Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing Child Characters

Whenever I write a ‘writing tips’ style of post here on Penstricken about how to deal with one problem or another, it’s often as a result of me having recently encountered and overcome that particular problem myself. Today is no different, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I share my limited insights into the challenge of writing child characters.

It can be tempting to approach child characters differently from adults. Don’t fall into this trap. A character is a character, regardless of age. They are all imaginary people made up of motivations, goals, backstories, dialogue and all that wonderful stuff. Therefore, the exact same rules and techniques apply to creating child characters as they do to making adult characters. The only real difference is how you apply these familiar principles to making a child character.

Let’s start with the basics. When you created your adult characters, you undoubtedly prepared a detailed biography of every character detailing everything from their name and address to their favourite invertebrates (didn’t you?).

Well, this may sound obvious to some of you but it’s too important to leave unsaid: Your child characters’ biographies should be every bit as detailed as your adult characters’ biographies.

A name, an age and a gender is not sufficient to create a rounded child character anymore than it is sufficient to an adult. Take my daughter for example. In addition to these things, she has a height, a weight, a hair colour, an ethnic group, a national identity, a citizenship, a place of birth, an eye colour, a whole bunch of associates who interact with her regularly, a social status, things she’s good at (e.g. saying ‘mum’), things she’s not quite mastered yet (e.g. saying ‘dad’), things she likes (Mr. Lion) and things she dislikes (mushed up banana). She has a physical appearance which can be described in objective terms and she has a backstory (that is, I can think of several key events in her short life so far which have had an impact on who she is now and who she will be in the future). She is being raised with particular beliefs and she has a distinctive personality.

And she’s not even one year old yet. Don’t cut corners. Give your child characters detailed biographies.

Moving on from there, it’s important to remember that children, like adults, vary in their complex natures and are capable of a wide range of feelings and ideas, just like adults are. They have beliefs and uncertainties; goals and motives and everything else besides. Some are thoughtful while others are impulsive. Some prefer imaginative play while others are interested in puzzles and games. Some are chatterboxes, some are painfully shy. Et cetera.

Therefore, when you come to write your child character, it is vital that you have clearly established his or her motivation, (what drives them to do what they do), goals (what they hope to achieve), conflict (what hinders them from achieving their goal) and epiphany (what they learn as a result of it), just like you would with an adult. I’ve written about this in more detail here, so I’ll assume you understand how this all works in general terms.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is assuming children don’t need all this stuff. They need it just as much as adult characters. The only difference is what motivates them, what they hope to achieve, what hinders them and what they will learn. Even so, when you boil these elements (especially the all-important motive) down to basics, you’ll find a lot of parallels. They may be driven by personal ambition, a noble cause, the desire for friendship or many other things besides. It’s only the particular details that will be significantly different. For example…

Motivation Amy (8 years old) wants to be accepted by her peers.
Goals To acquire the full range of Pogs and Tazos (because this story is set in the ’90s; ask your parents, kids).
Conflict Amy’s parents think Pogs and Tazos are a fantastic waste of money and absolutely refuses to indulge her.
Epiphany  If you have to acquire the all trendiest things to win somebody’s respect, their respect isn’t worth having coveting.

Amy’s motivation, you will agree, could just as easily be that of an adult character. However the goals, conflict and epiphany which derive from it are far more peculiar to children. It is, therefore, the particular details that separate adults’ goals and motives from childrens’.

One more important difference between adult and child characters is how they express themselves, whether in terms of what they say or what they do. For instance,

  • A shy adult at a party will make awkward small-talk, silently wishing he was somewhere else. A shy child will hide under a table and refuse to come out.
  • An adult at the buffet table might be quietly annoyed to discover the pigs-in-blankets have all gone before he got any– but won’t say anything. A child, on the other hand, might cry inconsolably over the empty plate, or try to beg someone else to share theirs. A more shrewd child (because believe me, children can be shrewd!) might even try to trade a sausage roll for it, even though there’s still plenty of sausage rolls available at the buffet table.

Dialogue is also important in this regard. There are two key things to note.

  1. Children generally don’t mince their words. They say what they mean and they mean what they say, even if it’s inappropriate or rude. Avoid innuendos, double entendres and euphemisms.
  2. Children may have insightful or complex ideas, without necessarily having the vocabulary to communicate them. What they say, therefore, should reflect their level of education. Use shorter words and shorter sentences. Avoid code switching or cultural references that a child is unlikely to understand.

I find the simplest way to write children’s dialogue is to begin by writing it normally and then simplifying it. Keep sentences short and to-the-point and use big words sparingly. Don’t fall into the trap of filling your dialogue with deliberate mistakes, however. Children are not stupid. They just have a more simple language than adults with which to communicate (or ‘they don’t know as many words as grown-ups’).


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