Friday, January 22, 2010

Pesky Descriptions

Describing characters. How do you do it? Do you give the full height, weight, hair color, eye color, and distinguishing marks right off the bat. Or do you let things be a little more fluid with only an occasional descriptor thrown in to ground the reader?

I used to know the hair color and eye color of all my major characters - minor ones too - I may have had a chart. But then I found that all my characters were distinguished by their hair color and hair style.

Barb, with the long blonde hair, spoke to Joan, whose dark hair was in a braid down her back.

Yeah. After awhile that didn't really work for me (though I still have to guard against it.)

Now I find that sometimes I go in the opposite direction - and have no descriptions of my characters. Often I can remedy that with a quick word or phrase (I just try to not let them all be about hair.)

As I was revising today I saw a note one of my critique partners left that a relatively minor character needed some description. And she's right. I have nothing. Just a name and her job. I have two problems (well three - but that one is motivation and stems from it being late). 1) I don't actually know what she looks like and 2) I'm not sure how to integrate a description into the introduction of her. I don't want to say "Jamie, the nurse my mother had hired came into the room. She was a tall woman with buck teeth and sensible shoes".... It seems too forced. I need to make it natural somehow.

I'm guessing that once I take a break from it, I'll come up with a solution - but in the meantime, here's my question: How do you make sure your characters are adequately described - without sounding like a police report?


  1. Oh, you've hit on my biggest weakness--description. I struggle with it so much!!

  2. I remember reading about an author (can't remember who) who puts together photo collages of her main characters - with photos from magazines or wherever - and pictures of things that would have to do with the character. I think that's a great idea - and may have to try it on a future story.

  3. That is a tough one! I sometimes have my MC compare herself to the other character and I get a little bit of the physical description in there too. You can also give them habits, like (here we go with the hair again) Suzy twisted a lock of long blonde hair between her fingers, something she did so often she no longer recognized it was happening.

  4. Lisa, having the MC compare herself to another character is a good idea. I also like the habit idea. Those kind of descriptions stay with me longer than a laundry list when the character is introduced anyway.