Let’s talk about describing human characters well. That’s right, humans. Not fantastical flying creatures or beings from other worlds. Plain old, everyday humans. Which means that we don’t have the luxury of quite as much space on the page to describe them, or else we run the risk of boring or annoying our reader. So how do we know what details to include, how much to include, and how to weave it in?
There are two things to consider when we’re talking about describing human characters: appearance and physicality. But before we consider them, let’s remember this: the reader will not visualize the character in their mind the same way that you do. No matter how specific you get, no matter how many details you provide, the reader will bring their own experiences to the character and therefore picture her in whatever way their mind wants to. If we as writers can accept that this is true, it actually allows us some freedom to pick and choose the details that are most essential and leave the rest up to the reader’s imagination.
When it comes to appearance, you don’t need to do a full-length mirror, top-to-bottom description of your character on the page, but you do need one in your own mind. Close your eyes and visualize your character. Get as detailed as you can. Look at her hair, her eyes, her skin, her clothes. Consider her height, the build of her body. Then identify the five or so details that are really important, that tell us something about her that matters. Does she have a piercing stare? A wide smile? A punk style? For each detail that you choose, ask yourself why it matters. Does the piercing stare come from something she wants? Is the wide smile covering for something darker? Does her style indicates that she wants to stand out for some reason?
Remember, the details you choose in describing your human characters well are things that tell us something about her personality or her history. Write a list of these things and keep them nearby when you are writing. Then weave them in as you tell your story in ways that are natural. Perhaps another character makes a comment about one of these details. Or maybe it comes up in their physicality.
Physicality is about how the character uses their body to move through the world, how they interact with the space around them, and how they feel in their own skin. Again, you’ll want to know in your own mind as much as possible, but then choose just a handful of details that tell the reader something important about the character as it relates to the story.
Let’s talk about external physicality first; in other words, what other people can see. If he is insecure and shy, he may have shoulders that round in and spend a great deal of time looking at the floor. If he is awkward and gangly, then he’ll probably be bumping into things, tripping, or knocking things over from time to time.
Internal physicality is about how the character’s emotions feel inside their body. This one is important for you to explore. Consider how your character feels when he’s angry. Where does he feel it in his body? His throat? His chest? How about when he’s stressed? In my book, I have a character who has a constant knot in her stomach from anxiety. What does your character have? Create a list and keep it with you as you write.
Weaving it in
So now we’ve talked about deciding on a handful of ideas about your character’s appearance and physicality, and how they need to be details that matter for the character’s arc. Now let’s talk about how to put them in the story. I would strongly encourage you not to just dump all of the details into one paragraph when the character is introduced. Instead, perhaps offer one or two details at that time, then gradually drop the others in as the story dictates. For example, if the character looks at someone, that’s a time to comment on the eyes. Or if the character is in a stressful situation, that’s the moment to introduce the knot in his stomach or her clenched fists. Keep the revealing of the details to places where it feels most authentic to the storytelling.
Describing human characters doesn’t always feel as exciting as describing creatures that we aren’t as familiar with. But if we can first fully visualize them in our minds and then select the handful of details that really matter, we will be able to weave in a gentle description that will create the beginnings of the image that the reader will generate in their mind.
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