We all know how important it is to give a proper description for your characters. If you don’t, your reader will have a hard time picturing what is happening to them, or they might create their own idea of what your characters look like (and you wouldn’t want that, now would you?). The real problem isn’t why you want to give a decent physical description, it’s when and how. You want the descriptions to fit in flawlessly with the rest of your prose. You want to introduce your characters in a way that fits in with your narrative.
To demonstrate what I feel is necessary in order to describe your characters properly, I’m going to use my three main characters as examples. Bear in mind that this is the roughest of rough drafts, but while the writing certainly isn’t flawless, I think the main points are there. So I’ll be able to describe when a character is describing himself, someone he's just met, and someone he's known all his lives. You’ll want to approach each character in a different way—what do we need to know about their appearance to get a good picture of them? If you’re writing in first person (which I do), how are these traits noticeable or important to your narrator?
One of the hardest things to do is to have a first person narrator describe him or herself. If you think about it, the narrator is basically talking to the reader, and if you were talking to somebody, would you start describing yourself? No, because that person would be looking right at you. So the narrator/reader relationship is slightly different. This is why it gets tricky. You want your narrator to be clear, but you don’t want the description to seem forced. And for the love of God, don’t have them stand in front of a mirror describing themselves. Don’t just work with your character; work with the story. Find a spot in your narrative where it works and doesn’t seem random. I snuck in Jordan’s description while he and his friends are talking about girls. He starts thinking about why girls find him attractive, which he finds hilarious because no one knows that he’s actually gay.
I don’t really know why I was hot. I guess you’ve got some girls that like muscular guys, you know, with lickable abs. But then some girls go for skinny guys. They all like tall guys, of course, and I wasn’t a giant or anything but I had my growth spurt at thirteen. And I didn’t really think the girls were going crazy over my brown eyes, or short, light brown hair…I guess it had to be my face. I’ve got high cheekbones and a smile that can kill. Plus a complexion that girls would be jealous of—I’ve probably had about three zits in my entire life. So I wasn’t drooling over myself in the mirror or anything, but I understood.
It’s probably the easiest for a first person narrator to point out their best features. He sort of glazes over most of his description, comparing himself to other guys, but then points out what he thinks actually makes him attractive. Like I said in my first post, it’s all about the character. Jordan is cocky, so he’s going to emphasize his good traits, and not even downplay his mediocre ones. But if your narrator is an insecure teenage girl, she might talk about how she hates her nose or can never get her hair right.
While having the narrator describe himself might be difficult, the easiest part is probably when he meets someone new. You get to see this character along with the narrator for the first time. Think about when you meet someone, like a classmate or a new coworker. You’ll notice their most striking features right away—red hair, bright blue eyes, an unusual way of dressing. But you’ll also be taking in their whole appearance, trying to memorize what they look like while remembering their name. When describing a new character, you’ll also want your narrator to respond internally. If they’re repulsed by the way the person smells or their crooked teeth, then they’ll be thinking mostly about that. If they find this person attractive, they’ll be thinking about that while trying to act calm and collected. And they’ll probably be taking in more detail. When Jordan first meets his math tutor, Tom, he immediately takes in every detail of his appearance because he is struck by it:
That smile nearly knocked me on my ass. He was definitely older, maybe around thirty. I couldn’t be sure. Just a bit taller than me, and skinny but not a twig. He had dark hair, almost black—a bit long but brushed out of his face, falling back in delicate waves down to his ears. And these blue eyes—I mean, I could have just died right there.
The thing I like about this is that Jordan tends to see people in comparison to himself—older, taller, etc. Always keep your character’s attitude in mind. Your reader doesn’t necessarily have to agree with your narrator’s perception, but they have to believe it. If he’s attracted to the person he meets, make it striking. Make him notice everything about this person and understand why he feels this way.
When it comes to somebody your narrator already knows, it’s a tricky balance. Like himself, he already knows what this person looks like. You probably want these descriptions to be brief—let the reader know what this person looks like but don’t make it a page long, glorifying every detail (unless say, your narrator is secretly in love with his best friend whom he’s known for years). While this person isn’t going to stand out to your narrator, he will notice things that are different or impressive—like a new haircut or a nice outfit. When Jordan describes his mother, he once again relates her to his own appearance, but mostly notices how she dresses, because it’s part of who she is:
Mom looked a lot like me—you know, a tiny stick of a thing—but with boobs. Since she was always working, she was always in some tight little dress or skirt with her hair pulled back. Today was no different. She threw her purse on the counter and started rummaging through it. When I stood next to her she stopped and looked up at me, crinkling her eyebrows. “When did you get taller than me?”
You can add in little details that work within the scene so that they are noticed but don’t stand out like a sore thumb. I could have had Jordan say that he was taller than his mother, but worked it into the scene instead. Rather than a passing thought, it asks questions about their relationship, like, why is she just noticing this now? How often do they see each other? There are a million little ways you can work in these sorts of details. Just look at your story and figure out where they fit in.
About halfway through this I decided there needs to be a Part Three. So come back on Monday for more about keeping descriptions fresh and maintaining them throughout your book. And probably some other things. :)