It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
How do you get readers to know what your main character looks like? Put your character in front of mirror and have them “notice” their almond-shaped eyes and cute dimples? Really? Sure, use that cliché if you want your readers to roll their own eyes and toss your book away.
There are much more effective ways to introduce descriptive qualities for your main character but first you need to make some important decisions.
Start with deciding what, if anything, you need your reader to know. And then get ready to get those important details delivered as soon as possible. Opting to bring in character description at Chapter 9 will only serve to annoy your reader because they will have already imagined what that character looks like. But avoid overloading the first few pages with description. Sprinkle it in, like a mild spice.
Like any good spice, character description should be subtle and give readers a glimpse of a character’s personality, skills, lifestyle, etc. Add to the story with character development or plot points: thick glasses, so does your character miss an important small detail? Long unruly hair covers the embarrassing childhood scar on his forehead?
Here’s ten ways to introduce character description without using a mirror:
1. Outside Observation: use another character to reveal details: All these months working beside you, I never noticed your green eyes. Or: That shade of pink really complements your peaches and cream complexion.
2. Closet Choices: when meeting someone they want to impress (are afraid of/are attracted to) they might think about their appearance and what effect it may have: He looked every bit a CEO. Would my gypsy skirt and Birkenstocks destroy the image I’d built up at the office?
3. Family business: try a comment directed to a family member on how alike or different they are. Sister — you may be lean and mean, but I like to think my ample figure speaks of kindness and warmth.
4. Action Figures: insert description as part of the action that adds to the mood – frantically rummaging through a drawer looking for the perfect sweater for a blind date or methodically polishing shoes before a big event;
5. Get Physical Part 1: choose to be indirect by describing another’s action — Jimmy easily handed me the file from the top shelf. “Here you go, Pintsize,” he said with a grin.
6. Get Physical Part 2: do it indirectly by describing an object: The box might be small but it was way too heavy for me to lift.
8. Status: use profession/occupation – There was no point in brushing away the flour from my pastry chef uniform. My tailored suit was a stark contrast to the backyard full of jeans and sandals at this bbq.
10. Self Aware: acute self-consciousness can be effective — I longed to grin back at him, but pressed my lips together instead. No way he was going to see my gap-tooth smile.
Often, the most powerful description is a trigger for an emotional reaction in your reader. A flaw or peculiarity can evoke empathy, raise questions and/or reveal your character’s humanity. After all, feeling connected is a big reason why we love stories and the characters we meet within them.