How To Describe Characters Like A Boss

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair. She was beautiful. She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul. She stood in the doorframe like a model.

Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck. Blech. That has got to be the most disgusting, shallow character introduction I have ever written because that, my fellow scribes, is an example of everything you should not do if you want to describe characters like a boss.

The above paragraph showcases what I consider to be the five venial sins of writing description. I call them venial because while it is very easy to lean on these tactics as a crutch, you are not doomed to a fiery pit where all bad writers go for using them. Hark, the Stellular Scribe sings, for I bring you glad tidings! There is hope after all, so long as you refrain from the following:


1. Describing Inactively

 

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair.

Even if your sole goal is to write a piece without narrative or plot, simply slapping on any ol’ description out of context won’t give an accurate portrayal of the character. Remember, describing looks should serve to enhance the reader’s image of the physical, mental, and practical aspects of the character. A character isn’t her appearance. A character is active and engaged in the story. The way the above sentence sits, Jasmine seems like more of a storefront display than an actual person.

Also, hourglass figure is a horrid cliché and it should be discarded immediately.

Solution: Describe Actively

Jasmine twisted her blonde hair with a lazy finger. Her free hand rested in the curve between her hip and ribcage.


2. Writing Vaguely

 

She was beautiful.

There’s nothing wrong with calling a character beautiful or ugly or old or young. But that’s only in the subjective sense — perhaps when another character is describing her or she is being observed on the basis of beauty alone. Here in this introduction of her character, “beautiful” is too general. A bird can be beautiful. A couch can be beautiful. What determines her beauty?

Solution: Write Specifically

She looked at him much like an artist critiquing a student’s painting — with an air of impressment, but mostly fond amusement at his folly. There was something stunning about the way she studied him.

(Ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Remember, physical characterizations don’t reveal everything.)


3. Overstuffing Adjectives

 

She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul.

You’re introducing a character. Not playing thesaurus bingo. Tacking on adjective after adjective can make the description feel forced and unrealistic, and it will quickly cause the reader to lose interest. You are no longer writing about a person — you are writing a laundry list.

In the end, you’ve got to pick the most important traits and stick with them. In our example, describing Jasmine’s “eyes” makes much more contextual sense than informing the reader on her “smooth, flawless skin.”

Solution: Less is More

It was as if her eyes, sheer as sea smoke, revealed her every judgement.


4. Abusing Clichés

 

She had an hourglass figure […].

She had […] eyes that were a window to her soul.

Clichés are the devil. Ok. Maybe they’re not that bad, but it can begin to feel like torture for a reader to read the same recycled, thrown-up, washed-out descriptions over and over and over again.

Solution: Avoid Clichés At All Costs.

That’s right. Just don’t even touch them. Not. A. One.


5. Characterizing Flatly

 

She stood in the doorframe like a model.

And we’re back to describing a storefront display. Try to reveal some emotion in your descriptions. These are people you’re writing about, and most people aren’t very hard to read. Everyone reveals emotion in some way or another.

Solution: Characterize Emotionally

She leaned against the doorframe almost like a model posing for a magazine cover shoot — but somehow, she looked effortless. Completely unaware of her own natural grace. Bored, even.


And thus we go from

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair. She was beautiful. She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul. She stood in the doorframe like a model.

to

Jasmine twisted her blonde hair with a lazy finger. Her free hand rested in the curve between her hip and ribcage. She looked at him much like an artist critiquing a student’s painting — with an air of impressment, but mostly fond amusement at his folly. There was something stunning about the way she studied him. It was as if her eyes, sheer as sea smoke, revealed her every judgement. She leaned against the doorframe almost like a model posing for a magazine cover shoot — but somehow, she looked effortless. Completely unaware of her own natural grace. Bored, even.

Voila! Now we have a character who the reader can care about, someone he will want to know more about.


Go forth and spread the good news, dear scribes — so that everyone can describe characters like a boss!

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

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The Ever-Present Plea For Diverse Characters in Fiction

Diversity.

We all know that it’s desirable, and necessary to create a society of open-mindedness and acceptance. So why, in 2014, is fiction with diverse characters so hard to come by? In my perusals of the bestselling bookshelf, I’ve found that protagonists are mainly comprised of white, heterosexual, ‘attractive’ characters. That’s not to say that there aren’t books with beautifully diverse characters and concepts (because, trust me, there are many gems out there), it’s just that compared to the norm, they are in short supply.

Before I jump headfirst into the issue of ‘diversity’ in literature, let me say that I’m not condemning authors and the way they write. A big part of writing is the  freedom to express one’s inner musings and designs without risk of conviction. So, please, write to your heart’s content about what you want- but all the same, take into account diversity.

What I classify as a diverse character is (but not limited to) someone who:

  1. comes from a rich and distinct culture
  2. doesn’t fit into society’s limited idea of “beauty”
  3. is racially and ethnically diverse, in both appearance and manner
  4. identifies with a different gender, sexual orientation, etc. (essentially, the LGBTQ community)
  5. defies the standard for gender (example: women taking up leadership roles)
  6. is emotionally varied (in other words, a character who has real emotions, vulnerabilities, and strengths)
  7. has disabilities (whether it be physical or mental)

Obviously, diversity isn’t limited to just race, though race does play an important factor. We live in a world swimming with different cultures, languages, values, and mindsets. So why shouldn’t literature reflect this? As the renowned English crime writer, D. L. Sayers, said:

The vital power of an imaginative work demands a diversity within its unity; and the stronger the diversity the more massive the unity.

Diversity doesn’t diverge characters: it unites them. It’s a bringing together of the beautiful, the ugly, the easy, the tough, the different and the similar elements of life. Writing is in many ways the most powerful relayer we have. When we read, we are impacted. We are impressionable creatures, and whether it be voluntary or not, we absorb what we read. That’s why diverse characters are so important.

This is important in all literature, but especially so in YA. May it be fantasy or science fiction, historical or contemporary, young adult books play an essential role in shaping the younger generation’s minds. Being a young adult myself, I always get excited when I come across a book with a main character of Middle Eastern descent, or one that centers around the life of an individual who is genderqueer. The reason? Life is diverse. The world is diverse. And it’s about time that people start growing up accepting this fact.

Above all, diverse characters shouldn’t be written for the sole purpose of being ‘diverse’. They should be written as people. I’ve come across many novels that throw in a few diverse side characters just to make some statement about ‘culture’ or ‘society’. This is all well and good if done in moderation and good taste- but if you are going to incorporate characters like this, make them more than just a message. Make them people.

When it comes to diversity in fiction, there are no end of arguments and comments that can be made. I could go on for another ten paragraphs about the lack of diversity in fantasy alone, or detail the reasons why some writers don’t feel ‘qualified’ or ‘obligated’ to write diverse characters. But perhaps I’ll leave all that for another post.

In the end, write what you want to write- just remember to write widely and diversely.

Do you think there is a need for diverse books and characters? Do you try to write diversely?

Writing Rounder Characters

While an intricate plot dripping with voice is essential to the integrity of your writing, a story just isn’t complete without well rounded characters.

No matter what genre you write, animated characters that readers can identify with are what drive the plot and keep audiences interested. But how does one go about breathing life into characterizations written on a page? While every writer has their own style and way of tackling depictions, there are a few crucial elements of character building that must be taken into account.

1. Give your a character a realistic and enticing background, but don’t drown them in it.

Everyone loves a good backstory, but sometimes its execution is tough to pull off. Backstories make characters more interesting; they give them a certain allure that can’t be achieved through laundry-list trait descriptions. In many ways, backstories make your characters more human (if your character isn’t a human, then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish). Don’t be afraid to get to the nitty gritty of what makes your character unique. Did something happen in their past that forced them to go in one direction over another? How is their story different from a more minor character’s?

While backstory is fun to write, beware of suffocating your reader in lengthy narratives about your character’s “ravaged past” and “tortured, orphaned soul”. There is such thing as too much backstory, or at least to the point where it takes up more of your writing than the actual plot.

2. Make a lasting impression.

You want to introduce your character with a bang. No one wants to read about Plain Paul who just happens to bump into the girl of his dreams while walking to work. Been there, read that. Not a dynamic first impression. And in this craft, first impressions are everything, because it’s what makes readers want more. Give them someone to care about, or not to care about. As long as they feel something about your character from the get-go.

3. Allow the reader to form and change their own opinions.

Once you’ve gotten the reader hooked with a dimensional character, throw them a curveball. As you develop your character, your reader must be able to develop their opinions. Maybe they start liking your character more. Maybe they grow a deep hatred for every word that passes your character’s lips. Change, no matter how beneficial or detrimental, is essential for well-rounded characters. Don’t fall into the flat trap, where everything your character does is premeditated and expected. Predictable characters are no fun to read or write about. Also, don’t be afraid to make your reader’s blood really boil by something your character does. As the genius of gut-wrenching character development, John Green, says,

I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.

4. Paint them with flaws.

Complex character traits are key to making your writing pop off the page, and that includes writing your characters with imperfections. Simply put, perfect characters are boring. Who wants to read about the perfect love interest, with his perfectly chiseled jaw and perfect gentlemanly etiquette and perfect intellect? Maybe your character has a physical defect, or maybe he or she is especially jealous or competitive. Maybe their flaws are what make them all the more appealing.

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

-Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

5. Give them a motivation. 

A character without motivation is a waste of space in a story. It would make no sense for Frodo to take the ring to Mordor if he hadn’t been bent on protecting the Shire, his friends, and all of Middle Earth. It would be pointless for Harry to seek Voldemort’s end if his parents had never been killed and he didn’t care about the well-being of his friends. This applies to protagonists and antagonists alike. If you give your character something to care about, you’ll give your reader something to care about.


Writing believable characters is one of the scariest and most rewarding parts of writing. There is nothing more satisfying than creating a well fleshed-out character, and in the end, it’s what will make your story stand out from the rest.