and yet I have absolutely no idea what she looks like. None. And yet I have a very good idea of her personality from the conversations I've had with her. And that tells me so much more about her than any physical description. I guess, like all details in a story, they need to have some significance. If they are solely to help us imagine the personality of a character, I think there are better ways. But if their physical description is relevant to the narrative, then yes, writers need to find more compelling ways to describe someone than hair and eye color.

      • liddleaubry

        Margaret Mitchell wasn't just describing Scarlett's physical appearance. She was also telling us about her place in society.

        Her looks are in counterpoint to the blond, blue-eyed Melanie and Ashley. They were gentile and easily accepted in their society, whereas the bristly black lashed, green-eyed, pointy of chin, devil of a Scarlett was less so.

        Being floridly Irish was not desirable in Southern society of the time. Irishmen were famously good with horses and so considered stable hands. Her mother of aristocratic French descent married beneath her station in society.

        Scarlett wanted Ashley because she thought that being with him would give her the place in society she so desired. In the end he bored her.

        Her arresting face with its take no prisoners charm was tested by Rhett Butler, a man considered bourgeois by her society. We all know that he is the man for her, but she's afraid. She still wants the approval of society.

  • Brandon

    How about, "He's six-foot-five and limbed like a tree," or, "She's got legs like a racehorse, backside and all." I've typically always described Geminis (I'm a Gemini, too, so I lump myself in with this one) by saying, "They aren't what you would call hot, by any stretch of the imagination, but something about their odd collection of physical features makes them attractive."

    I think there's a point of rendering the facts of appearance in a colorful way, and letting the reader's imagination take care of the rest.

    • meghancward

      Brandon,

      I do think the key is to take the time to come up with a description that is unique and reveals something about the character's personality. Thanks for sharing these!

  • […] to it at  Karen Gowen’s site. You might also be interested in this post by Megan Ward: How to Write Kick-Ass Character Descriptions. I found this yesterday just after I read the beginning paragraph in The Soul Seekers. Amy Saia […]

  • treacycolbert

    I'll lapse into my teenager's parlance and say that I'm not feelin' it on the "albatross" and "gecko" descriptions. But this is probably my defensiveness flaring, as I am definitely guilty of lazy hair/eye descriptions. Thanks for the great post. This will make me pay closer attention.

    • meghancward

      Treacy, The Night Swimmer is such a great book. Maybe you'd like the descriptions better in the context of the narrative. I have to catch myself, too, when I start to use hair/eye descriptions of characters.

  • Yeah, I'm guilty of lazy character descriptions, too. I think one way to approach it is to get the description down on paper so you, the writer, knows it through and through. And then find a creative way to rewrite it. Great reminder.

  • lexacain

    Well, shoot. Now I know I'm a lazy writer, totally guilty of the "police report" style of description. I guess I'll have to go back and revise AGAIN. (Not sure I'll go the walrus/albatross/gecko route though. Zoo descriptions aren't much better than police-report ones. Love the sleepy bartender though.)

    • meghancward

      Ha. I get it that the albatross/gecko description isn't for everyone. But I do hope this post will help more writers avoid the police report descriptions.

  • […] Megan Ward at Writerland : How to Write Kick-Ass Character Descriptions […]

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  • We do learn that Elly has ginger hair, but it’s only mentioned because the story takes place in Ireland, and locals mistake her for Irish although she’s German-American.

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