Discussion Character Descriptions

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction and Writing Resource' started by Shekel_1383, Jul 4, 2016.

  1. Shekel_1383

    Shekel_1383 Jedi Knight star 1

    Jan 2, 2016
    Hello fellow authors!

    I'm about to start writing my first fan fiction, but one thing I sometimes run into while writing is when I describe a new character. You want to give enough detail to get a good picture of the character in the reader's head, thus (given my obsession with creating fleshed-out characters), I sometimes ramble on.

    So, an advise on describing new characters?

  2. Thumper09

    Thumper09 Force Ghost star 4

    Dec 9, 2001
    I'll warn you now that this is a long post. :p I did a presentation on this topic for my local writing group once, as much to help myself as anyone else since I had trouble with it. While I'm still learning how to put these things into practice, I discovered some tips during my research that I find helpful. Others may disagree or have different viewpoints, which is fine since there's no one-size-fits-all to writing.

    My main research sources: Describing a Character's Physical Appearance, Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress, and Elements of Fiction Writing: Description by Monica Wood.

    In general, try to avoid regurgitating details in a long paragraph of nothing but character description. It sounds more like a police APB, it halts the story's momentum, and a reader's mind can gloss over and forget those details. Spacing things out is very helpful.

    Make each descriptive word work harder, and don't describe something just for the sake of describing it. There should be a reason for each word of description in a story; it can both create a vivid picture for the reader and also teach us about the character's personality at the same time.

    To use appearance to indicate personality, Dynamic Characters used this example from Stephen King's Carrie:

    A writer can also use the character's reaction to his/her own appearance to indicate personality. How does the character feel about his build or height or hair color? Does it cause him to act a certain way? Does he want to change his appearance, and if so, why?

    A character's appearance or clothing can indicate a temporary mindset/situation. Is a normally smooth-skinned man now unshaven because he's upset? Etc.

    Dress can also indicate deeper personality, since it's one aspect of a character's appearance they may be able to choose themselves. If they do, what can this tell us about why the character chose to dress that way? How does your character want to appear to the world? Does it match who he really is? Why or why not? Is she trying to overcome or hide something? Blend in or stand out? If the character can't choose their clothing, like with a work uniform, how do they feel about it?

    Clothing can also help define the setting (cowboy hats vs. wedding veils) and can be used in the plot. For example, belts can be used to tie/brace things or used as weapons. Shirts can be impromptu blindfolds, bandages, flotation devices, or hand protection. Shoes can be projectile weapons.

    Use other senses to describe your character: the sound of their voice, their smell, etc. What does this tell us about what they do or how they spend their time? How do other characters react to those sensory inputs?

    If something about a character's appearance is important to the plot, it can be introduced in that context. Does it drive the way other characters react to him? These are two examples from the Elements of Fiction Writing: Description book:
    Another character can point out physical attributes, but be careful to have it be natural to the dialogue with a reason for the comment, not just using them as a mouthpiece to rattle off description.

    The Elements of Fiction Writing book goes into how to describe a First Person POV narrator without "the mirror method," but I'm not going to get into that here unless someone wants me to. :p
    Kurisan, Glor, Chyntuck and 4 others like this.
  3. Shekel_1383

    Shekel_1383 Jedi Knight star 1

    Jan 2, 2016
    wow, thanks man, this was actually really helpful!

    As for First Person writing, I'm not a massive fan of the style, so I 99% of the time write in a Third Person Narrative
  4. Chyntuck

    Chyntuck Force Ghost star 5

    Jul 11, 2014
    Wow Thumper09 that was a great post!

    Shekel_1383 Have a look at this. It's an on-going fanfic challenge here on the boards, there are a couple of topics about characters where you may find something useful (be warned, it's a looooong read :p but there's a table of contents to help you navigate the thread).
  5. Kurisan

    Kurisan Jedi Master star 4

    Apr 26, 2016
    Hey Shekel_1383 , Thumper09 has hit most of the nails on the head for you. I just want to add one little thing: Less is more.

    As already stated, a long paragraph describing a character is boring, and is actually a kind of exposition (direct lecturing from the writer to the reader). Best avoided. Even the old "He looked at himself in the mirror..." method is getting kinda tired.

    So, yeah, slip your details into the actual story - you know, sentences with verbs describing what is actually happening...

    Like this: "The towering Zabrak lumbered down the passage. His horns scraped on the low ceiling. A sound behind. He spun, whirling his dreadlocks."

    Stage 1, use a limited "palette" of words to describe your character. Too many adjectives actually dilute the image the reader gets and take away from the power of a description.

    "He was tall, broad, thickset, stumpy-legged, muscular..." and so on... Eh? Which is it? A single, really powerful adjective can do all the work for you (the brilliance of Catch 22 notwithstanding). And don't do passive sentences with "was" as the verb.

    "The brawny man walked slowly, carefully, quietly down the passage."

    Now we can go to stage 2: Nouns. A powerful noun can be almost as eyeball-kick-inducing as an expertly placed adjective.

    "The brute walked slowly, carefully, quietly down the passage."

    Finally, we can go to stage 3: Verbs. These are the real meat of a sentence along with the nouns. Fresh ingredients make for vivid tastes! Adjectives are like spices - just one or two or they start to overwhelm each other and make a mess - like using too many colours in a painting. By the way, adverbs are like e-numbers: Occasionally necessary to preserve meaning, but taste like crap and best dispensed with entirely. So now we get this...

    "The brute crept down the passage."

    The noun and verb tell us not only what is happening, but also the manner of the action and state of mind of the subject. Finally, the reader can get a vivid image of what the character looks like as well as his nature. Replace "crept" with "barreled" for an entirely different image. How about "marched", "breezed", "promenaded"!

    For an entirely different character, "The waif ghosted down the passage."

    The greatest special effects machine is still the human mind's eye. You don't need to input every single tiny detail of your character. Just one or two telling features and let the reader do the rest through imagination. You can even run the risk of them getting an image slightly different to that you intended. Escpecially for your main protagonists (and particularly the POV character) it can even be benificial to avoid description and let the reader project themselves onto that character. Let them drift into the fictional dream that is your story.

    Hope this helps!
  6. Cushing's Admirer

    Cushing's Admirer Chosen One star 7

    Jun 8, 2006
    I'd offer to write what you as creator feels suits the character and piece. Cushy is descriptive and wordy. I have gotten better at not doing it all at once or being repetitive as much over time. Don't be afraid to read different styles or study thesauri or dictionaries for vocabulary variety either. A writer writes for the craft and themselves first. :)