Character Descriptions

Last week, I discussed setting descriptions (sort of; there’s an entire book there!). This week, I want to look a bit more at character descriptions.

Most writers have drafts sitting on their hard drive or in their desk drawers in which they describe characters by having them stand in front of a mirror and contemplating the way they look.Something like this:  “Petra stood in front of the mirror, contemplating her long blond locks. Her blue eyes stared back at her; she could count the five freckles dotted across her nose.  The high aristocratic cheekbones were a gift from her mother, while her heart-shaped mouth was from her father’s side. When she wore white, as she was doing now, it made her look even paler.”

WRONG. In most cases, WRONG. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

But why? you ask? Veronica Roth did it in Divergent. Yes, she absolutely did. And she got away with it – but just barely. The reason Roth gets away with it is that she’s using Tris’ mirror-gazing as a microcosm of the larger whole, as a way to introduce us to the dystopian world we’re about to enter.

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. . . . I look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention – not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose – I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.

In reality, .Roth’s goal here isn’t so much to describe Tris – we don’t even know what color her hair is, or her eyes – but to describe Tris’ world. Factions? A mirror hidden behind a panel? She doesn’t know when she had her birthday? This evokes questions in the reader. And remember, the goal of your first sentence, first paragraph, and first page is evoke questions that the reader MUST have answered.

So why is it so bad to sit your characters in front of a mirror and describe them? Because every single word counts. And you need to do a lot more with your descriptions than convey what someone looks like. If all they’re doing is sitting and staring, that’s boring. And when readers are bored, readers stop reading. Your descriptions need to evoke emotion, feeling, atmosphere, what era your character is in, what their social status is, and who they are.

Last week, I said the best way to describe your setting is to have your character interact with it. And this extends to character description as well.

I have to go back to Diana Gabaldon here – she’s the queen of this. And she does it mostly by weaving the descriptions seamlessly into the conversations. Like this example from Outlander:

“You’ve the loveliest hair,” Jamie said, watching me.

“What:? This?” I raised a hand self-consciously to my locks, which as usual, could be politely described as higgledy-piggledy. . . . “But it’s so . . . curly.”

“Aye, of course.” He looked surprised. “I heard one of Dougal’s girls say to a friend at the castle that it would take three hours with the hot tongs to make hers look like that . . .”

Of course, if your main character is as vain as the day is long, maybe they do spend countless hours in front of a mirror, contemplating their own beauty, counting the pores on their faces, making sure they don’t have any new blemishes threatening to erupt. If they’re that vain, though, they better have some really good redemptive qualities, because no one is going to care about them. You could, perhaps, pull a Sunset Boulevard kind of thing if your MC is older, looking back on her life, and wondering where she got all those wrinkles and age spots. But I would find a different way to do it.

You can always have other characters describe each other, and in romance novels, this is usually how it goes. We see the heroine’s POV in which she sees the dashing hero for the first time (usually shirtless), and then we switch POV so we can get the hero’s reaction to the ravishing beauty he’s just been introduced to. Readers have come to expect this, in fact, so if there’s a way you can mix it up, do so.

Here’s an example from my own work in progress, from the point of view of Kai, who died more than 250 years before Erin shows up at his door. So I wanted to be sure to spin his reaction in that direction.

But then the car door slammed, and if he’d had any breath in him, the sight of the girl standing in the drive would have taken it away. She was tall. Nearly his own height, in fact. Her long blond hair was pulled away from her face, and she wore clothes that left little to the imagination. . . He watched as she struggled to pull a large bag out of the car, displaying attributes no single woman ought to display so well.

Later, he – not in a creepy way! – sneaks up to study her:

She rolled over in her sleep, one long leg slipping off the edge of the sofa. He stared at her toenails, fascinated. Since when had women bared their toes long enough to need them painted?

I wanted my descriptions to highlight the differences between them, to show as much about Kai as they do about Erin. Your character descriptions should not focus solely on the physical; they need to also show the things that cannot be seen easily.

Some authors – especially in literary fiction – seem to have no character descriptions at all. I hate this, personally. For one, I really want to know what the characters look like. For another, one or two GREAT choices can always remind the reader exactly who this person is and what they look like. I know this is weird, but think for a second about Adolf Hitler. Think of how he’s portrayed in movies. Let’s face it, all you need is an actor who is kind of short and has beady little eyes. Give him that mustache and the Nazi uniform, and everyone knows immediately who this is supposed to be. Same thing with your characters. Jamie Fraser’s slanted, blue cat-eyes and knife-edge nose – not to mention his red hair – are forces to be reckoned with. Claire’s riotous hair and gold eyes (YES, in the books she has gold eyes, Jamie says they’re whiskey-colored) set her apart instantly.

In Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, Russell has very long, straight hair, even though she’s a modern girl – she’s reading theology at Oxford and owns a Morris – and it’s 1915 when we first meet her, just on the cusp of the women’s lib movement. King has an unusual task in her novels, though:  not only does she have to create Russell, but she also has to remain faithful to one of the most iconic fictional characters ever, Sherlock Holmes. And she does, magnificently. Russell’s long hair is at first a source of confusion for Holmes. Later, when Holmes has been taken prisoner by a maharajah in India:

And then the maharajah said to me, ‘Do remove your topee, Captain Russell; you’ll be able to see better.’ Holmes tensed, his hand making a fist, his eyes darting to the guards as he prepared to fling himself to my protection.

But a topee is not a turban, and I had been my teacher’s pupil before I became my husband’s wife, learning to my bones that half a disguise is none at all. I lifted my topee, smoothed my regulation officer’s haircut with my other hand, and bent forward obediently to witness the lack of tricks up the magician’s sleeve.

The moment my short-cropped, pomade-sleek, unquestionably masculine hair passed beneath his nose was the closest I’ve ever seen Holmes to fainting dead away.

Character descriptions are just as important as any other descriptions, and just as tricky to get right. They need to convey more than the physical; they need to convey emotions, time period, changes in your character .  .  . It’s a tall order! But with practice – and lots of reading! – you’ll get there.

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