Ivy on Character Description

Sorry for missing last week. Okay, no I’m not. I’m a busy muse. I got plot holes to fix, characters to motivate, people to inspire.

Besides, last week was a bit stressful for Moos since her latest TurtleWriters blog post ruffled a few feathers. Her focus was completely shot after that. So I resorted to giving her a shiny new idea and it worked a bit too well. She kind of exploded and now she has a 7 page, chapter by chapter outline, plus ideas for three more books in the series.


It was just a silly idea, Moos! You were supposed to say hi and give it a quick pat. Not kidnap it, give it a mate, and make babies!

(Deep breaths, Ivy. Deep breaths.)

Anyway, I’m back and once again being forced to impart my writerly knowledge unto the masses. Moos doesn’t give me enough chocolate for this.

So, character descriptions. Let’s get right to it.

How NOT to write character descriptions:

  1. Your character looks in a mirror and describes their features and clothes. It’s simple and easy. But it’s also simple and easy. And boring.
  2. Start with a bunch of exciting action, then tell the reader who everyone is and what they look like. You’re basically pushing the reader off a bridge and then throwing them the bungee cord. The action is confusing and stressful and then they smack into long paragraphs of character description. Instant DNF.
  3. Another character describes your main character. Usually followed by the main character describing every other character. Is this a story or a lineup? One of these is not like the others? Wait, are we playing Clue? (Okay, one exception to this is if your main character is sizing someone else up. But it only works if they have a legitimate reason to do so.)

The fact is, long paragraphs of character description tend to feel like the author interrupting the story to tell the reader what the character looks like. Very few writers can pull this off and even fewer can pull it off well.

The core problem here is the author’s need for the reader to picture the characters exactly the way they picture them. I’m telling you right now, that will never, ever happen. How do I know?

Moos once read an entire series picturing the main character as a brunette.

All four covers featured a blonde woman.

And don’t get me started on the layout of the castle.

You can send a life size, color sculpture of your main character with every copy of your book and readers will still picture your characters differently than you. That’s just the way it works. Because once a story is read by someone else, it’s no longer just the author’s story. Every reader adds a little bit of themselves to it. Which makes it not completely yours and not completely theirs, but something magical in between.

Just accept it. Your muse will thank you.

How TO write character descriptions:

  1. Less is more. Readers don’t need to know everything about how a character looks. Give them enough details to distinguish them from the other characters and to make them feel real, then let the reader fill in the rest with their own imagination.
  2. Draw it all out. Readers don’t need to know everything right away. Point out one feature in this paragraph, then another one on the next page, then something else a few pages later. Unless your character has a reason for looking over another character in one paragraph, it should be a marathon, not a sprint.
  3. Sneak description into action. Allow your characters to interact with their own features. Scratching a long nose, tucking blue hair behind an ear, stretching short arms. If there’s a particular feature you want to describe, make that feature do something, or make something else interact with it.

The most important thing to remember about character description, or really any kind of description, is that it all needs to be anchored in emotion. The best stories are the ones that make you feel strongly. So don’t just tell me she has blue hair, show her hiding the horrendous dye job beneath a cap. Don’t just tell me he has short arms, show him grumbling as he reaches for the cookies on the top shelf. Don’t just tell me he has a long nose, show him poking his long nose in someone else’s space.

It’s all well and good if your reader can picture your character, but if they don’t know how your character feels or how other characters feel about them, then they’re no better than a cardboard cutout. And who wants to read about cardboard?

I don’t. I want to read Moos’s novel already. So unless anyone has questions, I’m off to drag Moos away from this embarrassingly fertile idea she’s far too excited about.

No! Put that fifth book idea down right now! I don’t care how cute it is!

Ivy out.

Categories Ivy

2 thoughts on “Ivy on Character Description

  1. Observation by way of other characters is one of my favorites. We get into the mind of one character as they tell us about another. Fun topic. One of my favorites. There are so many ways of doing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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