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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ritual — an original poem

turning, writhing
not constricting, but inhabiting, assuming
a serpent, orange as the early sun
a woman, pale as the withered toes of a corpse
her face, her expression
poised and pursed
with eyes that see everything and nothing
hair stricken by electricity, turned to straw
sprouting from her scalp
she seems vaguely disappointed with the serpent
that coils her neck, her wrists, her waist
tribal, territorial, dominant
it does not faze her
she is performing a ritual, one that she’s acted out
a hundred times now, and it’s dragging custom to her
now
her brow, arched on stilts, thin and fast as a
runner, a dark, demanding frame to her eyes, her
eyes that see everything and nothing
I feel upset, angry, confused at the woman
why must she go on not caring?
she is the most powerful, steely-faced woman in the
room, she adorns a snake, she commands her art,
and she doesn’t care

© 2015 Stellular Scribe