Capturing Ancient Faces: Character Desctiptions for Writers

Somehow ancient sculptors are able to translate a person’s face, expression, life, into each piece of marble. Yet, somehow, when we write we limit ourselves to eyes, hair and height. A person is so much more. Real people have a soul and getting that onto your pages and into your characters is one of the hardest things to do.

Giving the physical description of a character is superficial and tells readers little about character that they can actually care about.

Adding in the flowery adjectives creates the pit of cliché difficult to get out of.

So what’s left? It’s nothing you haven’t heard before: show don’t tell. I’m so guilty of abusing character descriptions. A big sorry to all my beta readers out there, I’m a work in progress.

Show your characters physical description through:

  • Setting– Is your character overweight? Have them trudge up the steps. Is it a windy day? Have your character tuck her amber locks behind her ear as she reads in the park.
  • Specific Details– His blond hair was long. Should be: Pulling out the spar tire he asked the stranded woman, “can I borrow your hair tie while I change this?” She pulled the tie off her wrist handing it over, she watched as he pulled his blond rock-star hair into a tight knot.
  • Do Double Duty– All the details you have need to show more than one thing about your characters. Your readers are smart, don’t waste words on bland descriptions give them something to “read into” about your characters. If you say rock-star hair I’m assuming this character has a personality to go with it. If your character is reading in the park I’m assuming she is smart and a bit quiet.
  • Action– What a character does with their time reveals much. Use it to your advantage to show more. “Stay here kids,” Judy said getting out of the SUV to pump gas. As she paid inside she grabbed a bottle of cheep moscato telling the cashier, “please put it in a bag.” What does this say about Judy? She’s a tired mom concerned with safety (SUV), is polite (please) and may have a wine problem.
  • Emotion– How your character reacts to situations emotionally shows readers your character. Take it as deep as you can. Coach yelled from the dugout, “Hit it hard Billy or it’ll be laps till you drop.” What does Billy do emotionally? Not just the first emotion but the second and third. Billy frowned toward the dugout, tightening his grib and digging in his left foot he faced the pitcher ready. What does this tell us about Billy? He’s upset by his coach’s remark, then determined, and finally in the zone of concentration.

These tricks are essential not only in novels but in short stories where you have to pack in as much information as you can into a tiny amount of words. I hope these thoughts help you sculpt a character worth reading about in your next work.

If you would like more here is a writing exercise from Writers Digest.

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