Avoid This Character Description Mistake in Your Writing

Sophie Playle

The ultimate sin when describing characters in a novel: writing a long list of physical attributes that are mentioned once when characters are first introduced and then never again. Seriously, readers will forget all these details.

When you stop the story to describe a character in extensive detail … the story literally comes to a standstill. This is not good. You want readers to feel compelled to keep reading your novel, and every time the story pauses, all the momentum you’ve built is lost.

You might feel compelled to describe your characters in extensive detail because you want your readers to see your characters exactly as you see them. Don’t do this to your readers! It robs the reader of the chance to engage their own imaginations.

So, what should you do instead?

One effective method is to focus descriptions on one uniquely defining feature, employing specific adjectives as well as metaphor and simile to make the description more original, creating further connotations that hint at the character’s personality.

Compare these two descriptions to see what I mean:

My father was tall and slim and had greying brown hair and pale blue eyes. He worn wireframed glasses, and today he was wearing a slightly crumpled blue shirt and brown trousers. There was a small ink stain on the pocket of his shirt. He was holding a cigarette.

How boring does that read?

Do we really need to know what he’s wearing? Is there another (more interesting) way we can get a sense of what this character looks like? Can we make this description work harder so it not only gives us a picture of the character but tells us something about who he is?

He carried the aroma of his desk covered in paperclips chains, ink from the pen that spots his shirt pocket, and the cigarettes he can’t smoke in front of men like my grandfather without looking ashamed.

— Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman.

The length of someone’s hair or the colour of their eyes rarely add anything to our sense of character. Key choices in posture, movement, scent, facial expression, action and speech pattern are often much more evocative.

It’s not about communicating the most information; it’s about choosing the features that tell us the most about the character. Make these distinct and scatter them throughout your novel and your readers will enjoy building vivid pictures of your characters in their heads.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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