‘Showing’ Character Description

Description should be like tasty nuggets of information readers cherry pick out of the pages before them. Not a nutritional paragraph of data they must swallow.

This post is all about revising your words to get the more ‘show’ and less ‘tell’ in your character descriptions.

For Secondary Characters: Too much description gets boring. The classic scene where the character examines themselves in a mirror or mentally… Aren’t you sick of it? A few well selected words can make all the difference over a paragraph of description.

For example, Sweat trickled down Jimmy’s cheek as he strolled off the cruise ship into Honolulu port his wife close behind.

What does Jimmy look like? I didn’t tell you but in your head Jimmy is a middle aged man dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, sandals and maybe a wide brimmed hat with a smear of sunscreen across his face. Right? My point is the reader can fill in a lot of gaps with what is ‘typical.’ You should describe the parts of your character that are atypical.

When to Describe: If you are going to describe something do it as closely to the first meeting as possible. It gets frustrating when something is not described until later in the book and the picture in your head is now all wrong. Sometimes you can’t describe someone on the spot but do your best to give at least a peak into where the mental picture should start.

For example: Sandy followed Jimmy down the gangplank catching a glimps of the sailors moving cargo through her oversized sunglasses.

What does Sandy look like in your head? Why mention oversized sunglasses and not her sundress? The words matter, because the glasses make you think she is trendy and on the prowl and we are now worried for Jimmy.

But if I had said, Sandy followed Jimmy down the gangplank her sundress loose in the breeze as she caught a glimpse of the sailors moving cargo.

Now Sandy is softer in nature and it seems Jimmy has a good companion. The story has totally changed because of your character description. Make it count! Lets continue with this second version of Sandy, she seems nicer.

For Main Characters: Your reader wants to identify with the main character so why limit them with ethnicity, weight, etc. If it’s relevant to the story that’s fine but readers don’t want a spec sheet. Should you know what your character looks like? Absolutely! But does it matter to the book?

For example: Jimmy waited with a smile, watching as Sandy caught up to him on the busy street. ‘I’m so lucky,’ he whispered into her ear as they continued down the road hand in hand.

We now know so much more, but where is the character description? By the context we know Jimmy thinks Sandy is beautiful because he says he is lucky. But what is beautiful to you? My version of beautiful is different than yours. For this story it doesn’t matter if Sandy is blond or brunette it only matters that she is beautiful to Jimmy. Let the reader decide what beauty is to them and the story becomes more personal to the reader.

What to Describe: Readers create mental placeholders for each character you introduce and will change the mental picture as you provide more and more information. Use this to your advantage and be extremely selective with your description choices. Start with the gender, we assume Jimmy is a man because Jimmy is a man’s name. If it’s a woman you better say so immediately! We should, as dialogue and scenes progress, be able to assume other things like social status, general age, and attitude toward life without having to say it outright. Who cares if Jimmy is 33 or 35 your readers are fine with early thirties.

For example: “Sorry,” Sandy said as her protruding belly bumped into Jimmy’s side. A tourist group emerged from a restaurant blocking the couples path. “It’s alright,” Jimmy said caressing Sandy’s stomach waiting for the group to dissipate.

Did I say Sandy was pregnant? Nope. But you know because of the description of her stomach and Jimmy’s behavior. Notice how I used the word ‘bumped’ that was intentional because it makes the reader think ‘baby bump’ I could have said tapped or touched and it would have meant the same thing. You have to think about which word is the best word.

Be on the look out during your revisions for places in your story where you can change your description to showing instead of telling. Your readers will thank you. I hope you found these examples helpful. Happy Writing!

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