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Character Description: Two Challenges

By Jean Kavich Bloom

As a fiction editor, I find novelists can encounter a couple of challenges when it comes to character descriptions: (1) keeping track of them so they don’t accidently give their heroine, for instance, blue eyes in chapter 1 and brown eyes in chapter 12, and (2) conveying them to readers more creatively than what can seem like mere “reporting.”

Keeping Track

This first challenge can be the easier of the two to conquer. (The conquering might not be as fun as writing, but it can be done simply.) Record all characteristic decisions such as eye and hair color, any scars, straight or curly hair, build, complexion, and so on—even traits and name spellings. You don’t have to stifle creative flow for this documentation; you can manage it in a self-editing pass.

Excellent software is available to help you track characters (and much more), and if you’re creating a whole new world, for instance, using one of those tools might be crucial. But if the people and setting of your novel are relatively uncomplicated, I suggest using a simple spreadsheet. Still, any tracking method will do if it makes your decisions clear and readily accessible. This task is especially important if the same characters appear throughout a series. A reader with a gift for memory could pick up on a character’s height discrepancy between book 1 and book 3. Why put that possibility to the test?

Last, passing on this documentation to your editors will be a blessing!

Conveying Creatively

When I say an author sometimes “reports” a character’s description, I don’t mean the reader is merely told “He stared into Elizabeth’s amber eyes.” I’m referring to any description devoid of creativity other than fancier adjectives, such as to describe color. Even a touch more creativity can go a long way: “He stared into Elizabeth’s eyes, trying to determine their color. Brown? No. They were amber.”

Also consider where a character description is placed. Appearing in the middle of an otherwise intriguing scene, in a We interrupt this story to tell you the heroine is blond and has blue eyes fashion, can be more distracting than helpful. Nor is telling the reader what the hero looks like in the very first sentence of the first paragraph of chapter 1 usually necessary, as if the task of character description is item number one on a list and must be checked off as soon as possible: “Justin sank onto the park bench, his brown eyes darting left and right, his burly frame tense. Then as he ran both hands through his thick, auburn hair…” More creative placement, as long as the reader isn’t left without a portrait too long, can make for more interesting reading.

Here are three examples I worked out to show authors how they might take a more creative approach to character description, with placement entirely dependent on the story:

Show relative height when specific height isn’t important. “The couple of inches she had on the shorter man in front of her didn’t matter. What mattered was how she felt when his gray eyes tilted up to stare into hers, making her want to kick off her high heels and dive into new romantic territory.”

Have one character note another character’s description in thought or in dialogue. “Date her? Her profile says she’s six feet tall, and I’m barely five ten. Those green eyes would forever be looking down on me. No way!” 

Compare one character’s description to another character’s in a way that’s relevant to the set up or scene. “Jason noticed his date had turned her full attention to the man now beside her—his stepbrother. When Jason was alone, women seemed attracted to his blond hair, blue eyes, and six-foot-one height. But when Paul was with him, despite his more common dark coloring and slightly shorter stature, Jason lost them. Paul was the brother who intrigued women apart from his good looks—and they both knew it.”

No matter how you fashion and manage character descriptions in your writing, know this: we readers thank you for painting character portraits for us with your words. What would fiction be without them?

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With three decades of experience in Christian book publishing, Jean Kavich Bloom is a freelance editor and writer for Christian publishers and ministries (Bloom in Words Editorial Services). An aspiring novelist herself, she contributes to the ACFW Indiana Chapter’s Hoosier Ink blog, as well as to The Glorious Table, a community blog for women.

 

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One Response to Character Description: Two Challenges

  1. Laura Melnick says:

    I’m attempting to learn the craft of writing and found your examples helpful. I’ve found I need lots of rewriting trying to describe my characters in context.