Physically Describing Our Characters
Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post about getting writers to understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics for February:
- Indirect and Direct Characterization (2/7)
- Character Action (2/16)
- Interior World of Characters (2/21)
- Physically Describing Our Characters (2/28)
I’ve noticed there are two types of writers, those who describe their characters and what they look like and those who don’t. I’m not sure if any method is better than the other, but I know I like to have some idea who I’m following because their physicality matters. It determines how they are treated in a world, what they can do, and helps paint a picture I can cling to throughout the story. The writers who tend not to physically describe their characters use techniques similar to those used for indirect characterization.
“Like most Black boys in the area, Gerald kept his hair short and wavy.”
The above tells readers what Gerald looks like but still leaves a lot of room for reader imagination. In a way, this method invites the readers into the story.
“Gerald was a small dark-skinned chubby boy with short-cropped hair he used a soft brush on to keep the waves in formation.”
Both descriptions give us an idea of what the character looks like but one is more descriptive than the other. When we’re writing our stories, we make deliberate decisions related to not just the big story event elements but the smaller elements of the story like characterization. How do we want our readers to see or know our characters? No matter which way we choose to describe our characters physically it is important to show our characters’ physical states to craft an unforgettable character and story world.
I’ve been sitting in my room waiting for Mia to come for a while now. It’s hard to tell how long exactly because time just sort of blends together here. The mushroom-hued wallpaper doesn’t help. The same goes for the couch, dresser, and carpet. I think the hospice designed the décor this way so residents can familiarize themselves with being buried under soil. When the Mia Tone on my wearable finally starts up, it’s bright and cheerful, like a Tchaikovsky ditty from Peter and the Wolf. It means she’ll be here in less than a minute with her selection of fragrant plant oils. I smooth down my thinning, grey hair and look back down at my wearable just to double-check that she’s really on her way. Then I stare at the door.
Let’s get into it more below!
Who do we want our characters to be to our readers beyond what they do? What images, words, or descriptions do we want to be associated with our characters? And how do we want these descriptions to make readers feel? These are the questions many skilled writers ask themselves as they write and edit their stories.
I always like solidifying some aspects of character in my head before I start writing so I know during the drafting stage what things to put down during certain moments. Plus, like I mentioned earlier, a characters’ physical makeup determines many important factors of the story. If your character is the only woman in a story dominated by men, that creates a different story and character than if the character was a man or gender non-conforming
Just because your characters’ physical appearances matter doesn’t mean you have to describe them outright. You can use more subtle cues to describe what they look like and how their appearance shapes their position in the world.
To subtly describe your character’s physical appearance:
- Use figuerative language
- Describe actions to reveal physcial descriptions
- Describe character movements and how they hold themselves
- Use more than sight words to describe
- Use other characters to describe them
To directly describe your character’s physical appearance:
- Consider their clothes and accessories
- Include facial expressions, mannerisms, and body language
- Scatter their descriptions throughout the story
- Choose specific aspects to describe instead of describing them in eternity
Finding what ways of describing our characters works for you as a writer and your story, comes down to knowing what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. You can of course not think about it. Many writers choose not to delve into the magic workings of their stories.
But if you want to improve and understand how to write better stories, stop leaving it up to chance and start working at the intentions and deliberate choices within your story. How do you want your characters to appear to your readers and what impressions do you want them to leave? Pondering this question and the others presented will help you begin crafting memorable and captivating characters.
Take a completed work in progress and highlight all the times you give physical descriptions of your characters, whether that be indirectly or directly. Identify what type of descriptions and techniques you use along with why you choose them or what effects you were hoping to create with them. Ask yourself if you are delivering on what you want to convey to your reader about your characters.
Once you do that, get a critique partner or writing friend to read over your story and tell you how the characters appeared to them. Did your descriptions deliver and create the type of images, emotions, and information you wanted to?
- Master List of Physical Descriptions
- How to Capture a Character’s Multifacet Appearance
- Uncommon Ways of Descibing Characters’ Appearances
- Describing Faces
- Giant List of Character Description Examples
- Ways to Describe Your Character without Describing Them
Write Better, Right Now’s topics from January:
- Evoking Strong Emotions (1/10)
- Replacing Sense Words (1/17)
- Describing Body Language (1/24)
- Original Metaphors and Similes (1/31)
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Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on describing your characters or how you use it in your writing! I’d also love to know how you made out with the exercise. Catch you next month for our Write Better, Right Now posts on character voice.