5 Ways to Boost Character Descriptions

Shonna Slayton — 

Programming note: January is all about writing and revising. Our guest blogger this month is Margie Lawson. I took an online class from her last spring and learned a great way to use highlighters to critically look at my words. If you don’t already know her and her workshops you’ll meet her on Tuesday.

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book loverGraphic courtesy of Ivan Petrov

On my list of goals this year under the heading Professional Development is setting up a Novelist’s Notebook. I’ll talk more about this later, but basically I’m planning a three-ring binder filled with my own personal writing problems and solutions. Today seems like a great day to get that started…

One of my writing weaknesses is in physical description of characters, particularly when I am introducing them. When I am writing a scene it feels like author intrusion to me when I break out of POV to describe a character. Even when I try to write description in my POV character’s voice, it still feels forced. So I tend to leave it out and move on.

To overcome this hurdle I plan to:

Step 1. Make section in notebook called Character Descriptions.

Step 2. Find examples of how other authors introduce and describe their characters.

Step 3. Look at my WIPs and improve my characters’ descriptions.

Randomly pulling books off my shelf and finding character intros….None here. Next. Hmm, very interesting. It turns out I’m not the only one who tends to skip over character descriptions. I suppose that should be of some comfort! I’ll have to look through a few books to get what I’m looking for (in my genre of middle-grade books). Oh, here we go:

1. Narrator-like:


Magyk (Septimus Heap, Book 1)
by Angie Sage.

Sally Mullin was one of those people who knew everything that was going on in the Castle. She was a small, busy woman with wispy ginger hair that was forever escaping from her somewhat grubby cook’s hat. She had a pleasant round face, a little chubby from finishing off too many cakes, and her clothes were generally covered in sprinkles of flour.


Charlotte’s Web
by E. B. White

There, inside, looking up at her, was the newborn pig. It was a white one. The morning light shone through its ears, turning them pink.

(same page) At this moment, her brother Avery came into the room. Avery was ten. He was heavily armed—an air rifle in one hand, a wooden dagger in the other.

2. Actually in POV character’s head:


Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West by Marguerite Henry

I don’t remember my father clearly until I was a husky three-year-old and we were living on the outskirts of Reno. He was a tall, commanding man with dark hair and high cheek-bones like the Paiute Indians. But his eyes were blue, bright steel blue, and so deep-set I thought they went clear through to the back of his head.


Mary On Horseback: Three Mountain Stories
by Rosemary Wells

Mamma makes me fetch Biddy, the granny woman who takes care of our mountain people. Biddy is over a hundred years old but she can still rip the bark off a whole willow tree.

 

3. Description in action:


A Season of Gifts
by Richard Peck

(In this scene the poor mc has been stripped and strung up in his elderly neighbor’s outhouse. Enter the neighbor.)

Filling the doorway and then some was Mrs. Dowdel….Her old pink-rimmed eyes grew larger than her specs. She poked them back up the bridge of her nose and worked some of her chins with her free hand. I swayed. She looked my web over, up to the rafters, down to the floor. She may have admired the knots.

4. Characters describing one another in dialogue:

 

Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman

by Karen Cushman

Matilda is the POV character:

Peg moved Matilda into the weak light from the fire and peered at her. “You seem healthy enough, if a bit puny. And it’s a right sweet-looking little polli-wiggle you are, with them great green eyes and a chin like God Himself had cupped it in His hand,” Peg said, “but you’re as thin as an eel in winter.”

Polliwiggle? Eel? “I am no fish,” Matilda said, peering at her new mistress in the dim light: hair orange as a carrot peeping from beneath a greasy kerchief; a big smile that showed more spaces than teeth, although she appeared of no great age yet; and a face beslobbered with freckles, forehead to chin, ear to ear, tall and lean, plain, common, and most ill-mannered.


By Kate DiCamillo: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread

“He’s the smallest mouse I’ve ever seen,” said his aunt Florence. “It’s ridiculous. No mouse has ever, ever been this small. Not even a Tilling.” She looked at Despereaux through narrowed eyes as if she expected him to disappear entirely. “No mouse,” she said again. “Ever.” …. “Those are some big ears he’s got, too,” observed his uncle Alfred. “They look more like donkey ears, if you ask me.”

5. Self-description


A Season of Gifts
by Richard Peck

(Continuation of scene where Mrs. Dowdel rescues the mc from the embarrassing hazing by the local boys.)

So I wobbled behind her up her back walk. In the tarp I must have looked like a pup tent in sneakers. It gapped in the back. I could feel breeze all the way down.


Al Capone Does My Shirts
by Gennifer Choldenko

Now I’m five foot eleven and a half inches—as tall as my mom and a good two inches taller than my dad. My father tells people I’ve grown so much, he’s going to put my supper into pickle jars and sell it under the name Incredible Growth Formula.

(Okay, this one sneaks in a little bit of having another character describe the mc, but the mc started it.)

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What have I learned from this exercise? Surprisingly, I had to look through a lot of books to come up with some character descriptions so maybe my weakness isn’t so bad after all. However, I still want to improve, so I’ve identified five methods  I can use to build descriptions. Next I have to go look at my own WIP and make some changes.

I would love to read some more examples of character descriptions. If you’ve got a minute, randomly pick a book in your genre. See how characters are described, then leave some examples in the comments section for us!

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Shonna Slayton

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Shonna Slayton is the author of the YA novel Cinderella's Dress, a fairy tale set in the 1940s, out June 3, 2014. Visit her website at ShonnaSlayton.com for a short video and to sign up for her newsletter.

4 responses to 5 Ways to Boost Character Descriptions

  1. One character description technique I’ve always loved is relating the character’s looks to their personality. I think it’s easier to slip in that way without it feeling forced.

    Great topic and examples!

  2. Shonna Slayton at

    Stormy, your comment immediately made me think of Anne of Green Gables. I looked up the first description of her in the book and was surprised that it wasn’t just the red hair the author highlighted (decidedly red hair), but also her mouth (large–she talks a lot) eyes (large–she is intelligent) and (in some lights and MOODS–she does experience a wide variety of moods!):

    She wore a faded brown sailor hat and beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick, decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled; her mouth was large and so were her eyes, that looked green in some lights and moods and gray in others.

  3. Yes, exactly! Great example!

  4. And that way, each description has so many levels of revelation.