She had blue eyes, brown hair, a blue jumper and a look of boredom that had been there since she read this description of herself.
We've all been guilty of lazy writing like this before. So, what follows are three tips to avoid listing your characters' attributes and elevate your description to make it pop.
Select Meaningful Points of Focus
Think about what you are telling your readers with your physical description. Yes, you are telling us what your characters look like, but you could be showing us so much more. What would you like us to see about your characters that’s unique to them and builds on character development?
Think about that blue jumper. She wore a blue jumper. Anyone can wear a blue jumper, but ask yourself how your character is wearing it and what it says about them. Is it new or old? Tightfitting or loose and worn? Are the sleeves rolled up? This will give you a starting point, but take it further so this jumper could only belong to your character. Does it have stains down the front? Does she fiddle with the loose threads? Perhaps it’s not a jumper at all but a t-shirt with a slogan that shows your character’s unique perspective; a shirt that he sweats through within minutes of putting it on; a painters’ shirt with more paint on it than the canvas.
And those blue eyes? She had blue eyes. What are they telling us about the character? Seventeen percent of the world’s population has blue eyes (thank you, Google). What sets your character apart from the others? What are they expressing or looking at? Do they blink particularly slowly or quickly or linger, thirsty to drink in the world around him? Or maybe there is another focal point that will tell us more about this character? His/her hands, feet, necklace, tattoo, hat, teeth?
Carefully selecting focus points is a great approach to take when describing all other aspects of your book. Think beyond literal description and about what you would like to show readers. Think about the perspective of the character viewing the room or the dog or the sky; does it affect the way you describe it? Think about who the garden or car or phone belong to; what does your description tell us about them? Use description to your advantage to reveal and develop character and plot.
Show Your Description in Action
I have touched on this in the first tip, when the character fiddles with the loose strand on the blue jumper or his blue eyes linger on the world around him. Adding movement/interaction will paint a stronger picture of your characters beyond 2D descriptions, and you are killing two birds with one stone: avoiding directly telling readers how a character feels (the greatest writing sin!) and creating more dynamic description. So, 'The nervous woman in the blue jumper' becomes 'The fidgety woman fiddling with the loose strands on her worn jumper'. 'The miserable-looking man at the bar with the blue eyes' becomes 'The man at the bar who hasn’t looked up from the glass of warm beer in his hand for the last hour nor taken a sip of it'.
Even when you are not particularly saying much of anything about a character with your description and you really do just want a character to have blonde hair and blue eyes, it will be more powerfully shown dynamically rather than in list form. So, ‘She had blonde hair’ becomes ‘I hadn’t noticed just how blonde her hair was until we were out in the light’. ‘He had blue eyes’ becomes ‘Those blue eyes got me every time. How could I say no?’.Again, use dynamic description throughout the book, beyond character description, to elevate your writing.
Use all the Senses
So far, we have only looked at visual description, but there are five senses to play with, and the other four are quite often forgotten. What sounds does a person make and what do they tell us about the character? Perhaps they are so softly spoken that it’s almost as if they don’t want to be heard. Perhaps they crack their knuckles so loudly that it makes her jump every time. Perhaps the suit was so cheap that it squeaked. What about smell? Everyone has a unique smell and every smell tells a story. There are obvious smells, like BO and perfume, but it’s the unusual smells that get the cogs turning: ‘It was an odd combination of cinnamon and WD40; don’t ask me what she had spent the day doing.’
The more intimate senses are useful when characters are up close and personal, but touch also has a place in general character descriptions. Think of a simple handshake and what this could tell us about a character. Is it firm or soft? Hot or cold? Rough or soft?
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