Thursday, April 12, 2018

5 Tips for Writing Descriptions

Today I got a question from a student in one of my writing classes about her characters. It wasn't about how to build them or how to make them unique. It was about how to describe them.  She had no idea where to start and it got me to thinking about how we place our characters into our stories.

How can you go about showing who they are without starting out with a long laundry list? You know that list -- you've seen it in book after book: he had brown hair, blue eyes, and a stocky build or she had blonde hair, bright green eyes and a body to kill for. One of my favorite authors (I won't mention who because she writes books that are bestsellers) but in every book the character description is the same starting with "she was a tall woman with....fill in the blanks, but it is always the same structure. Or you've seen that book where the author has the character stop in front of a mirror and examine her looks. That was the norm several years ago and writers used it so much it became a cliche.

Those options are there, but there have to be other ways too.

1. Try having another character describe your hero or heroine. Maybe the best friend admires your heroine's courage or maybe they discuss that attribute, plus others, in a conversation. This is a simple way to set the stage for what might be coming a little later. Or maybe the hero takes one look at the heroine and is drawn by her vibrant blue eyes--that tells the reader something about him and her at the same time.
2.  Have the character describe her/himself.  This works fine in a first person narrative.  I was always amused by how mystery author Sue Grafton would let Kinsey Milhone describe her carefree lifestyle and her lack of stylish concern.

3.  Compare characters. This can come from the character himself, comparing his strength on the football field or battle field to his chief rival, or having the heroine compare her physical strength with her sister who wouldn't be caught dead in a gym or on a soccer field.

4.  Try having the character lament the habits or looks they don't have. At the same time they can bring in the physique, looks or attributes they lack.  This can be very useful and fun if you are writing a lighthearted romance or your character is self deprecating at times.

5. Just do it! There are times when you have no choice but to be straight forward and just give the basic details. At times like that, just get it in there and get it completed so that you can move on. It might be in some of the small details as you start bringing your character to life in the first chapter or you might sneak it in as part of the opening action.

But remember, we do want to know what those look like. We want to know if she is taller than those around her and she is self conscious about it or if he is shorter than a the basketball players who tower around him as he takes them to task as their coach.

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