Writing tip of the month: Character description.

You’ve just been hooked into a gripping story line when suddenly it stops and you’re handed a parts list of someone’s face and build.   Is that what you want to read at the moment?  Do you even want a detailed description or do you want to supply some of your own?

There are things we must know soon, of course.  In order of importance: Is your character human, or maybe a rabbit or a lamp post; male or female; Caucasian or otherwise; young or old; fair or dark?

 Feed it slowly.  A name, will usually tell gender, so will a pronoun.  “He poured powder into the muzzle.”  What else does that show? 

 For race, look for something easily attributed to a people:  a teepee; a point in geography; a conflict. 

 Age needn’t be exact but a general idea is important.  Is she an eighth-grader; a secretary; a wife; mother; or grandmother.  Show it, don’t tell it. 

For  physical characteristics, comparison is helpful.  “He stood in back, so not to block the view of others.”  Then, maybe later: “She snuggled her head beneath his chin.” 

Use action.  Have them doing something that furthers the story.  Look to verbs.  They show; adverbs and adjectives only tell. 

Try these exercises.  

  • Show a woman’s race through her own viewpoint.
  • Show a man’s stature through the viewpoint of another.
  • Show a character’s coloring through the dialogue of two other characters.
  • Show a man’s age through his own viewpoint.    
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