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As a kid I devoured all those girly series like Sweet Valley and Baby-sitter’s Club. In Sweet Valley High, the twins were always described as having blond hair, “Pacific blue eyes,” and “perfect size six figures.” The Baby-sitter’s books would usually spend a good part of the first chapter describing the characters: Claudia was Japanese with long, jet-black hair; Kristy was a tom-boy with light brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail.
Don’t get me wrong — I loved those books — and the descriptions are fine if you’re writing series paperbacks for middle-schoolers. But that’s not what I want to write. I’m not trying for a Pulitzer or anything, but I do want to write the best and most sophisticated novel(s) and stories that I can manage. Unfortunately, I often find myself describing my characters like I’m a ghost-writer for Sweet Valley High.
She had shoulder-length, mousy brown hair and gray eyes… Boring.
He had dark hair, blue eyes, and a strong jaw… Blah.
She was a short blonde with big boobs… Ick.
It’s a habit to define my characters by height, hair color, eye color, and body shape. After all, that’s how we tend to describe people in real-life. But in fiction these generic descriptions get boring. They sound immature. They don’t really help the reader picture your characters.
So how are you supposed to describe your characters? I say, learn from the masters. Here are examples of non-generic, spot-on character descriptions from Flannery O’Conner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Janet Fitch.
HOW TO DESCRIBE CHARACTERS:
1. You don’t always have to be specific.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsy, the reader never really learns the color of Daisy’s hair and eyes, but does it matter? We can still picture her in our minds: Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.
2. Use figurative language
I … easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame… The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see breast, low and full. Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife. -Description of Ingrid in White Oleander by Janet Fitch
3. Describe the way characters carry themselves
She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her gray sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face. -Description of Jordan in The Great Gatsby
4. Describe facial expressions
Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. -From “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Conner
5. Scatter your descriptions throughout the prose.
In The Great Gatsby, when Nick first sees Jordan he describes: She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall. Later he gives us the “erect carriage” description from #3, and then later still he says: Miss Baker [yawned], sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.
7. Use physical descriptions that shows personality.
As she signed her books she wore her customary half-smile, more internal than outward, having a private joke while she thanked everybody for coming. -Description of Ingrid in White Oleander
..he was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner, two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. -Description of Tom in The Great Gatsby
8. Have the narrator make judgments and assesments about a character’s appearance.
The sister, Catherine, was a slender, worldly girl of about thirty, with a solid, sticky bob of red hair, and a complexion powdered milky white. Her eye-brows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face. -Description from The Great Gatsby
9. Describe clothing.
He was not a bad-looking young man though he had on a bright blue suit and yellow socks that were not pulled up far enough. He had prominent face bones and a streak of sticky-looking brown hair falling across his forehead. -Description of the salesman in “Good Country People.”
10. Remember that a little description can go a long way.
I think this might be the most important. You don’t have to describe a character from head to toe and constantly keep reminding the reader of what they look like. Just an introductory description and then few well-placed clues scattered throughout the prose will probably be enough to help us form and keep a picture in our mind.
P.S. How ironic, everybody has been sharing this video from Dove on facebook today, which is about how we physically describe ourselves and others. Good food for thought when deciding how your narrator might describe him/herself