The month of June is almost gone, so it’s time for another update! I’ll let you know very shortly what I’ve been working on, and then I’ll share some wisdom from my editor about character descriptions. So, let’s get started!
What I worked on this month
So the past month, I’ve mostly worked on my project Ice Cold. I’ve changed the outline a few times, and it’s getting clearer and clearer where the story’s gonna go. I’m really excited about it! I’ve also written the first 2 scenes, so around 3000 words. It might not seem much, but I’ve re-written the first scene about 3 to 4 times (beginnings are tough!). The beginning is so important for the rest of the story, so I wanted to make sure it was good enough (at least, I hope it is now).
To be honest, I haven’t worked much on my other project, Half-bloods. I’ve just been too caught up with the other one and didn’t quite feel like working on it. Well, hopefully, I’ll do better in July!
One thing I talked about with my editor was how important character descriptions are, and when to put them in. And with character descriptions, I mean their hair color, height, eye color, etc. I’m reading a book at the moment (and have read books before) that show a lot of these descriptions about pretty much any character they mention (even when the character is not that important). I find I end up skipping over these parts when they’re too frequent. I honestly don’t really care what everyone is wearing all the time, or how tall or small everyone is compared to the main character. It just slows down the pace, and I will form a mental picture of the characters anyway.
Examples of doing it right
So, when do you put in character descriptions? When it matters! To give an example, in Harry Potter, it’s commented on a lot that Harry looks so much like his father (with the unruly, black hair and his glasses), except for his eyes (they’re green like his mothers’). This description of Harry adds to the story: (1) it drives his need to know more about his parents, (2) it’s essential for how Snape treats him, but also how Sirius and Remus treat him.
Another example: in The Hunger Games, the only thing that’s said about Katniss’ appearance is that she’s skinny and that she wears her hair in a braid. The former is to show she’s poor & food is scarce, and the latter detail is important because her braid (together with the mocking jay) becomes her signature look.
The last example: in Ninth House, Alex is described as looking Mexican, with dark hair and slightly darker skin, but it’s not clear and kind of ambiguous. This is significant because she doesn’t know who her father is, so she doesn’t know herself what her background is. Another important feature is her tattoos: they play an important part in the story.
How to decide which descriptions to use?
So, how do you know what to include when you describe your character? All you have to do is consider whether or not it’s important for the reader to know. Does it really matter what color the character’s hair or eyes is? The color of their skin? Their ethnicity? Their height, the clothes their wearing? Be really honest with yourself. Is it not needed? Don’t put it in. Your reader will make their own mental picture of their character, picturing them how they want to picture them. Being too specific would just ruin that or make it more complicated.
When you create your character, just think about one or two things that are unique about your character. The most cliché feature (which can still work if you do it right), is a specific scar your character has, or a tattoo, like Alex in the example. Or perhaps it is how they look like a parent, or how their ethnicity is difficult to see. Think about what you want to show the reader with this specific feature. Will it become some sort of symbol? Will it symbolize how the character changes throughout the story (for example, how Sansa’s hair-style changed throughout GOT to signify her allegiance).
When in doubt: just have someone read what you wrote and ask them if they have trouble picturing the character. Nine times out of ten, they won’t. Generally, it’s easier to write too many details on your character than too few!
Now go ahead and write!
Time to try it out, so go forth and write! I hope this was helpful for you. If you have any questions and/or comments, I’d love to hear them!
- Show, Don’t Tell: How to write vivid descriptions, handle backstory, and describe your characters’ emotions – Sandra Gerth
- Characters & Viewpoint – Orson Scott Card