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Character Description: The Art of Just Enough

Character description is one of those things that comes easy to some writers. To other writers, it's… awkward, to say the least. If you underdescribe, we have trouble visualizing characters. But if you overdescribe, you're taking away our chance to imagine.

The golden spot is somewhere between. A few details to lay the framework, and the space for us to imagine the rest. But how? Where? And how much do we include?

Let's start with your main character, specifically in first-person. Characters mentally describing themselves is a tough feat to pull off, because it's hard to make it seem natural. We rarely do it in the real world, unless we're looking in the mirror, and that's a device writers should mostly steer clear of because it's so overdone.

But if you think about it, there are other moments when we're physically self-aware. When we're trying on clothes. When our best friend rocks a hairstyle we'd never have the courage to attempt. When we're thinking about how we've changed, or how we want to be, or what we hate about ourselves, or what we love. When we're comparing ourselves to someone else.

Early in my YA novel, Like Mandarin, Grace can't help but compare herself to her pageant-perfect little sister.

As a child, I'd resembled Taffeta, even though we were just half-sisters. But whatever in me had appealed to pageant judges had long since vanished. My childhood softness had become a skinny awkwardness, as if my fourteen-year-old self had been nailed together from colt legs and collarbones. My hair was the yellowy tan of oak furniture. I french-braided it every morning to ward off the wind, but pieces always broke free and whipped my face like Medusa coils.

Grace briefly reflects on her own appearance a few more times in the book, usually in reference to wild girl Mandarin Ramey, whom she idolizes. I tried to embed her descriptions in a way that flowed naturally with her thoughts.

Describing other characters through the point of view of our MC easier, especially when our MC is meeting them for the first time. It's a bit more tricky with people our MC knows. We don't mentally describe our best friend who we see every day, every time we see her. But here's a way to think of it: a first-person narrative is a story. Our narrator is narrating it for a reason. And that's why as readers, we forgive a little extra detail to help introduce us to a story universe, as long as it's interwoven and not overdone – or done in a clunky way.

Sometimes writers try to inject physical details in ways they think are subtle, but actually stand out even more. I adore Judy Blume, but there's a line in Just as Long as We're Together that killed me, even as a kid—in which Rachel leans over Stephanie, and "as she did, her hair, which is reddish-brown and curly, brushed against my arm."* It's an example of the man behind the curtain showing himself, so to speak. Any time we can see what the writer's doing, it jars us out of the universe.

Often, character description feels more acceptable when it's not "hidden". Here's another example from Like Mandarin, when Grace runs into Mandarin at the bathroom sink.
I saw her in fragments, like close-up snapshots. Her kohl-smudged hazel eyes. Her angular cheekbones—everybody said her mother was part Shoshone. Her black hair, streaked with damp ridges and valleys from the comb of her wet fingers. The uneven hem of her white sweater. Jeans worn low on her hips. As she arched forward to shut off the faucet, the dip of her spine in the apricot-colored skin of her back.

Grace knows what Mandarin looks like. But in this instance, she's faced with her unexpectedly, and is accosted by the sudden nearness of her. It's only natural that she takes into account Mandarin's appearance. And as the author, I constructed this scene so it's the first time we see Mandarin ourselves – a vision I wanted to be unforgettable.

On that note, I'm reminded of a show I watched years back, about how films often introduce important characters in memorable ways. The example I remember best is the first time we see Danny Zuko in Grease— he turns around, cigarette** dangling, greased into perfection. He makes an indelible entrance. And our characters can do the same.

Not all of them, however. Not every time. Too many details about too many characters overloads our attention span. We don't need to know everyone's eye color, although hair color or type and physical build is a little more distinguishing. As I said earlier, it's a balancing act. Placing emphasis in the right places. Weaving it in naturally. Underscoring what's important, and allowing what's unimportant to fade.

I especially like to find something unique about my characters. Something quirky. Because everyone has a certain something about them, and that’s often what we notice. Hands that flail like dizzy birds. Heavy-lidded bedroom eyes. Skin so pale you can see threads of blue veins. Sloped shoulders and a ten-o-clock shadow that seems to sprout moments after he shaves. We are all unique people, and your characters should be, too.

Of course, this takes balance as well! If all of your characters are overly quirky, you start flirting with absurdity. Unless that's the kind of book you're writing.

Do you have any favorite lines of character description, either in your own WIPs or in books you've read? Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to describing characters? Share in the comments!

~Kirsten Hubbard

*not an exact quote
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. Wonderful post!

    I definitely lean on the "too little description" side in my writing. Sometimes I honestly don't have an exact mental picture of the character physically. (Actually, last night at Carrie Ryan's book signing, she said she was lucky to come up with hair color! Made me feel a lot better.)

    I love how you described Mandarin. You got it all in one paragraph - hair and eye color, face shape, body, skin tone - but it's just so lovely the way Grace takes it all in.

  2. Wonderful post!

    I love the examples you chose. Beautiful and evocative. And I really like the idea of using characters comparing themselves with each other to sneak in description.

    I remember writing these terrible stories as a kid where I described everyone to death. I'd spend page after page on eye colours and clothing and middle names and god knows what else. I thought the story couldn't start properly until everyone was fully described. I think I got that from Baby-sitter's Club. Every BSC book I ever read had a whole chapter just of that stuff.

    I'm a bit more restrained these days. I often can see a few aspects of a character really easily, but seeing them as a whole is a lot harder. I can't usually manage it until I've been writing about them for ages. And even then, only sometimes.

  3. That description of Mandarin - wow, I seriously saw her. Genius post. =)

  4. Leila-- YES. BSC style. I blame Ann M. Martin.

  5. I think it was in a screenwriting book that I read that for minor characters it's good to give them some distinguishing feature or quirk that helps them stand out in a reader's mind. Of course, I forget to do this, but it's a good tip.

    One thing that stands out in a bad way is when a writer goes into too much detail describing clothing, especially female clothing. Fashion changes so fast, it's sure to make the book dated.

  6. The most frequent critigue comment I get is that I underwrite. I can catch my characters in action, but the physical descriptions always seem to be lacking.

    Thanks for the "suggestive" post.

  7. Great post, and something I've been thinking about lately, too!

    I also have a tendency to underdescribe. Though I usually know what everything/one looks like in my head, sharing it on the page is something I work on in revisions.

    And LOVE the excerpts you posted. Your writing is beautiful.

  8. Great post. I'm trying to do an in between. Eye color, hair color, height. Just enough so the reader can fill in the rest. Hope it works for my beta readers!

  9. I'm another "under-writer" - even though I see my characters in my head, the description's usually lacking. Thank goodness for revisions.

    Your snippet, "I saw her in fragments..." is a great example of description that doesn't try to hide, but totally works.

    BTW, I definitely agree about the scene in Grease being the perfect intro to Danny's character. ;)

  10. Great post!
    Descriptions can be difficult things, but they're also opportunities to show more than the physical aspects of a character. I try to stay in 'voice' when doing descriptions. One MC might be the type to notice details (like Grace does with Mandarin) which not only gives a visual, but also sets up the kind of relationship that exists between the two of them. And in that one beautiful paragraph, we get to see so much.

  11. Awesome post! And gorgeous examples.

  12. Awesome post! I struggle with this; I've written stories where people have told me that, say, they didn't realize that the main characters were people of color. On my more-recent project, I erred on the side of over-describing, and I think it showed. Too much BSC as a kid, and too much LJ Smith lately.

  13. Love this post! I have a bad habit of under-describing things, then over-describing them out of paranoia. Finding the perfect balance between the two is a definite must!

  14. Awesome post!

    And I lovelovelove the excerpts from Like Mandarin--such beautiful writing :)

  15. Great post! I love your descriptions. I do both, sometimes I over describe and sometimes I don't mention anything about what a character looks like.

  16. Oddly enough, Mandarin was exactly as I'd pictured. I loved the descriptions you provided, thought they flowed really well, and the post. It was interesting and informative.

  17. Great post! I'm currently revising my first YA novel, so this is timely advice. I've been struggling with this concept for a few of my characters, but now I can look at those passages with a fresh perspective. Thanks!

    One of my favorite character descriptions comes from Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword. The first time we meet the character Corlath, king of the Hill people, he is described as "the axis of a nervous wheel, moving his head slowly to examine the lesser people who turned around him and squeaked at him without daring to come too near... There was a quivering in the air around him, like the heat haze over the desert, shed from his white sleeves, cast off by the shadows of his scarlet sash. These who stood near him looked small and pale and vague, while this man was so bright he hurt the eyes."

    So simple, yet so evocative. We get no description of his physical appearance (not yet, at least), but we can see him through the effect he has on those around him.

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  19. Oh man, I love this post!

    I'm one of those poeple who hardly bother with character descriptions unless there's something that stands out. I'm hoping revisions will take care of whatever I under- or over- do.

    Love, love the snips from Like Mandarin! Can't wait for this to be out. You've nailed it, girl.

  20. Fantastic post, thanks. This has some of the best advice I've read about describing a first-person character. I mentioned you on my blog here:

    Moses and Dionysus Walk Into a Bar ...

  21. Great Post!
    character description is awesome...


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Item Reviewed: Character Description: The Art of Just Enough Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard