A Better Way To Describe Characters

When I teach my students to add description, I tend to get something like this.

Mary, who had long brown hair and green eyes, was wearing a green t-shirt and blue jeans. Her sneakers were white with blue stripes. She was 28 years old and tall.

While this is a fine description, it is only psychical and it’s too much right at once. We don’t speak that way. If we met someone new and told a friend about them, we would focus less on the physical description and more on what they said or did.

So I like to do a character sketch of my main characters and then use pieces as I go. Some things to include in a character sketch:

Physical Description: This is important so readers get a picture of your character in their head, but it doesn’t need to be all at once. Maybe the first time I discuss the character, I mention her brown hair. Maybe the next time, I mention her green eyes. Maybe I say something like “jeans and a t-shirt must be her favorite outfit because that’s all I ever see her wear.” These little clues will tell a reader as they go about the character without vomiting it on them all at once. Also think of facial features that make a character stand out – cleft in the chin, dimple, dusting of freckles across the nose. Anything that gives them something special will help them be remembered.

Gestures/speech: Not all characters have a distinctive speech, but if you try to give your character an accent and don’t do it well, it falls flat. So think of your character. Are they educated or would they use slang? Do they have a favorite word they say a lot (think Jo in Little Women with her “Christopher Columbus”)? Are they a super proper woman who says “dear” all the time or something along those lines? Do they have a gesture they do in certain situations? Like do they shift their weight from one foot to the other when they have to speak in front of other people? Do they chew a fingernail if they’re nervous? Do they eat an entire bag of potato chips when they’re sad?

Motivations/Traits: Your character should have a few personality traits that stand out. Hopefully they are good traits like courage, loyalty, etc. Your character should have a flaw to feel more human, but don’t make them so flawed that readers don’t like them. Also don’t make them so perfect that readers find them unbelievable. And they need a motivation for what they do. If your character always sticks up for the little guy, why do they do that? Were they picked on as a child? If your character flies off the handle when called names was it because they were abused as a child? Motivations will help you discover your character and will make them more real.

After you have this character sketch, you can then take pieces and weave them in each time you talk about your character. So mention a hair color or a favorite shirt, then the next time mention a nervous gesture (if the situation warrants), then the next time mention a character trait. This will still leave the reader with a picture of your character, but will keep them reading to find out more of why they do the things they do.

Happy writing and please feel free to send me any questions you may have on this.

Lorana Hoopes is a Christian author who focuses on the inspirational with a touch of romance.Her books are available at Amazon.

Heartbeats series