I still remember some of my very first character descriptions. “He had golden hair and silver eyes.” DONE.
Except a character is more than just eyes and hair. Think of character description as a way to help characterize, especially if you focus on describing their face. For example, if your character is stubborn or uncompromising, perhaps they have a firm/strong jawline. If they’re sexualized, how about some nice juicy lips? If they’re more of a pessimist, maybe a pouted mouth or some angled eyebrows? It can even be a testament to their habits, which might speak to their personality. Maybe your character gets nervous easily or has anxiety. As a result, they’ve got chewed down fingernails.
The angel’s silver wings did not gleam in the town’s pathetic glow of light. Likewise, his angel’s tattered silken cloak of black and gold would not reveal him on this evening, when the night’s events would be invaluable as he neared his hunt’s inevitable conclusion. Only when he landed in the town square did he feel exposed, all too aware of his contrast against the snow-covered cobblestone. The angel threw back his cowl to survey the scene around him, revealing fair skin, shimmering golden hair, and a sharp, chiseled face set with determination.
It’s a physical description with a bit of commentary sprinkled in, but what do we get from it? The inventory of a “tattered cloak” can mean a lot—he’s too poor to buy a new one? He’s an outcast? Even if this question isn’t answered, if you can prompt questions in a reader, go for it. It’s only a physical description, but already you should have a sense of Tristan’s character before he can even open his mouth.
Another example. What can you glean from this one? It’s got a single line of dialogue so that helps with the initial characterization, but as far as physical appearance, what information can you glean from two paragraphs?
A beautiful, ivory-skinned woman stepped from the shadows across the square. Long, raven-colored locks tumbled down her bare shoulders. Her outfit was striking—a black, skin-tight dress, cut to reveal the more appealing parts of her body.
“Tristan, dear! How nice of you to show up,” the woman purred, fluttering her long black eyelashes. Her face was narrow and angled, with full, delicate lips and round eyes, resembling an exotic and alluring nymph. With the known experience of her effect on others, the demon grinned, her deep purple eyes gleaming.
While maybe these aren’t the best examples, don’t feel like you have to describe every detail of the character all in one go. Yeah, when they’re initially introduced you probably want more description than normal, but don’t give details down to the show size. Sprinkle these things out over a few chapters. Especially if it’s important to their characterization! Tristan’s blond hair, for example, is important to the storyline and his character, so it’s occasionally mentioned. Occasionally. Don’t bring it up every single page, or you reader will get annoyed or feel like you’re hitting them over the head with the “pay attention, stupid!” stick.
Anonymous asked: How would you describe a Chinese girl’s physical appearance, specifically eyes and skin tone? I have heard describing her eyes as almond is offensive and leads to the belief that is prevalent in some Asian countries that their eyes are not good enough or beautiful, but I also don’t want to exotic-ise them. I also have poor colour perception but know my readers probably won’t, otherwise would have looked at colour swatches. Thank you
I’d start looking for Chinese people from the region of your story’s setting who would be willing to help you out with your research. Once you’ve found a few takers, politely ask them how they would describe themselves.
If you’re writing from an outsider’s perspective—that is, you’re writing not as the Chinese girl character but from the viewpoint of a non-Chinese or perhaps non-East Asian character—you might do research on how people of your viewpoint character’s culture and time period describe(d) Chinese people who look like your Chinese girl character.
And another thing: “almond-shaped” can be offensive to some, but keep in mind that not everyone takes offense to the same things. My issue with “almond-shaped” as a descriptor for what has also been termed “Asian eyes” (also a super vague and inadequate descriptor, in my opinion) is that an almond shape to the eye is one of the most common eye shapes across all races in the whole world. In my opinion, my eyes are almond-shaped, and I’m not Chinese or even East Asian.
And this descriptor has only become even more ineffectual as it has grown into a cliche. It’s just not all that helpful a term. If you feel you must describe the shape of your Chinese character’s eyes, I suggest you find another way. As with everywhere else in the world, there is a wide spectrum of diversity in eye shape among Chinese people. Luckily, there are lots of resources online with listed terms for describing eye shape and plenty of people with these eye shapes whose opinions you could ask. Google and enjoy!
The comments section of this NPR article offers up an interesting discussion on the topic of East Asian eye shape. Have a look.
As far as skin color goes—again, this characteristic can vary widely. You would need to research time period, region, and social class at the very least to help pinpoint the most likely skin colors of your Chinese girl character.
The viewpoint character is also important here. If the viewpoint character is a white guy, for example, he might describe your Chinese girl character’s skin as darker or browner (or perhaps not, depending) or smoother or less freckled than his own. If the Chinese girl herself is the viewpoint character, then others would be darker or lighter or tanner or browner or pinker or milkier or fairer or whiter or more wrinkled or less blemished or whatever-er compared to her. Do you see what I mean?
Skin color is not as simple as brown or not brown and then a variance of darker to lighter. Skin has tones. It has many colors, blemishes, and scars. It can be hairy or smooth or cracked and dry or shiny or beaded with sweat or lined or tired-looking or freckled or colored with a blush or drained of color or sallow or firm or supple.
Countries and cultures are not made up of clones. People are distinct, and that distinction is worth noting. There is nuance in all things, and it’s your job as a writer to capture it.
Thanks for your question! If any of our followers have suggestions for the anon, feel free to comment on this post or send us a message!
metaphoricaluniverse asked: To the person describing a Chinese character, I’d steer away from “almond shape eyes” because it is so controversial. I’m not sure what kind of Chinese you want, but generally the eyes are single lidded, and wide-set. As for skin color, if you’re going light, I’d avoid porcelain. I don’t find “food” descriptions (e.g. creamy) offensive but some people do. If you’re going darker, I’ve personally heard my skin described as golden, honey, tawny, all of which I don’t mind. Hope that helps(:
Thank you! I want to reiterate that the use of “almond-shaped” to describe people with certain eye shapes is a matter of preference. Some people take offense to it, others don’t care. I find it to be as cliched as it is ineffectual in its ambiguity. Ah well.
I don’t like to use words like “generally” when speaking of populations as large as China’s (over 1.3 billion in 2013), but I appreciate the benefit of your opinion. “Single-lidded” eyes are certainly common in China and throughout East Asia, as are “double-lidded” eyes and eyes that fall somewhere in between (yes, there is a spectrum to be found here as well).
“Food” descriptions, or the use of words like “chocolate” or “honey” to describe skin tone, can be offensive to some, similarly to the use of “almond"—also a food—to describe eye shape. Whatever words you use, anon, be sure that you are describing your character as you wish her to be represented after careful research and consideration on your part of both your style and your audience. That’s the most anyone can hope for from a writer: thoughtfulness.
Anyway, thank you to metaphoricaluniverse for their reply!
Anonymous asked: I came across the ask of how do you describe the appearance of a Chinese girl and I thought I could help a little, being Chinese myself. There are Chinese with big eyes and small ones, so it just depends on how you want your character to look like. Chinese people are generally fair or slight tanned because quite a lot use whitening cream and cover their skin from the sun and there are the tanned ones like me because they are more sporty and outdoors, so that can contribute to the personality.
Again, I’m uncomfortable with using that word "generally” to describe over 1.3 billion people, but thank you so much for taking the time to provide your point of view! I am sure the anon will find your perspective helpful!
xxbscxx said: To the Anon asking about how to describe Chinese girls. I’m Chinese so I guess I’ll say what I know. There are actually different ways to describe a the eyes. I’ve seen some Chinese girls with big doe eyes and some with “almond eyes”, it all depends. The hair, well, we commonly have two/three textures: silky, oily, or dry. Pretty much your average type of hair. Skin colour would vary from brown (if they tan easily. I’m serious), “yellow”, or near pale in some cases (this is more common).
Thank you for your input! I think your message further illustrates the amount of diversity under the umbrella term Chinese. Wonderful, wonderful!
Great characters don’t always make sense. I mean, yeah, they tend to follow the same patterns but they don’t always do the same thing. Part of being human is our ability to choose, so, give your characters some choices and they’ll be more human as a result! You should never think in formulas when you’re in your characters head. Always exceptions, of course, but unless your character is supposed to have a very formulated thought process, you shouldn’t be going, “because she’s X, she’ll do X” or “because he hates X, he’d never agree to X.” There should always be reasons for your character to consider the things you think they’d never agree to.
Take, for example, my character Alice. She’s stubborn and selfish as all heck. Selfish to the point of cruel, at times. She will (and has) made other characters cry with her inclination to assume the worst in people and always look out for herself. And once she feels justified in her selfishness, she’ll get so deep into that rut that she absolutely refuses to consider other viewpoints. She’s often the only voice of truth in her world, in all her biased glory. But this same character spent over an hour in the pouring rain, looking for a girl she’d only just met. Alice had to be forcibly removed from the storm by two more reasonable-minded characters, and even then she couldn’t get the other girl off her mind. It was killing her that she couldn’t do more to help a stranger that was in such obvious emotional pain, alone and in the rain while Alice was warm and dry at home.
So does this single incident of kindness poof away her selfishness? Not at all. She can be selfish and selfless at the same time. Don’t we all act the same? Sometimes we’ll share a Hershey’s bar with friends, while other times we want it for ourselves. Yes, people can be predictable. But there are so many thoughts and considerations that go into a character’s decision making, so it should never be a solid black or white answer. And it’s not just the choice; it’s also the thought process that goes into that choice. Have recent events affected their thinking? Maybe they got a random act of kindness and felt inclined/expected to pass it on? Maybe they’re just having a better or worse day than normal. In any case, they should struggle over their choices. Some decisions will come easier than others, and sometimes they land on a choice that you wouldn’t expect from them. Why? Who really knows? People are paradoxes. They contradict themselves. I think a lot of this relates back to core values and how your character chooses to balance what they believe in.
This is probably a topic I’ll bring up a lot. Clinging to a tight mindset on who your character is will often only make your character seem flat and contrived as a result. It’s suffocating to your characters to think they can be easily defined, or to label them based on a few traits.
Seriously, Alice still surprises me and I’ve been writing 1st person from her head for the last year. I recently found out that another of my characters knows her better than I do. Embarrassing.
So I wrote this essay for class. Transitions are hard, and usually they’re boring as heck to write. But did you know that great scene setting can develop your character?! Crazy, right? I’m not even just saying that to get followers. It all has to do with why certain aspects of the setting are important to your character, and expanding from there.
As far as time transitions, that’s relevant to this blog because the essay talks about how time transitions can develop a relationship. I mean, you don’t want to write out every second the two spend together. If you’d like to gloss over months in a few pages, then here’s enough info to get you started. And, well, a developing relationship will change your character. So yeah, this is in an essay format but it’s an easy read I think and hope, so maybe you’ll learn something.
Also if you’ve never read anything by R.A. Salvatore, I just want to let you all know that I love him and he’s my hero.