Describing Characters Through 'Showing'
Describing characters can be a little bit of a ‘telling’ minefield. While you are almost certainly going to end up with some ‘told’ description of a character, try to keep it to a minimum, ‘showing’ things about their appearance through action and dialogue instead.
Instead of ‘She was short’, use ‘She clambered onto the chair, her legs dangling several inches above the floor’
Instead of ‘He was tall’, use ‘He ducked under the doorway’
Instead of ‘He was a smoker’, use ‘He shook my hand, his yellowed fingers leaving the scent of cigarettes on mine’
Instead of ‘She had bad teeth’, use ‘She laughed, instinctively covering her open mouth with her hand’
So you see how a lot of information can be shown to your readers rather than simply told to them.
And remember that your readers have imaginations, imaginations that they enjoy using. Let them fill in the gaps - don’t give them a detailed head to toe description laying out mole and strand of hair.
Sweetening up character description
Anonymous asked you:
This is a bit of a mediocre question, but how do I say my character’s hair? It’s a dirty blonde, but sometimes I think I can just shorten in to “blonde.” Should I include “dirty,” because of the brown coloring?
Anonymous asked you:
Hey there, I have a question! Grammar isn’t a big problem for me, but I just don’t know how to make beautiful comparisons (example: “Her eyes were blue.” => “She had a piece of the sky in her eyes.”). I’ve been reading many books and poems lately in an attempt to improve my writing, but whenever I try to create something of my own, it doesn’t feel right… Do you have any tips regarding this? Thanks in advance!
Alex just held a discussion about description on RFW yesterday. There’re lots of good opinions to find.
WW just posted a great list of links with description examples and how-to’s that made me hit my head off the wall because I ended up going through a fifteen minute phase of “MY DESCRIPTIONS ARE INADEQUATE.” (To which my cure was simply backtracking and changing up descriptions where I should have anyway, and that made me feel a whole lot better.)
So, here are my thoughts:
Description is important. Personally, when eye or hair or skin color is described with simple terms (and often cliché staples), such as pale blond or sky blue, I tend not to remember it. Character description should stick, not dribble away like watery glue. Not only does the writer need to give the reader description worth remembering, the writer also needs to give the reader a reason to remember it.
As an example, it’s one thing to say her flesh had turned gold from years in the sun.
It’s something else to say her flesh had the same tarnished gold color of the wedding band around her ring finger after waiting on the rotting porch under the Dust Bowl sun for her husband to return—a man fifty-two years dead.
It also depends on the POV and your character’s voice. Would the character in question see this woman as described above? Or would they think her skin looked like leather? Would they notice the white spots of early skin cancer? The cracked lips and yellowed teeth of a chain-smoker? The ruddy cheeks of a liver saturated in whiskey? Look through the lenses of your characters, see what they see as they see it, as the two characters interact.
Sometimes, basic descriptions are all that’s needed, especially for throw-away characters that readers won’t ever see again. Sometimes, the character whose eyes we’re seeing through simply isn’t the poetic type, and to write as if they are would be dishonest to that character’s voice. With that said, however, they should still have something interesting to say about what they see. This is what helps make character voice memorable.
Having trouble creating your own descriptions (especially metaphors) is perfectly natural. You see really good writing and you want to write just like that, but your skill level isn’t there yet. This is okay. I was just having this discussion with Victoria the other day, how we start out with utilizing clichés and replicating what we read, and then we grow from there and find our own style. You’re at the point where you’re looking for your own style.
Here’re some tips on developing your style:
- Read the good stuff. Write down the pieces of description that stick with you. Keep a little journal of them.
- Sit in a place that gives you the freedom to think. I can’t write in a public setting, for instance. I need a cozy room with a big window, preferably with a tree or something. I like trees. They’re nice.
- Practice with drabbles or flash fiction. Write whatever comes to mind. Write without thinking. Don’t stop to look back or judge your writing, just write. Make a collection. If you need prompts: here and here and here.
- Write selfishly. I write my first drafts like this, which means I really don’t care how much is too much on the first time around. This is how I can get everything on the page, then pare it down to just the best stuff.
- Before you revise, let it sit. Let it sit for a while. A day, a week, however long you can stand. Then, come back to it and let yourself feel proud of something in what you wrote.
- Revising is just as much a learning process as writing, because now you can teach yourself about word choice and how every word should be specific and carry its weight.
- Repeat the above a million times.
Sometimes I get really killer metaphors, like, “Holy Fish Paste, I can’t believe I wrote that.”
Sometimes I get really cringe-worthy metaphors that make me look at the really good stuff and go, “MY DESCRIPTIONS ARE INADEQUATE.”
But first drafts are allowed to suck.
Repeat this mantra in your head: first drafts are allowed to suck.
First drafts hold your place so you can come back during revision and freshen up that stale metaphor with something more original, more accurate, and more involved with the character or the setting than just a grocery list of terms. And, heck, if you need just a grocery list of terms to hold your place until you can come back a little wiser later, that’s cool. Do that. I do it all the time. Trying to make everything perfect on the first go is frustrating and truly taxing. The most important part is that you get something down.
In essence, practice. Write a lot. Learn to see things better than you already do. Write some more. Revise. This will help you build up on your writing toolbox and give you more creative freedom to hit those awesome descriptions.
Hope that helps you both! Good luck!