by Lazette Gifford

Description of main characters in first draft stories often fall into two wide categories — far too little or way too much.  Writers see their characters and they want their readers to see them, too.  However, sometimes they can go too far in description, especially in the main character.

What?  Don’t you want the reader to see the main character just as he or she is?  Yes, you do.  However, you need to consider two things about readers.  First, they have vivid imaginations and can ‘see’ characters without every detail drawn in.  Second — and the more important of the two — the reader wants to connect with the main character in some way.  This may mean that she wants to see the character as herself or she may want to imagine the character as a favorite star.  If you give too much description, you erase that connection.

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1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

—  Elmore Leonard (Ten Rules of Writing)

I can hardly believe the cast list and character descriptions for Another Period. It’s a show coming out this year on Comedy Central that “follows the lives of the Bellacourts, the first family of Newport, Rhode Island at the turn of the 20th century…It is intended to be a spoof on reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

Player Character Back Stories

Dungeon Masters with dedicated groups of players should definitely have their players write back stories for their characters. This would be a good way to make the world seem more real. It can also be hard to incorporate some things from them though. The best way i have been able to figure it out is to either have a world map ready with a lot of places already marked and have them make a story referencing some places you have created or tell them not to name places. They can just describe a few aspects of them and then the DM can pick the places that fit the best. 

It is also a good way to incorporate some side quests or characters into the regular game. One of my players wrote about a group of thieves he was with until he decided to go off on his own. He gave me a lot of details. character names, description, and even some of the missions they went on.I was able to put one of the characters in one of the adventures i was running. This created a side quest opportunity and it actually gave the characters new insight into the main quest.

An Amazing Resource: (Val Kovalin)

Index of All Articles by Title:

  1. Characters - Too Many Unnecessary Characters!
  2. Description - Body Types, Male, Large
  3. Description - Body Types, Male, Medium Size / Athletic
  4. Description - Body Types, Male, Small 
  5. Description - Eye Color, Examples of Great Descriptions
  6. Description - Eye Color List
  7. Description - Eyes, How to Describe
  8. Description - How to Describe Hair
  9. Description - Hair Color List
  10. Description - Physical Description Clichés
  11. Description - Physical Descriptions, How to Write 
  12. Fantasy Fiction - Character Names
  13. Fantasy Fiction - Clichés to Avoid
  14. Fantasy Fiction - Everyone’s Most Hated Fantasy Fiction Clichés
  15. Fantasy Fiction - Titles, How to Choose
  16. Writing - Find Your Thing
  17. Writing - How to Finish Writing Your Novel
  18. Writing - How to Finish Writing Your Rough Draft No Matter What!

Val Kovalin has also written books on describing characters!


Stop Calling Me Pastries 2/3

27 skin tones, five descriptions each, no cannibalism required.

 #F2DCC7: Coral Cloud, Desert Bone, Florence Marble, Sand Trap, Sunwashed Beach

#E1C3A7: Dust Bunny, Homespun Linen, Snail Shell, Tumbleweed Tan, Washed Khaki

#E8B290: Approaching Autumn, Copper Dust, Coral Coast, Rambling Rose, Wickerwork

#DC9B85: Beach Treasure, Desert Dawn, Opal Fire, Rosy Coral, Warm Autumn

#D1937C: Autumn Fern, Earthen Trail, Rosedust, Rustic Pottery, Sienna Brown

#D87F85: Bird of Paradise, Coming Up Roses, Love Potion, Pacific Sunset, Pink Flamingo

#C98560: Copper Wire, Ember Glow, Fall Foliage, Georgian Leather, Wash of Rust

#B3754E: Cinnabar, Clay Vessel, Fallen Leaf, Leather Jacket, Pale Russet

#924517: Brick Dust, Copper Starfire, Grecian Bronze, Ochre Brown, Tinder Box

credits: photos from humanae, hex codes fromimagecolorpicker, paint color names from encycolorpedia

Writing Specific Characters - Advice

*updated 28.03.13 - 29.05.13

Describing Skin Tone

Anonymous asked: Aaaaugh I’m really sorry to ask this and I know you answer questions like this all the time but I haven’t been able to find a straight answer anywhere else. Is there any possibility that you might know whether it’s considered offensive to describe people as having wood-colored skin? I know it’s considered offensive to compare skin color to food, but if it was said that someone had mahogany or pinewood skin or something, do you think that would be okay? Again, I’m really sorry.

This question is one not only of style but also of knowing and relating to your intended audience. There are no hard and fast rules on which descriptive words for skin color will be offensive to everyone every time. Though many descriptors for skin color have been identified as offensive or acceptable by large groups of people in the past, the reality is that every reader has their own preferences.

Similarly, there is no word choice that will fit perfectly in every stylistic circumstance. Tone, pacing, genre, character development, theme, and desired voice must all be taken into account.

So, you can understand that is difficult to advise you in any specific way. We cannot tell you yes or no. The best answer is that it depends.

The trick, I believe, is to think critically about the denotation and connotation of the word in question and use your best judgement. That judgement is born of experience and research, which means writing people with skin tones other than yours and learning about representing people who do not look like you from people who do not look like you. You may not have the experience or have done the research, and that’s okay, but the only person who can answer your question is you. You know your style and level of experience. You know the circumstances. You are the one who knows your intended audience and interacts with your readers. 

This is a situation where the answer cannot just be given to you. You need to do the research and gain the experience, then you can decide these things for yourself.

Here are a few resources to speed you on your way:

Thank you for your question! If you have any comments on this article or other questions about writing, you can message us here

-C and Q


The Red Viper’s pretty, deadly Sand Snakes
First look at the Sand Snakes from Weapons of Dorne

Because We're More than Eyes and Hair!

I think 90% of writers will agree that in their first drafts of their first pieces, they’d describe a character like “she had blonde hair and green eyes” and leave it at that. I’m guilty of it, I’ll admit. But why not have some great, specific descriptions that flesh out your characters and how others perceive them?!

A quick note about eyes: In all honesty, eye color isn’t always apparent. Eyes may look dark from a distance, and you only realize they’re a deep blue when you get closer. Don’t feel like you have to mention eye color right away. It can be something mentioned later, when your characters have a soulful heart to heart.

Btw, I threw this list together in about 10 minutes so I’m sure there are other things that could be added. Feel free to comment or message me, and I’ll add them to the master list.

  • Hair
    • Long
    • Short
    • Wavy
    • Curly
    • Frizzy
    • Straight
    • Choppy
    • Thick
    • Thin
    • Braided
    • Tied up
    • Loose
    • Wild
  • Face
    • Long
    • Narrow
    • Wide
    • Round
    • Oval
    • Heart
  • Eyes
    • Round
    • Narrow
    • Squinty
    • Deep-set
    • Small
    • Beady
    • Oval
  • Nose
    • Narrow
    • Pinched               
    • Wide
    • Flat
    • Crooked
    • Hooked
    • Pointed
    • Large
    • Dainty
  • Cheeks
    • Rosy
    • Ashen
    • Ruddy
    • Freckled
    • Round
    • Gaunt
    • Pronounced (cheekbones)
    • Bronzed
    • Tanned
    • Dimpled
    • full
  • Chin
    • Sharp
    • Round
    • Cleft
    • Pointed
  • Jaw
    • Square
    • Round
    • Straight
    • Strong
  • Lips
    • Full
    • Plump
    • Thin
    • Pinched 
    • Supple
    • Dry
    • Cracked
    • Stretched
  • Body (build, frame)
    • Slight
    • Willowy
    • Scrawny
    • Tall
    • Bulky
    • Average
    • Large
    • Stout
    • Curvy
    • Shapely
    • Straight
    • Bony

I also claimed stuff like this will help with characterization. I’ll give an example. For a body frame, “scrawny” and “willowy” mean kinda the same thing—someone with a thin, slight built. If your character is describing the girl they’ve had a crush on forever, they’d probably use a word like “slender” or “willowy,” because they’re fond of her. A longtime rival or enemy might stick to words with a negative connotation, like “scrawny” or “bony.” For someone they’ve just met, the terms will probably be more neutral. Consider how your narrator thinks of the person they’re describing, and how that’ll affect the words they use!

I’ll include some examples…?

  • Ignoring his warning, I stepped back towards Liam and the barely-contained Suni. She was pretty, now that I got a good look at her standing up. She was half a foot shorter than my own 5’6”, with shapely curves hinted at even with her loose clothing. Maybe a bit chubby by today’s toothpick thin standards, but more with muscle than fat. Strong cheekbones and full lips accented her long mahogany face, but it was her eyes that dominated her features. Sharp aqua eyes that were fixed on Kent. If looks could kill.
  • Kent was back at my side as the knight-armored man turned to face us. Although still young, he had to be at least ten years older than me, with a broad face and warm green topaz eyes staring down a surprisingly dainty nose. Deep, carrot-red hair framed his face. When he smiled, it was kind and genuine, and it dimpled his sun-kissed cheeks.
  • “Hey, girl,” she said, grinning in a way that showed she was trying to be in with the teen slang. She was blonde like my dad, but shorter and with a little more weight around her neck and cheeks, since she didn’t have to appear on national television all the time. There was also a sparkle to her eyes and an air of carelessness in her frazzled, tied back hair and the dimpled smile of her cheeks—features I’d never see from Dad (frazzled and smiling, I mean), who was always the perfect News Anchor Ethan Cresswell.

by Rachel Scheller

The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form. Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us. 

Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.

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