Disclaimer: I am not the writer of any of the works mentioned in this guide.

The Sane Writer's Guide To: Character Description

Tell, Don't Show

Picture your character in your mind. What kind of person are they? What do they care about? What do they despise? Who are they?

You, the author, know who your character is. However, how do you get the reader to understand them as well?

There are multiple techniques for getting the reader to honestly "see" your character, but simple description is arguably the best.

Character description is very similar to description in general, but it bears a few important differences.

It is exceedingly easy to tell a reader what a character looks like. The difficult part is telling the reader what the character is like. For instance, Stephenie Meyer describes the character Rosalie in the novel Twilight like so: "She had a beautiful figure, the kind that you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that made every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in th same room. Her hair was golden, gently waving to the middle of her back." Despite the fact that the author has just given us a mini-paragraph extolling her character's beauty, we still know very little about Rosalie from this piece. Other than the facts that she is extremely beautiful and has golden hair, we don't know anything about Rosalie as a person. This description is ineffective.

A better example of character description is found in the book Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. She described her protagonist, Cimorene, as "Lovely enough, but her hair was jet black, and she wore it in braids instead of curled and pinned like her sisters....and she wouldn't stop growing. Her parents were quite sure that no prince would want to marry a girl who could look him in the eye instead of gazing up at him becomingly through her lashes." This segment reveals to us not only the facts that Cimorene has black hair, but that she wears it in braids, which is seen as unprincesslike, and that she is tall, which her parents see as detrimental towards her marriage prospects. This segment tells us more about Cimorene than the previous one told us about Rosalie, and therefore is more effective.

The question is, how do you improve otherwise bland and boring character description?

"She had blond hair."

What do we know about this character? Effectively, all the reader knows is that the character is a blond female. This detail tells us next to nothing and is therefore useless. Tell what your character is like instead of showing.

"She had carefully-styled long blond hair with an intricate braid falling down her back."

This sentence is much better. It tells us not only that the character is blond and female, but that she puts a lot of effort into her hair.

Why not try adding a detail?

"She had carefully-styled long blond hair with an intricate braid falling down her back, and she wore a battered black fedora adorned by a white feather."

The description of the hat contradicts the on given for the character's hair. The hat is obviously not in its best condition, and this character seems to think a lot of her appearance. Why, then, would she wear the hat? Does the hat have a specific meaning? Is the hat important to her in some way? Will the hat impact the plot?

"She had blond hair."

"She had carefully-styled long blond hair with an intricate braid falling down her back, and she wore a battered black fedora adorned by a white feather."

Second one tells us a lot more, right?

Appearance can also hint at a character's interests.

"She was muscular and tanned, her sneakers worn and broken in."

From the information given here, the reader can determine that the character spends a lot of time outdoors as seen by the tanning and engages in a physical activity, seen by the muscular description. Coupling this information with the description of the well-worn sneakers, and the reader can infer that this character is an athlete, most likely a jogger or track runner.

A pale-skinned person probably doesn't go out into the sun often. A boy wearing a shirt the logo of a popular skateboard brand probably likes skateboards or skateboards himself. A man who wears a formal suit and tie is probably a businessman - and if he's almost always wearing suits and ties with no variation, he might be a workaholic. See the pattern?

Although some writers condemn character description as time-wasting and unimportant, it can be good if it is used for a concrete purpose. Character description can do a lot more than merely tell the reader what color hair a character has, it can tell the reader what kind of person the character is.

Like all writing techniques, some find character description easier while others find it more difficult. However, the ability to describe characters well is something that all writers should have a grasp on, merely due to its versatility. Be patient. Look in the mirror. Close your eyes and see.

Good luck to all of you.

Author's note: My apologies for the lateness of this piece, coping with the time change was more difficult than I expected.

Special thanks to Kearston Marie for requesting this Sane Writer's Guide. If you wish to make a request, just mention it in a review or send me a PM, and I'll do my best to help you.

However, if you're in need for other writing-related assistance or merely a good way to procrastinate, my writing forum, Dancing in the Kitchen, is always open. The link's in my profile, so why not drop in?

Thanks for reading, and review if you can!