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Friday, January 20, 2012

Effective Character Description

My job, as a writer, is to introduce my characters in a way that:

  1. is interesting
  2. brings them to life for the reader
  3. Make them appear as close as possible to the way you see them in your mind
  4. gives the reader more information than just their physical appearance. I want to give an insight into my characters personality and what drives them to do the things they do
Part of the art of effective character description is to think carefully about how you describe them when they're in action. Usually, you can tweak this to cast more light on the plot or characters. As writers we all want to make our characters real people. We strive to show what they look like, how they feel, and how they react. We try to get right into their skin to let the reader know what they're thinking. We're careful not to make them 'too perfect' - a flaw or two goes a long way to helping readers believe in our masterpiece. So why is it that - despite our best efforts - sometimes our characters STILL don't come to life?

If you're having difficulty, part of the problem could be the way you describe your character.
It's all too easy to describe a character as though you're writing details straight from your character file. ex. (long hair, brown eyes, thick lips, shapely body and so on). Even if you try to be subtle and show what a character is like by having them compare their looks to someone else in the family or a celebrity, it often just doesn't sound convincing.

Here are a couple of possible reasons for ineffective character description.

1. Description is too common:
Spending too much time giving a straightforward description of facial features: nose shape, eye color, lip color and shape, hair length and color, plus general body shape. Sure, this tells the reader what your character looks like, on a superficial level - but it doesn't tell them anything else about this person's life, beliefs, morals or quirks.

2. Description is too wordy:
There's no need to go on about your character's looks page after page. Introduce just enough information to help your reader to instantly 'see' the character, then build on that as the story develops. You have plenty of time to develop your main character, because this person will be 'on stage' for much of the book. There's no rush, so you don't have to cram everything into on paragraph. For minor characters who will just make a couple of appearances, you may need to introduce a few more details upfront to bring them to life for the reader. Bring balance - give just enough detail to be useful and interesting. And if you have a character who appears only once, you probably don't need much description at all.

When it's time to edit your work, pay attention to the way you've described your characters, both when you first bring them into the storyline and when you show them in action. Go over your scene carefully and ask yourself whether you may have settled for the easiest way to do it, rather than the most effective.
Can you get more out of your character description and thus more out of your scene?


Makenzi
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