In Lessons 88, 89, and 90, we discussed description – namely, describing scenes, action, and emotion. Now, we will discuss how to describe characters.
When it comes to describing characters, I like to use some examples from my favorite books. So, I invite you to make a list of what you see as you read the next few paragraphs. What works? What doesn’t? What engages you as a reader? What could be stronger? What catches your attention?
This first example is an example of description via narration.
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT***
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
***REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT***
Does this worry you? I urge you–don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.
–Of course, an introduction.
Where are my manners?
— The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
If you’ve ever read this book, you know exactly who the narrator is, though he doesn’t declare his identity. If you haven’t read this book (and I HIGHLY recommend you do), spoiler alert: the narrator is Death.
This is just one tool an author can use to describe a character – that is, the character describing him/herself. (Honestly, I’ve never seen a writer accomplish this as brilliantly as Zusak did in The Book Thief). However, there are numerous other ways to describe a character.
You could describe a character as an omniscient narrator, as Jack London did in the 1902 version of “To Build a Fire” (for an intriguing example of Show versus Tell, compare the details/description London gives in this version compared to the 1908 version):
“Never travel alone,” is a precept of the north. He had heard it many times and laughed; for he was a strapping young fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of his head and hands.
— To Build a Fire, by Jack London (1902)
You could also describe a character through the eyes of another character. For example, Dr. Frankenstein describes his monster:
I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
— Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
What other ways can you think of to describe a character?
As far as what to include/exclude in descriptions of characters, the best advice I can give is to revisit the previous posts on description (for a handy way to find them all, go to the “Categories” widget on the right sidebar of the website and click on the link, “Description”). Certain rules apply, of course – such as R. U. E. and SvT – but overall, it is up to you to determine how you will describe your characters. I can give you loads of advice cultivated from hundreds of books and speakers, but when it all boils down to it: how do you want to describe this character? Through the eyes of another person? Through his/her own eyes? Both? What words will be used? What tone best suits the situation/character? There are many factors at work. I highly recommend you take a look at your favorite books and some New York Times best sellers; write down what works and doesn’t work. Then, think about how you talk. And finally, think about how the speaker (the describer) talks, thinks, and describes.
Overall, the best advice I can give you: make every word count.
With pen to paper,