Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Describing Characters Through Characters

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’s beautiful.

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 clich√©. 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?


  1. Thanks Jill! My friend just read my WIP and told me my descriptions were really weak, so this should help.
    Typically when I'm describing the main character I just sprinkle in the descriptions as I go, so it's not one big pile of information all at once.
    The 'King Riders' in my story typically use animals as comparison- 'he had hawklike features', etc.

    1. I tend to skip my descriptions until the editing stage. And even then, my editor Jeff Gerke, will say something like, "Just so you know, you need better descriptions in every scene." To which I say, "Gah!"

    2. And be careful with the animal thing. I'm sure you are. But Achan describes people using animals too, and it got to the point that 1. I was running out of animals! and 2. He was doing it too much. So sometimes I had to come up with something else. That also might be because I always have WAY TOO MANY characters in my books... Yeah...

  2. I really liked this post! Describing my characters is something I need to really work on as part of my pacing. I tend to over describe them, because I can see everything so beautifully, I want my reader to feel the same way! But, I suppose I need to respect their imagination, and not get too ruffled if they imagine my MC with different length of hair, or different nose or something like that.
    Hehe, when you said that mirrors were cliche, I had to smile a little sheepishly. I use a reflection off a window to describe my MC, which is practically the same thing. :P

    And, btw, I loved Vrell's description of Lady Jaira. It was beautiful. :)

    1. Yes, the opposite is also a problem. The goal is to find a balance so that the description gives just enough information without jerking the reader out of the story. You want them to feel like they're there, in the point of view character's shoes.

      I've read a lot of book where the author barely describes the main character. And it works okay. When the time comes in the story, the character will think something that gives a clue to his looks. Ex: He describes another character and compares himself. So, he describes a huge, linebacker type and thinks the guy could crush him, implying that he's not a big, strong guy.

  3. I'm an artist so I LOVE describing my characters. I don't even use a whole lot of pictures to look at. I really create their image in my head. It's nice having the POV from a girl that is a little bit prissy. I can really get creative.

    1. Cool, Princess! Getting creative is what writing is all about!

  4. My favorite way to include detail is when one of my MC girls is comparing herself in a funny way, for example "Her flowing brown hair was flawless, unlike my rumpled curls". I especially like to sneak in details!! "He brushed his long blond bangs out of his face, sighing softly". Those are the most fun.
    I've never had the opportunity to describe a character in a mirror. Sometimes I'll begin a scene with a switched point of view so the other can describe a MC.

    Awesome post! I need to read your Blood of Kings Trilogy - I love medieval age EVERYTHING!

    1. That's good, Sarah. The comparison thing is a great way to include description because we all compare ourselves to each other.

      Thanks! I was just thinking how much I miss the medieval fantasy. After these two projects I'm on now, I'm going to write my new fantasy idea next. I need me some swords!

    2. I really want to read your books too now! I love medieval fiction; have you read the Icemark series by Stuart Hill?

  5. Wow, I really like the way you described your character with the second mirror, I thought it was really inventive, if they've actually never SEEN a mirror before, I really didn't feel like I'd been force-fed anything, I actually felt like I was discovering along with him.
    It kind of breaks the fictional bubble, for me, though, when someone goes "I whipped back my raven black hair." I just sit there for a second and go... "no." and then continue on. I mean, who thinks that when they whip their hair? "Oh, it's so raven black." *headdesk* So yes, I think "I pulled back my red hair" is fine, but when you describe it more than that, it's intrusive. Maybe sneaking in details in other ways would be good - showing rather than telling how thick it is, because the elastic gets stuck or something.

    I don't know.

    Thanks for the awesome post! :D

    1. I loved Achan's description also. It was awesome - so natural and unique ... especially the part about his eyes. Legendary.

    2. I love Achan's description of himself. It was so epic getting to 'watch' him discover himself. I really want to read your books now!

    3. Agreed, Micah! Those kids of descriptions can be intrusive. You have to be careful. And some of those pulling back hair and wiping hair out of eyes is a little cliche because so many authors do it.

      So watch yourself when you're editing. You don't want to use those things very often. Believe me when I say that a reader could read your whole book and love it and not know what color your main character's hair is. It's all about your character's voice. That's what truly pulls in the reader.

    4. Thanks, guys. I adore Achan. I miss him. He's such a fun character to write. *sigh*

  6. Lydia Grace HartMay 22, 2012 at 9:32 PM

    The WIP(ish) I'm working on now is from a "ladies' man"'s POV, so it's easy to slip in details about gals without overdoing it. He's also a thief, so he notices everything, and plans everything obsessively, even things like the fastest way to get to 'the can' from where he's standing. Yeah, he's a load of laughs :)

    1. Oh, Lydia, that sounds like such a fun challenge :)

    2. LOL!
      I like him already. OCD is fun to write.

  7. Hunger games! Woo!

    ..Solitary? No, no. I still get scared thinking about that book.

    1. LOL! I hear you, Emii.
      I. Love. Solitary!
      But it's not for everyone. Truly.
      But if you want to read an author who has a character's voice down in an AMAZING way, Solitary does it. I've never read anything quite like it.

    2. Granted, neither is Hunger Games. Some people consider Hunger Games a scary book.

    3. Oh, I'm with you on that one -- Solitary had about the most compelling voice in the world. Also relatable -- when Chris said something I'd be like, "That's exactly what I was thinking!" I could not stop reading -- and, oh, that scene in his great aunts house or whatever? I was laughing out loud.

  8. I have so much fun describing characters! I love it!

    1. It is fun. But it can be troublesome when you have too many characters. That's one of my big problems as an author. I always have too many characters...

  9. Thanks so much for this post! It makes me want to read you books!! :D

  10. How do I describe my characters while writing in the point of view in a blind person? It's extremely difficult. I have the personality's down..

    1. Use the other senses. Throw in details. For example:

      I sighed. His hands were still on my shoulder, and it made me squirm. "You have beefy hands," I murmured. He smiled. At least I think he did... "Oh really?"
      "Yeah..." He had put his head on my shoulder now, and it made me cringe. Ben always had had spiky hair.

      See? From the beefy hands we know he's probably big and heavy. And the spiky hair...that's just a good detail. Without any visual we can suddenly picture Ben in our heads. Good luck!