Describing fictional characters has always been a challenge for me. There’s a good bit of advice regarding this issue, some of which I mention below. And then, I figured I might as well add my two-cents worth.
One example of age-old writing advice is to minimize character description and let the reader fill in the blanks–or blank, as the case may be. I recently read a narrative where there was absolutely zero description of the first person protagonist, and yet I had a distinct image in my mind. I put the book down and thought about that.
It occurred to me that the first person narrative automatically erases the narrator’s physical attributes. We “see” the first person narrator only when she decides, if ever, to describe herself. And is it a reliable assessment? Maybe–maybe not. For the writer, this is a powerful weapon.
But what about that moment when, as a writer, I feel the deep need, to describe my character. I want my reader(s) to see this person as I see him/her. I find that task to be very daunting at times.
First, I want to avoid the cliché description–even of minor or flat characters.
- He was tall and handsome with a prominent chin. or
- She had the face of an angel. or
- She was a beautiful blond with clear, blue eyes.
I also try to avoid, what my college composition instructor termed (I think he got this from a D.H. Lawrence essay.), the “driver license” character descriptions: He was five feet ten inches tall and weighed at least two hundred pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. He had a scar!
So, I try to use Distinguishing Characteristics.
With facial characteristics the hair, eyes, and nose are often a main focus–with the nose being at the end of the scale. Of course, there is the famous “aquiline nose.” The eagle-like nose that reflects a forceful and energetic character. You see it a lot in the description of men throughout the pages of Victorian novels. I’ve deleted aquiline from my writer’s list of nose descriptors, but what else? Big, flat, broad, thin, flared, long, tiny, pub. When I use one or two of these words, I’m almost always dissatisfied for the simple reason most of them are understood in our image conscious Euro-centric society to be negative. The word prominent has proven to be a most convenient term for nose description. But still…
Lips are another good descriptor. It’s interesting that we often see descriptions of female lips (pouty, dainty, bow-like, full), but not male lips, unless the male lips are ugly. He had thick lips.
Also, what one doesn’t see so much of, and it surprises me that we don’t, are descriptions of teeth. Why? I read–some time ago–that the first thing noticed by a woman on a first date or first meeting or whatever, is the other person’s teeth. So, I wonder why we don’t see descriptions of teeth more often in millennial writing? I might add, the missing tooth or teeth works amazingly well as means of describing a character. It also gives us insight into the observing character who is “bothered by” or “attracted to” the missing tooth.
Facial shape and/or body shape is also an effective descriptor of characters. He had a long face with a jutting chin, or he had a concave face that gave the impression of eternal sadness. I’ve learned, mostly through reading, that combining a physical characteristic with a personality trait works quite well. She walked slightly bent as if she carried the family curse on her shoulders.