Monday, September 13, 2010

Description Does Not a Character Make

Your character is so much more then the clothes he wears. They have histories, and personality, and crazy idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. It is the mixture of theses traits that draws us to your character; makes us love some and despise others. They key is figuring out how much and when to introduce these characteristics.

More often then not, I see multiple characters introduced in the first few pages of a ms. Accompanying their name is a rather detailed list of what they are wearing, the flavor of the coffee they are drinking, and the cut of their jeans. I call this visual info dump. Your novel alone should provide a great sense of place and your characters descriptions should enhance or contradict it, not be the sole source of description.

So the question is: How do you add necessary character description that doesn’t feel forced? Simple – spread it out and keep it to a minimum. An active character is one whose personality is developed and explored thorough out the entire ms. If the description has no bearing on the scene than leave it out. Remember your readers are fully capable of adding a few details and more than happy to do it. How your character feels and reacts is more important than the style of his hair – it sets up the tone of the scene and in will give the reader insight into their personality and what drives them.

So, when you finally sit down to edit you masterpiece, I urge you to pay close attention to the descriptions. I will leave you with the four commandments I use for editing myself.

1. Short and Sweet – Description should be as long as necessary, but as short as humanly possible.

2. Head out of the clouds -- Watch the poetic prose and fancy language. It usually adds little depth to your character descriptions and evokes strong, often negative feelings from your readers

3. Set the mood – focus on you characters reactions as opposed to his physical attributes

4. Write with all your senses – Use taste, sound, smell, sight, hearing to describe characters and scenes.


  1. AHMEN SISTAH! It's hard to not fall into that category of over-explanation when it comes to a character that you love so much. You just want everyone to feel what you feel and see what you see. Being a HAYUGE culprit of this, it's even harder to cut away the crap, leaving the hidden gems that do exactly that!

  2. Oh God I'm a terrible info dumper sometimes. This is a great post Trisha - it reminds us to allow our characters to unfold during the course of the MS, not to lay them out like a deck of cards in the first few pages.

  3. I am definitely a minimalist when it comes to description - I have to go back in and add :)

  4. I've read fantastic stories where the characters are barely described and the lack of info took absolutely nothing away from the story. Probably enhanced them, actually. I can't stand gratuitous descriptions that span over 3 pages. Let the reader discover their personality (and what they look like if need be) through the story.

  5. Excellent advice - I totally agree!