By Jill Williamson
How you describe your characters depends on who your point of view character is. If you're writing a female, she might describe clothing, give fabric and designer details, or compare herself to the person she’s looking at. A male point of view character might just think: A chick in a dress walked into the gym.
When describing, always think about who your point of view character is and bring that personality into his or her descriptions.
For example, in my Blood of Kings series, Achan is a simple guy who lives in a medieval world. So he thinks of things in regards to the world around him. Here are a few descriptions from Achan’s POV from my book, To Darkness Fled:
●A thin man with a face like a possum slouched on a throne-like chair opposite the door. He had fine grey hair, a large nose, and beady black eyes.
●Achan recognized the young man’s pale, freckled face and shock of orange hair immediately. Sir Septon Eli himself. A man barely older than Achan.
●The dirty-faced tot was no more than seven. He had a thatch of blond hair over big brown eyes.
But look how Vrell describes Achan and Lady Jaira in the same novel. The description inspired the a lovely drawing of Lady Jaira from a girl named Ember.
[Achan] stood with Lord Eli at the entrance to the great hall, looking every bit like a rich, exotic prince. He wore a black leather doublet over a royal blue tunic embroidered with silver thread. The sleeves dangled past his fingertips. Silver buckles cinched black trousers below his knees where they met shiny black boots. His black hair slicked back into a braided tail, held in place by a sparkling jewel. No bandage covered his scruffy cheeks, but his facial hair had been trimmed into the start of a beard that would eventually hide his scars.
But nothing could hide his sour expression. Such chagrin could be due to the fact he had been dressed like Esek, yet Vrell bet Lady Jaira Hamartano’s presence was the likely cause. She stood with her mother, sister, and Lord Eli’s wife at the bottom of the stairs.
Vrell paused beside Sir Gavin and frowned. Jaira’s blue dress suspiciously matched Achan’s ensemble. The gown clung to her every curve as if painted onto her skin. It had a wide, revealing neckline with little cap sleeves that dripped black beads down her slender arms. She wore black satin gloves to her elbows. The slender skirt fanned out from her knees like the tail of a fish. A silver chain draped around her narrow waist with a matching blue reticule attached.
Jaira’s dozens of fine black braids were piled atop her head like an ebony crown, baring her long neck and shoulders. Shiny obsidian teardrops dangled from her ears. A third larger stone hung from a thin cord around her neck and plunged toward her low neckline. Her olive skin looked bronze under the flickering candelabras and sparkled as if she had bathed in mineral dust. Paint reddened her cheeks, outlined her eyes in black, and dusted each eyelid blue.
Vrell had never seen such repulsive beauty. She could hardly bear to see Jaira standing with Achan in such a way. Lord Eli had plotted these matching ensembles, she had no doubt. Vrell took a deep breath and tried to create a neutral expression, but a sudden thought stole her breath. She had been dressed to match Achan as well.
As his squire.
See the difference?
These books are medieval fantasy, and oftentimes, the fantasy genre requires more description than another setting might. But Vrell is a girl who likes details.
Here is an example from Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins of when Katniss describes Peeta. Notice that she makes a hunting connection because she's a hunter.
Medium height, stocky build, ashy blond hair that falls in waves over his forehead. The shock of the moment is registering on his face, you can see his struggle to remain emotionless, but his blue eyes show the alarm I’ve seen so often in prey.
And here is an example for Solitary by Travis Thrasher. This book has a romance as a key plot point. When romance it a huge part of the story, the descriptions of the main character’s love interest sometimes go on and on throughout the book. And if a male POV character likes a girl, he's likely to describe her in more detail. See how Chris' descriptions of the three girls differ here?
She stands behind two other girls, one a goth coated in black and the other a blonde with wild hair and an even wilder smile. She’s waiting, looking off the other way, but I’ve already memorized her face.
I’ve never seen such a gorgeous girl in my life.
“You really like them?”
The goth girl is the one talking: maybe she’s the leader of their pack. I’ve noticed them twice already today because of her, the one standing behind. The beautiful girl from my second-period English class, the one with the short skirt and long legs and endless brown hair, the one I can’t stop thinking about. She’s hard not to notice.
Consider your POV character when describing setting and action as well. In my book, Achan was raised in a kitchen, so he sometimes describes things in a culinary way.
Outside the manor, dozens of tents and pavilions had popped up like tarts in the northern field, each waving colorful banners and crests.
As far as describing your main character, believe it or not, less is more. Try to get creative here. Mirrors are cliché. Avoid them, if you can. This said by the woman who used a mirror to describe both her main characters in By Darkness Hid! (Bad, Jill!)
Here are those descriptions. Here Achan’s is longer because he has never seen himself, whereas Vrell, a noblewoman, has been groomed and pampered in front of mirrors her whole life.
She walked to the mirrorglass that stood in the far corner of the bedchamber.
At seventeen, Vrell was fully grown, but because of her small frame, Mother had suggested her boy persona be fourteen. Vrell examined her short black hair and fair skin in the mirrorglass. She wrinkled her nose and gave her round cheeks a pinch.
Wils held up a mirrorglass. Achan stared at it, glanced at Wils, then leaned forward. He’d never seen a mirrorglass. He’d never seen his face at all, except in the river or the moat or the dishwater. He studied his reflection, pleased he didn’t find himself ugly. His skin was tan like the shell of a walnut. Black hair was pulled back into the braided tail, straight and smooth. Did that make his heritage kinsman?
He had a good face, he thought. A bit square, but not long and oval like Noam’s or fat and round like Riga’s. Wils had even shaved him, something Achan had never done despite the few wisps of hair on his chin. His cheeks and neck still tingled from the razor’s edge.
Achan leaned closer to the mirrorglass. His eyes were blue. He hadn’t known that about himself. Blue eyes were also a kinsman trait. He leaned back and nodded to Wils, who set the mirrorglass on a shelf over the fire. Achan smiled. He was kinsman.
Most of the time it works to say little or nothing about how your main character looks, sneaking in a detail here and there. Ex: She pulled her curly red hair into a ponytail.
Again, this is something that is perfected in your rewrites. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t like how your descriptions are in your first drafts. You can always go back and spend time on them later, once the full novel is complete.
What are some interesting ways your point of view character describes people or things?