Seven Big Tips for Describing Characters
by James Thayer
Readers remember a novel’s characters long after the plot has been forgotten. We still love Lonesome Dove’s Augustus McCrae, but who can remember all that happened to him in Larry McMurtry’s 840-page novel? We still love Oliver Twist, but we have only a sketchy memory of all the ordeals Dickens put him through.
A vivid physical description helps make a character memorable. Here are some techniques to make your characters stick in readers’ minds.
1. Don’t forget the description. This seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes writers—even otherwise good writers—entirely forget to tell the reader what a character looks like. All characters should be described, except those in the story who are not in fact characters but are part of the setting, such as the cabbie driving by and the children on the distant playfield. Generally, anyone who speaks deserves to be described.
2. More important characters deserve bigger descriptions. If the reader never sees the bellman again, there’s no need to describe him this fully:
Sarah rushed toward the door, six packages precariously in her arms, from Bloomingdales, Saks, and even a light-blue Tiffany box. The doorman held the door open for her. He was wearing pants with satin stripes and a big smile. His coat had a military cut, with brass buttons, epaulets, and red piping along the collar. His patent leather shoes threw sparks of light. His name was Terry—no one knew if it was his first or last name—and he had a gangster’s flat nose, and eyes as shallow as paint. He was always preposterously cheerful. Sometimes his ancient father stood near him, held up by a cane, basking in the reflected glory of his son’s uniform. Sarah nodded her thanks and moved quickly to the elevators.
This is a lot of wasted space to describe a fellow whose only purpose is to hold open a door once.
But there’s another reason a walk-on, walk-off character shouldn’t be described this completely: when a character is fully described, the reader expects to see him again. A lengthy description foreshadows the importance of the character. At the end of the novel, the reader is going to ask, “Hey, what happened to the bellman?”
3: Periodically remind readers of a character’s appearance: These reminders later in the novel usually shouldn’t be a laundry list (He had blond hair and bags under his eyes, which often work fine the first time the reader sees a character), but rather passing references (She ran her fingers through his straw-colored hair).
4. Give the reader something to see. Janet Burroway offers this description of a character, which she calls “an all-points bulletin:” My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts. This description will be instantly forgotten.
Instead, offer the reader a vivid image, something that will stick in the reader’s mind. Watch the masters do it.
Here is H.G. Wells in his famous short story “The Red Room”: “He supported himself by a single crutch, his eyes were covered by a shade, and his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth.” Will we have any trouble remembering this fellow, with the weird lower lip and the rotted teeth? Not likely.
And here is Arthur Golden in Memoirs of a Geisha: “I long ago developed a very practiced smile, which I call my ‘Noh smile’ because it resembles a Noh mask whose features are frozen. Its advantage is that men can interpret it however they want.”
How’s this for a memorable image, from Jean Shepherd in A Fistful of Fig Newtons? “Big Al was wedge-shaped; pure sinew, gristle, and covered with a thick, bristly mat of primitive fur. Numerous broken noses had reduced his nostrils to blow-holes.”
William Gibson in Pattern Recognition: “On his left sits Dorotea Benedetti, her hair scraped back from her forehead with a haute nerd intensity that Cayse suspects means business and trouble both.”
Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist describes one of those “long-limbed, knock-kneed, shambling, bony people.”
Who can forget Billy Bones in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island?
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow – a tall, strong, heavy nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards;
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars.
But the writer might protest, “My character isn’t a pirate or a geisha or a football player. My character’s appearance isn’t as memorable as these examples.”
The writer is the god in the novel’s universe. A character will be memorable if the writer makes him memorable. Add a scar, a wall-eye, a limp, a broken nose, a gold tooth, or a cheap wig. There’s no need for a character to have all his fingers or all his teeth. Add acne pits, dime store perfume, or ear hair. Tall, dark and handsome is forgettable. Hunched, pale as candle wax, with a greasy comb-over, and a hairy mole on the cheek is memorable.
Of course, the hero of the novel shouldn’t have ear hair—unless you are Beatrix Potter—but how about a widow’s peak, or a chin with a cleft, or a mysterious signet ring? How about crazy red hair that falls in ringlets, or a bracelet made of a dozen one carat diamonds? Or a silly saying, such as Scarlett O’Hara’s “fiddle dee-dee.” Heroes are allowed to be memorable, too.
5. Don’t go overboard. Easy to say, harder to judge. Ford Maddox Ford said a writer should describe things as if they were before your eyes on a brightly lit stage. But spending too many words describing the character will bore the reader. Here is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Jay Gatsby’s smile:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
This depiction works well—everything works well—in The Great Gatsby. Still, a 100-word description of a smile is too long for most stories.
6. Avoid summary words: Characters should almost never be described as handsome, gorgeous, beautiful, uglyor other words that summarize the quality of their features. These summary words tell the writer’s impression of the features, rather than setting out specific information. The reader can’t draw a mental picture from beautiful.
When using summary words, the writer is asking the reader to do the work of imagining the characters. Most readers won’t do the work, and the character will live in the reader’s mind only as a vague notion, easily forgettable.
Physical descriptions should be specific and vivid: blue eyes, a doughy face, a moonlike face, a bump in his nose, swept back hair, a lofty forehead, thin and bloodless lips, silk-fine hair, a willowy body. Paint the picture for the reader.
7. Be aware of fiction’s stereotypes. Stereotype is a poisoned word these days. But in fiction, stereotypes are as strong as ever. Almost invariably, the reader expects a character with a big chin to be stubborn. The writer doesn’t have to say, “Maria had a large chin, and she was stubborn.” Maria had a large chin is enough.
A character with a small chin will be viewed by readers as weak. A cleft in the chin means playfulness. A high forehead equals thoughtfulness. Big ears mean stupidity, and so does a mouth that hangs open, and small ears mean pugnaciousness. A flat nose means the fellow is a gangster. Low eyebrows mean cunning, and so do deeply set eyes. Soft hands mean idleness, and rough hands mean honesty. Red hair means impetuousness and trouble. A big Adam’s apple means the fellow is a hick.
So if your character has deeply set eyes, low eyebrows, and a flat nose, the writer doesn’t have to say the fellow has the personality of Machine Gun Kelly, because the reader already knows it.
These stereotypes are useful shortcuts, but they can also pose difficulties. If your character’s default expression is one with his mouth hanging open, it hardly matters how many physics problems he solves to find the wormhole for his spaceship to leave the galaxy, the reader isn’t going to buy it.
So when describing a character, give the reader something to remember. It’s called the Add a Scar Technique.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).