Writing any kind of description can be a fine line. If you share too much, you risk taking your reader out of your story. If you don’t share enough, you leave your reader confused. Characters are important, and there’s a lot a writer can potentially describe. Selecting the most important details can be overwhelming. Maybe there is no true “right” way to describe a character–it’s all a matter of preference–but in my opinion, a lot of writers waste words describing the wrong details.
For any kind of description, there’s a rule I like to follow; if readers don’t need to know, don’t tell them.
Here’s how I break that down for character purposes.
What a reader does need to know:
Anything that defines the character personally or emotionally. These are the elements that readers will connect with. They’ll see these qualities in themselves, their friends, their family members, or the people they’ve encountered over time. These are the details that make your characters real.
These are also the character details that drive your story. Their personality and temperament tells you how they will react in the different situations you put them in. Which is why you want to give them most of your descriptive attention.
Here’s are three areas I focus on when describing my characters:
1) Their personality. This is the most important element to describe. This tells us who your character is and why readers should care. Are they kind? Are they loud? How do they react under pressure? Do they reassure others, or are they the ones who need to be reassured? Do they thank the waiter at a restaurant or talk down to them? This list could go on. If you’re looking for tips on developing your character, check out this post with three tips to create strong characters.
2) Their quirks. Do they pick at their fingernails? Or are they incapable of looking someone in the eye? Anything that makes your character unique or adds to their behavior should be described.
3)Their energy. Does the room fall silent when your character enters? Or does everyone else get tense simply because this person is present? To they instill confidence? The energy your character carries and how the dynamic of a room changes when they enter says A LOT about who your character is, how others see them, and the role they play. Take time to describe it.
What a reader doesn’t need to know:
A character’s physical appearance. Now sure, there should be some description here, but it should be minimal. In my opinion, a lot of writers have a habit of giving too much here.
There are a few reasons behind this school of thought. First, from a practical standpoint, you only have so many words you can cram into a book. You can use those words describing what a character looks like or you can capture their personality and behaviors. As we talked about, the latter tells readers a lot more about the character than the former, which is why I rarely waste my word count on appearance.
Additionally, as a reader, I don’t really care all that much about what a character looks like. It’s not like watching a movie. I don’t have to physically recognize a character when they walk on to the page. As a reader, I recognize the energy, dynamic, and personality they bring to a scene.
Also, I think one of the joys of writing books is that we do not work alone. Half of the story belongs to the writer, but the other half belongs to the reader and their imagination. I tell the reader what I need them to know in order for me to tell my half of the story effectively. Everything else I leave up to them. I believe that the less detail you give, the more of an opportunity readers have to see themselves in the characters. This allows the reader to take some ownership of the story, which I think makes it more fun for everyone.
Here are some guidelines I use for a character’s physical description:
1) I shoot for one defining physical characteristic for each character. Maybe it’s their hair, eye color, or something about their size. This gives the reader something to latch onto while still giving them plenty of room to imagine the character as they’d like.
2) Any important marks, scars, or physical feature that is in some way adds to my character’s story or personality. For example, in Crossing the Line, I mention my main character has a circular burn scar near her left ear. This scar acts as a vehicle to her past and plays a small role in the story. And going off the point above, I gave my character thick curly hair as her distinguishing feature because I knew I wanted her to use her hair to hide that scar.
3) How they move. Do they strut? Shuffle? Wander aimlessly? Do they have some kind of compulsive behavior? These features tell us a lot about their self-image and state of mind.
Every other physical detail is the reader’s call.
As always, I hope this helps!
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Now it’s your turn: What description do you focus on for your characters? As a reader, what do you care most about? Tell me about it in the comments. If you have any tips to share, you can leave them there as well!