Character descriptions are a pretty essential part of character building for me. I know for some people they prefer little to no character description as they would rather build up their own image of characters, but personally I like a little something to go on!
However, I think it’s really easy to get character descriptions wrong, and so here are a few of my personal likes and dislikes:
Things I Like
- Some basic information…
To build up an image of the character in my head, I like to have just a few basic details, namely hair colour and build, as these are the kind of things you notice immediately when meeting a new person in real life.
- …but not all at once!
Whilst I like a little information to allow me to formulate a mental image of a character, I don’t want too much, and definitely not all at once. Personally I like when authors scatter their character description throughout the first couple of chapters, so by the end of them I have a full picture of the person, but I’m not bombarded with description (plus this helps avoid the ‘shopping list approach’ – see below!).
- The description worked into the story.
As well as not wanting to be bombarded with character description, I also prefer to not even notice I’m reading description (yes, I’m super picky!). I like it best when authors slip bits of description into their telling of the story seamlessly (which I know as a writer is actually really hard to do!).
So instead of saying ‘Sally had honey blonde hair’, they’ll maybe mention Sally’s honey blonde hair rippling in the wind as she waits for the bus, or how she has to scrape it back out of her eyes to read her book.
- An interesting quirk.
In addition to some basic info, I like to be told maybe one little quirk the character has that suggests something about their personality. Maybe that’s a scar or a tattoo, a goofy smile, or an item of clothing they always wear, but I just think it adds interests and tells me more about the character than their eye colour or exact height would.
Things I Don’t Like
- The shopping list approach.
One of the reasons I like to be fed bits of character description subtly and not all at once is to avoid the ‘shopping list effect’, as I like to call it. This is where the character’s physical description is given all at once, practically in a itemised list.
For example: ‘Jerry was tall and thin, with black hair and green eyes. He had a prominent nose, and a thin mouth, which tended to turn down at the corners in an almost permanent frown. He always wore a dark suit with a crisp white shirt and shiny black shoes, with a Rolex watch peeking from his right sleeve.’ Despite giving more than enough information to create a picture of Jerry, this approach doesn’t really give me any impression of him as a character, so he may as well be a blank space in my mind. I like to see less physical description and a lots of personality in my character descriptions!
- The mirror approach.
One character description pet hate of mine is the ‘character looking in the mirror and describing themself’ thing. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever personally looked into a mirror and mentally listed my physical features, and for another, it just seems like a bit of a cop out.
Plus it stalls the story whilst the character gazes at their reflection, generally whilst doing something mundane like brushing their teeth or sorting their hair.
There are certain ways of describing a character’s physical appearance that are so commonplace they’ve become cliches, and these really irk me!
One in particular that gets me is ‘piercing blue eyes’. It really doesn’t help me imagine the colour of the character’s eyes, and simply leaves me wondering how exactly eyes can be piercing (unless they are magic eyes that can stab people maybe?). ‘Piercing’ gets used far to often in my opinion to describe eyes, presumably as a short hand to show that the person in question is pretty intense or brooding, but it just causes me to roll my regular blue eyes (and don’t even get me started on ‘crystal blue eyes’…or ‘burnished gold hair!’).
- Details that are too exact.
‘Paul was 6 feet and 2 inches tall, and weighed 14 stone and 3 pounds’… Unless you’re an undertaker, you probably can’t guess a person’s exact height just from looking at them, so it makes no sense to introduce a character by giving their exact height or weight, or anything else too specific. I like to know the details about a character I would notice in a real person, so unless it comes up in conversation with another character, I don’t need to know the character’s height, shoe size or waist measurements (and I really can’t imagine an interesting situation in a story where these minuscule details would come up!).
So put simply, I’m super picky! I like some character description but not too much, only the basic details plus a quirk, and it has to be woven into the story as opposed to given to me all at once. I don’t ask for much do I?
So what do you like or not like to see in character descriptions?