Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How To Describe People

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Today brings us to Part Three of my four-part series on description. We are looking at how to describe people today. I have been guilty of finding somewhat common ways to describe my main character such as describing them in a mirror or remarking on the color of their hair when they are brushing it. If you've done this, don't panic. We will discuss several other ways of describing people that might inspire you to do something different.

As with last week's post on describing places, you might find it helpful to keep a description sheet on each character to refer to. Since I always have so many characters, I often find such notes helpful when I can't remember a detail, such as the color of a character's eyes. Here is a link to my character chart. You can see how I have listed some physical attributes at the top. I also will turn the sheet over and write any other notes to help me. I also sometimes tape a printed picture of a celebrity who looks like my character. This often helps me see my character face to face, so to speak.

Also on my character chart are many character traits. Things people do and how they speak are part of how they are described. Description of people isn't only physical. So be sure to write down things like skills, flaws, hobbies, quirks, personality type, and mantra they live by. All these details, when sprinkled throughout your story, will combine to show your reader what your character looks like.

Let's look a bit more closely at some of these:

Physical attributes
You could spend hours listing every detail about what your character looks like from head shape, the body size, to finger width and length. Guess what: your reader doesn't care. BUT--if you can choose one or two physical attributes to assign to each character, and vary them between your characters, this will help your reader. I call this flagging or tagging characters. I blogged about this here. The gist is that you pick one or two things about each character to be flags (tags) to the reader to help them remember who each character is. J. K. Rowling does this well in the Harry Potter books. We know Harry is dark-haired, wears broken glasses, and has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. We know Ron Weasley is red-haired and wears shabby, hand-me-down clothing. Hermione has bushy hair, buck teeth, and is usually carrying a book. The Weasley Twins finish each others sentences. Hagrid is huge, has bushy hair and beard, and loves exotic animals. Malfoy is pale, richly dressed, and is often flanked by two cronies.

We don't need to know whether Malfoy has a birthmark, since Harry has a scar. Those are too similar and might confuse the reader. And while Hermione and Hagrid both have bushy hair, they are different enough in their other flags that the reader doesn't confuse them. This also doesn't mean you never mention other details about these characters. It simply means that whatever flags you choose, you repeat more often than the others so that the reader learns these as identifiers.

So look at your characters and pick and choose attributes to turn into character flags. You might describe one girl as having a small, round face. A boy as being tall, almost skeletal with overly long arms. Perhaps you describe one person's white gold hair. Another person's squinty green eyes.

Everything Else: Traits, skills, hobbies, quirks, and personality type
Knowing these types of things about your characters will also help you describe them. Take Harry Potter, for instance. He is quiet (at first). He is a quick learner. He tends to jump to conclusions, especially in regards to people he dislikes. This gets him into trouble time and again. He likes quidditch. His hair does not lie flat. And he is courageous and self-sacrificing. J. K. Rowling continually presents this information to the reader. She plants it here and there so that we learn to know who Harry is. We come to expect how he will react to certain things.

Write a short personality/motivation description
It may help you to write a short paragraph describing your character to yourself. Write down what he looks like, what his interests are, what his home life is like and why. Tell us what matters to him and what he wants out of life. All this will help you as you present who he is to the reader.

Describing People Through the Point of View Character’s Voice
In my opinion, the best way to describe people is through other point of view characters. All this depends on that point of view character's voice. Who is he? How does he talk? Male POV characters will sound different than female ones. And different female characters will also sound different. All this is based on each character's background, their knowledge, what interests them, and their emotional state, which might change based on their circumstances in each scene. Let's look at each one in detail. I will use my own characters as examples.

Life experience
If we compare Spencer from the Mission League books to, say, Achan, from the Blood of Kings books, we will see two very different people.

Spencer lives in the Los Angeles area in current day. He attends a private Christian high school (much to his chagrin), is six foot four, lives with his grandma, has been arrested before for vandilism (tagging) and minor drugs, has been in his share of fights, has been to Moscow and Japan, has a fairly poor track record with girls, and wants to play college basketball. That's Spencer's life.

Achan lives in the medieval-like land of Er'Rets, specifically in Sitna Manor, which is run by Lord Nathak, the guardian to Prince Gidon. Achan is a slave (a stray), branded by his owners. He wears an orange tunic, which marks him a stray to any who would see him. He works in the kitchens and is also in charge of milking the goats each morning and bringing the milk to the cook. He doesn't remember either parent. The cook beats him, which isn't all that odd for the world in which Achan lives. He sleeps in the cellar under the ale casks. He has two close friends who try to help him and who have taught him compassion when he could have been bitter. He would like to be free. He would like to marry Gren. That is Achan's life.

What they know
Spencer knows video games. He knows popular music. He is obsessed with basketball, both playing it and watching it. Spencer is a hometown fan. His favorite teams are the L.A. Lakers and the UCLA Bruins. He knows about being in trouble with the police. He is quite street smart. He knows about sewing, specifically quilting, since his Grandma hosts a quilt club in her home and has forced Spencer to help since he was very little. He knows about Christianity from being forced to go to church. That is all head knowledge. He doesn't really know what he believes about any of that.

Achan knows about cooking and herbs and taking care of goats. He knows his place in the world. He knows how it feels to have no one care if he lives or dies. He knows what it's like to be abused. He has a sense of what is right and wrong and often decides to enforce it when he sees others being mistreated, even at his own risk. He knows a little about weaving and dying fabric, things he learned from Gren. He cannot read or write, more than making sense of the cook's lists of ingredients.

What interests them
This might be similar to the "what they know" section above, but it's the differences that you'll want to recognize. Spencer knows about quilting and the Bible, but he has no interest in those things. He is interested in basketball, video games, Brittney Holmes movies, girls, and trying to earn money to buy things related to basketball, video games, Brittney Holmes movies, and impressing girls. As he grows through the books, his interests change some.

Achan is interested in Gren and how he might change his life station to be worthy of her, though he knows it's futile. He likes watching tournaments. He finds swordplay fascinating. And Achan does rather enjoy spending time with the goats: Dilly and Peg.

(The first Spencer and Achan books are free on Kindle and iTunes, so if you want to take a look at their voices, click here to learn more.)

This is something that changes in your story scene by scene. If your character is happy, angry, or jealous, that mood should come through in how he describes things.

Let's look at some examples of describing people through a POV character.

Here is a description from Replication in Martyr's point of view. Martyr is a clone. He has never been outdoors, has never seen girls. In this scene, he is sitting in a lab room with Dr. Goyer, who is a new employee to Jason Farms (the cloning lab). They were discussing the fact that Dr. Goyer has a daughter, which fascinated Martyr. In this scene Martyr's emotion is curious.

       “What does she look like?” Martyr asked.
       Dr. Goyer reached into his back pocket. He unfolded black fabric and showed Martyr a colored picture. The doctors sometimes showed them pictures, but never in color. Martyr had never seen so many colors in one place. He stared at the face and exhaled a long breath. The daughter had orange hair! And it was long, past her shoulders, and very curly, like spiral pasta. His eyes were the color of peas.
       “He is very colorful.” Martyr’s eyes did not leave the picture when he asked, “What are the colors of peas?”
       Martyr stared at the daughter’s eyes. “His eyes are green.”
       “Her eyes.”
       Martyr glanced at Dr. Goyer. “Her?”

As you can see, Martyr's voice is very unique. He has been raised in an underground lab and has a limited vocabulary. He compares everything to what he knows from his world. He knows black and white. He knows the food served in the cafeteria. And he doesn't understand gender specific pronouns. Here the reader gets a description of Abby, the second POV character in this book, through Martyr's eyes.

Here is an example of Achan's point of view from By Darkness Hid when he first goes to peek at the tournament and first sees, and describes, Lady Tara and a few of her friends. I'll highlight his descriptions of Tara in yellow so you can see how description can be all at once and added in here and there as well. I'll highlight my own thoughts in blue.

          A group of squires and maidens about his age ran about laughing and shrieking, playing hoodman’s blind.
          Achan shouldn’t linger. Despite his armor and jerkin, he was a stray, and he doubted very much—judging by the lavish attire—that these people were. (Here Achan's character comes through. He knows his place, and this isn't it. He doesn't want to get caught and get in trouble. I don't say that outright, but the reader gets a sense of that through Achan's thoughts.) But their game migrated closer, and soon Achan stood in the midst of it. He quickly spotted the hoodman: a maiden with long curls so golden they were almost white, and tiny braids in a crown around her head. She wore a blue embroidered dress with layers of skirt. A grey blindfold covered her eyes. (Here we see she is wealthy and young.)
          The sunburned squire from Carmine who’d been defeated in the short sword pen bumped into Achan and laughed. The maiden came closer, the hem of her dress swishing in the grass, her arms outstretched, feeling the air. (This reminds the reader of her long gown and her actions.) An olive-skinned maiden with dozens of oily black braids tipped with wooden beads, snuck up, whispered in the hoodman’s ear, then darted behind a poplar.
          The hoodman spoke, her voice filled with spunk. “I’ll get you, Jaira, you wicked!” (Here we hear that she is playful.)
          The hoodman backed against Achan’s chest. Her wild curls smelled like jasmine. (It's good to try and pull in one of the five senses when you can.) Before he could remember the rules of the game, she whirled around and grabbed him in a hug. (We see the girl is bold and completely at ease with her friends, though she doesn't yet realize she doesn't know the person she has grabbed.)
          “Got you!”
          Achan jerked back in surprise and pulled free, causing the maiden to trip on her skirt. She screamed, (Tara is a screamer, a little overly dramatic most times.) and he reached out and caught her under the arms.
          She giggled madly, gripped his forearms until she was steady, and tore off the blindfold. “What hero saved me from that fall?” (She is having fun. She is a happy person, sheltered from the world of hardships that Achan lives in. And her dialogue shows her flair for dramatics.)
          Achan blinked. The maiden was Cetheria in human form. The goddess protector, beautiful and golden. Her eyes were blue crystals that sparkled as she studied him. (Achan thinks she's pretty. Cetheria is the goddess of protection. A statue of her is in the temple in Sitna, so this metaphor works well for Achan's voice. He instantly sees this Tara as beautiful and strong.) He stepped back, her scrutiny bringing a wave of uncomfortable heat. (Note Achan's behavior describes who he is. He has manners. He is embarrassed by her beauty and that she is so forward and comfortable talking with him.) A crowd clustered around, waiting to see who the next hoodman would be.
          “Well, who are you, hero?” the maiden asked. (Tara is still flirting a bit with Achan. She is a boldly friendly person and always speaks this way. Achan doesn't know that yet, so he walks away thinking more of their interaction than she did.)
          “Just Achan?” Her lips parted in a teasing smile. “What knight do you serve?” (Still flirty. Still teasing. Life is a game to Tara, and she likes to play along.)
          “Sir Gavin Lukos,” Achan said.

The scene goes on, but you get the idea. Achan describes Tara quite a bit here, and I did that on purpose so that the reader can see Achan's character in how he reacts to her. If you go back to my list, you can see how I brought in some of Achan's life experience and interests. We see him as timid (he knows he doesn't belong with these nobles), and his emotion is tentative and a little embarrassed. He is out of his comfort zone and isn't sure how to behave. But he is polite. Until provoked, anyway, which happens later on.

Another example for you to ponder is how Elizabeth Bennet is described in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. There is never a paragraph where we get a clear description of Jane. Instead, we are given hints through the eyes and comments of others. We hear that she is pretty. Has dark eyes. And many characters disparage her looks altogether. She is the second-prettiest of the Bennet sisters. Caroline Bingley says she is no beauty. The reader gathers that she is fairly plain.

Later on, we get this from Mr. Darcy. I've highlighted that which describes Elizabeth in yellow and my observations in blue.

Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, (Elizabeth's primary concern is always for Jane.) Elizabeth was far from suspecting (She would never think that any man might be admiring her.) that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. (He did not find her attractive at first. Once he realized she had a brain in her head, he looked again. This says something about Mr. Darcy as well. He is weary of silly women.) To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, (Mr. Darcy's voice here is very strong. He is mortified to be looking at this country girl at all! What is the matter with him? She is clearly imperfect.) he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing (That's all we get. Elizabeth's figure is light and pleasing.); and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware (He recognizes that she hasn't been trained in fashionable manners, but he likes that she enjoys herself. She has fun. Darcy has little fun in life, so it's unsurprising that he would notice a woman who enjoys life.); -- to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with. (And here we see that Darcy is well aware that he messed up and she despises him. Not exactly an ideal place to begin a romance, is it?)
So you don't need to go overboard. In Pride and Prejudice, the reader only needs to know what attracts the characters to each other. Austen points out the dark eyes, which allude to Elizabeth's sense of humor and teasing. And that Elizabeth is witty, laughs, and is fun to be around. We don't need to know more than that. We see how that would attract Mr. Darcy to her.

I hope you see how powerful it is to describe people through your POV character's voice. And for those of you writing in first person, take note of how Martyr, Achan, and Mr. Darcy were described through their own thoughts and actions. We don't see how they look, except that Achan was dressed like a noble. Need some other tips for describing your POV character in a first person story?

Tips for describing your protagonist in a first person story
Spencer is the only character I've written in first person, so I'll use examples of how I showed his looks below.

Avoid the...
-Describing your character in a mirror.
-Slipping in a clue: "I brushed my long brown hair."
-The self introduction: "I'm fifteen, five foot eight, brown hair, brown eyes, and have pale skin."

Instead, try:

Show through character dialogue. I did this with Spencer's height in The New Recruit. He met a sarcastic character who instantly made a tall joke. Spencer's reply reinforced the fact that he is VERY tall. And in Ambushed, Grace says to him: “Why are you always worried about me? I might not be able to bench my own body weight like you, but do I look like an invalid?” So the reader knows he is muscular.

Show through important scenes that require dress codes like interviews, formal dances, height requirements at a theme park, or perhaps, like with Spencer in The New Recruit, he needs to hide his orange hair under a baseball cap since it's a beacon to anyone looking for him. A scene in Project Gemini has Spencer needing to repel down a cliff, holding two people. He shares his (high) weight and adds it to the others as he tries to decide whether or not the rope can hold them all.

Compare and contrast. Maybe your character looks at her mother and notes that they have the same hair. Maybe Spencer looks at new recruit Luke Williamson, a somewhat (*winks*) scrawny guy, and thinks that he looked the same when he was Luke's age. Maybe your character admires another girl's gorgeous hair, then disparages her own.

Show your character through action. In The New Recruit, Spencer gets into a car: "I slouched back on the seat as far as I could and adjusted my legs, trying to fit in the small space. I felt like a pipe cleaner inside a Hot Wheels car."

Spencer is tall enough to reach something. Grace is small enough to climb under the bed. Gabe can't see to read without his glasses. Wally gets winded climbing a flight of stairs. Abby puts on a brown sweater to bring out the color of her eyes. When Grace stood next to Spencer, her head came up to his chest. And Spencer, being a big, strong guy, is often brave enough to be the hero, to talk big, to stick up for others, to take on a fight. If your character isn't, you'd show that in his action and thoughts in similar types of scenes.

Through voice. This depends on your character, but Spencer is often describing himself in little ways. Things like this from Broken Trust: "Don’t get me wrong, my body is a temple. But if a girl is going to see me in my underwear, I’d rather it not be in a 16 degree snow cave." And here from Project Gemini: "But I didn’t put my shirt back on. I thought about it, but the twins arrived then. And I’d spent all year lifting—I was proud of my muscles. And now that I was all lotioned up, I was happy to display my awesomeness for all to see."

Also, if your character has an insecurity, he or she might think about it a lot. Think of a girl with an overly large chest for her age who doesn't really like that about herself. It's embarrassing! People are always staring. She might make sure that her shirt wasn't too tight. Wear baggy clothing or a jacket, even when it's hot. And it might be something that people point out or tease her about, and something that embarrass or angers her when someone does.

Have a description you are proud of? Share it in the comments. Have one you need help with? Share that too. And if you have any questions about this, let me have them!

Also, for those of you artists out there who were thinking about entering my RoboTales art contest, there are less than two weeks left to enter! Several of you have told me you were drawing something, so be sure to actually enter it or else I won't be able to consider it for the book. For more information on the contest, click here.


  1. Trying to describe my protagonist is one of the things I struggle with most, I can't tell you how many times I've used the mirror to do it, so this is really helpful, thanks :)

    1. I'm glad this was helpful, Hollie. :-)

  2. Wow, this is super helpful. I think I do an okay job of describing my characters, but it's something that could definitely use some work. And thanks for the examples! Now I have something to sort of "go off of" while I'm checking out character descriptions. So helpful. :) Bookmarking this post for future reference.

    1. For me, descriptions need lots of tweaks until they are just right. I'm glad this was helpful, Linea. :-)

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  4. I sometimes have trouble with describing people :). I think my main issue is describing people in too much detail all at once. Here is one example of my detailing ...

    It was a young woman, who seemed to be about sixteen, and she carried a slender sword in her right hand.
    “She appears to be practicing,” whispered Avalon, as the slender girl dipped and turned with all the skilled of a practiced swordswomen.
    She wore a black shirt that matched the color of her pants, and her long, raven-colored hair fanned out behind her like peacock’s tail as she spun around.
    “I don’t think she’s human." Roxanne cocked her head to peer through the leaves. “But she’s obviously not a fairy.”
    “Yes. She’s not human, and she lacks wings.”
    The girl had exotic facial features. Eyebrows arched like butterfly wings above slanted eyes that were narrowed in concentration, and Roxanne could barely make out pointed ears.

    ... I never could decide if I added too much detail in that scene. Thoughts, anyone? ~Savannah

    1. I think you've got a good start here. Try to use your descriptions with the dialogue. So, Roxanne says, "I don't think she's human, but she's obviously not a fairy." That's a great place to show us why. What does she see that makes her say that? You can have Avalon think something like:
      Avalon saw what Roxanne meant. The girl had no wings, yet her exotic facial features and slanted eyes were proof she wasn't human either.

      See how that type of a thing would tie the description in with the dialogue?

    2. I really enjoyed your description! Her hair was brilliantly described IMHO

    3. Yeah, I see what you mean :). Thanks for the advice, Jill!
      Thanks Megan :). That was one of my favorite scenes in my story (the character I was describing is one of my favorites). ~Savannah

  5. I don't think I've described my character at all...this my first real book, at least the most I've made it this far, so I'm not too worried...sort of. I just want to get to the end. But if and when I do a rewrite (cause' if I do it'll be a big one) this'll come in handy. Thanks!

    1. Ha ha. Well, I hope you'll finish that book AND do a rewrite too, Jonathan. Then write twenty more books. ;-)

  6. Last night I was writing and was having slight difficulty describing an elderly woman...this is so timely! I'm going to put some of these things to use. Thanks!

  7. Really good timing on this post! I struggle with character description and I wonder a lot if I haven't given enough information or if all my characters are going to sound like they look the same.

    1. It's a good thing to look more closely at when you're in the rewrite stage, Anna. That's when you can take the time to look at each character individually and see how you've portrayed them.

  8. I write in first person a lot, and describing the main character and other characters is something I don't tend to do. I think it might be because when I first started writing, I would get all bogged down with character description, even to clothing.

    1. Yeah, you certainly don't want to describe too much. But it can be really fun to describe in first person when you use your character's voice.

    2. i know this is a bit off topic... but is there ever a such thing as too much detail?? Especally in scenes where there are a lot of dead people?? and can a writer's work ever be too dark? Like intense violence and/ or scenes with physical/ verbal abuse and/ or sexual violence ? my parents disapprove of the amount of violence in my writings and the description that goes along with it? Same goes with character description sometimes. Should I not go into too much description when it comes to violence. especially domestic and sexual violence ? And is BDSM content OK for a target audience being 11-19 year olds. As I work I sometimes post the work on my blog after I write each chapter and some of the readers are younger than 13..... or should I edit out sections that include BDSM ?

  9. This chapter I'm writing is in the view of Celeste, and she's seeing new people. This is the first description of herself:
    "Celeste's lethal skills and stunning looks were all that got her by. She knew enough to be able to get the necessities, but it was all she could do to not become a mercenary. No one ever took her seriously, with her flowing blond hair and bright blue eyes, but that was a con and a pro. "
    And this is her seeing three of my other main characters for the first time:
    "Celeste sat down on a black chair and surveyed the room some more. In the corner of the room sat two girls and a boy. One of the girls was quite tall with light brown hair and dark brown eyes, and looked about sixteen or so. Her looks were contrasting to the gun in her pocket. The other girl had reddish orange hair and blue eyes. She looked about eighteen, and had certain spunk in her eyes. She looked the part of a stereotypical ginger haired girl.
    The boy was incredibly cute, with short black hair and stunning green eyes. He had almost an ageless look, which was uncommon in a guy, but it really worked for him. If Celeste had to guess, she would say he was seventeen.
    Are these good descriptions? I want to show how Celeste really notices people appearances.
    Great Post, and very helpful.

  10. These are some awesome tips for a girl who struggles with character description... in fact, ANY description.
    In my current WIP, my FMC is the POV character for the entire book, with the exception of a few short scenes (in which she is not present). Any tips on how to describe her when the reader will only see her THROUGH her? (Boy, that was confusing).

    1. I can help wit that. I am good at description! too good in fact!

  11. Hi! Great post Mrs. Williamson!
    I was wondering what advice you (or anyone reading this) could give me?
    I am writing a fantasy novel based in a fantasy world, one of the cities my MC visits is inhabited by people whose natural hair colors are green, blue, and purple. I'm not sure how to explain it but the description of various hair colors is important to the story. How do i describe them without confusing or annoying my reader or using different variations of the colors (e.g. purple: plum, violet. green: mint, emerald blue: sea, navy, etc...)?

    God bless!

    1. make it that in a way each character's hair color is symbolism of their personality. I.e. a person with green hair could be described as a greedy person . purple used to be a color that was for royalty so purple haired folks could be folks with power... just some ideas. if you made hair color be symbolism for a persons personality in my opinion that would clarify a overall idea of what various characters are like instead of confuse folks. Just an idea though.

  12. Excellent post! I'll definitely refer back to this post and this series; it's very timely for me. I used to be so afraid of describing things too much that I turned into a near description-phobe, but I'm trying to work on letting myself actually put them in, both with character descriptions and with setting descriptions.

    Here's one that I think sort of shows my MC's voice: "I walk around the van to face him. He's rather generically handsome, with sandy brown hair and a nicely shaped face. Something about it seems familiar. Wait. He said he was... it couldn't be... oh no." (He humiliated her at VBS when they were four, but she hasn't seen him since. Still, generically handsome, ouch. And to think she falls in love with him by the end of the book... ;)

    Later in the scene I'm in the middle of where she's at a youth group pool party and meeting people there for the first time, she's going to compare herself to one of the girls with long golden hair, saying the girl looks like a cover model for a teen devotional whereas she looks like a cover model for a "dark and powerful future dystopian herione kicks goverment's butt" novel. So yeah.

  13. Wow, this is incredibly useful and helpful! I have to admit that I'm guilty using mirror descriptions. XP Thanks for posting this article. :)