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Fri Aug 01, 2008 7:19 pm
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Rydia says...

I'm a bit of a description Nazi as some members of YWS are fond of pointing out and I thought it was about time I started an article. I'll probably add to this over time and people can feel free to throw the link at anyone who needs a little nudge. That or just tell them to ask me to take a look at their work or even pm me and suggest I critique it. Anyway, on to the article...

The Basics

You need to describe your characters. Some people tell their readers the eye and hair colour and that's fine but don't stop there. You need to make these characters so real that your reader can see them too, can hear them and even smell them. A reader can't relate to a character if they have no idea what that character looks like. So first, decide on the details. What face shape, body shape, height, weight, size of nose, clothes, skin colour etc. Are there any particular features that distinguish your character from the average person? A nose piercing perhaps or a scar?

Next, you need to slot these details into the story. Don't just list them in one blocky paragraph. That's what we writers like to call an info dump. Instead, add a sentence here and there. Tag it on to the end of dialogue or a little when you first introduce them. Add it when you give body actions and movements. Here's a few example sentences:

"Paul, can you lend me a hand?" Alice tucked a stray lock of tangled, brown hair behind her ear and smiled beseechingly. Her plump, full lips parted to show a row of crooked, yellow-white teeth and a scattering of uneven, black fillings.

"Daniel? Where are you?" Max pushed the door open with an ear-splitting creak and stepped through into a small, dark room. His deep green eyes squinted through the dim, foggy light that cast his gaunt, freckled face into shadow. He brushed a skeletal hand against the dusty wall and wrinkled his nose at the foul smell. "Hello?"


The next piece of essential description is setting. If you don't tell your reader what the room looks like or at least where they are, it's dull. They have nothing to visualise and your words are just that: words. Think about lighting: is the room dark or is it light? Artificial light or natural and if artificial what colour? Then, is it cold or warm? Is it stuffy? And of course, small or big? Narrow or wide, high ceiling or low? What's in the room? And describe the objects rather than just state them. An old, chipped china vase sounds much more interesting than simply a vase.

Next, think about the decorations in the room: curtains, carpet/ wood flooring, wallpaper. You don't have to mention every detail and too many could bore your readers but add at least a little description. And setting is slightly different to character description. It's best to describe the room at the beginning of the piece or upon entry. You can add more details as you go along but it makes for an excellent introductory paragraph. Here's an example:

The library was dark, lit only by the feeble shafts of moonlight that spilled through the cracks in boarded up windows. It was damp. It was cold. The sort of cold that seeped through clothes, clutching flesh with a skeletal hand. The ceiling was out of sight, somewhere high up, beyond the shadowed depths and as Charlotte approached the rows of old, crumbling bookcases, her footsteps echoed: thud thud thud. She shuffled more quietly, scared to disturb the cobwebs of the past. There were many books to search and her eyes began to feel sore as she strained to read each spine.


But wait, I've already covered characters haven't I? No, not quite. Characters have to be deeper than their surface appearances. A character's personality and emotions can be shown through the way they speak, through the way they move and through many little, imperceivable actions. When they're nervous, they might bite their lip. When they're happy they might smile or laugh. If they're a neat person, it might be seen through their clothes or they might brush a little dust from their clothes. If they're vain, they might pause at a mirror to smile at themselves. Think about who your character is and show your reader.

More than one sense!

This is the point I iterate most often and it is a common mistake I see. When writing, people seem to forget just how many senses there are to be taken into consideration. I'll tell you now: there are five.

Sight: What can your narrator see? I don't think there's any need for me to go into more detail for this one.

Sound: What can they hear? Is there music in the distance? The sound of a tap dripping or a stream flowing? Does the person they're talking with have an interesting accent? Is a fly buzzing around the room, the echo of footsteps, the tap tap tapping of keys?

Smell: Is something burning? Is there the smell of sweat or sweet perfume? The smell of sewage or fresh air? Can flowers be smelled or oil or alcohol?

Touch: When your person picks an object up, how does it feel? If they brush against another person, can they feel the heat of that person's body. Is the object smooth or rough? What material is it? Is it squidgy or hard? Cold or warm?

Taste: This is the hardest to include but remember you can be metaphorical: is there the taste of tension in the air? Does the air taste of pollution or the ocean? If your character eats or drinks, how does the food taste? Is the water refreshing or is it warm; revolting.
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Mon Aug 04, 2008 12:37 pm
Chirantha says...


You really pointed out some essential points I miss when I write,especially about the five senses

Thankyou so much :D

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Fri Oct 31, 2008 6:23 pm
ButterFlyInk says...

Thank you sooo much for this =]
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Fri Oct 31, 2008 10:15 pm
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Caligula's Launderette says...

It makes me so happy that you wrote something about this; (I had only touched on it in my soapboxes). And, it makes me wonder why I didn't see it before.

:P *thumbs up*

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Tue Feb 24, 2009 6:51 pm
desmerize1819 says...

Hey, this really is useful. Thanks for this information.
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Fri Dec 13, 2013 12:23 pm
VolfnessWhiter says...

I really liked your tutorial, especially the part about setting descriptions, as those are what I have most problems with. You know what you should add to this? A complex list of questions to ask yourself when you're writing a description. You included some, but a whole list would be so helpful. I'd just open it and choose some of the questions to answer in my description. I know it's a lot of work, but it would be fantastic.

Though I wouldn't agree that the reader needs to know the character's appearance to relate to them. Actually, I think that the appearance can obstruct this at times. Especially with the protagonist, because you want most people to identify with them; if you overdo the appearance details, it'll be actually harder for people to relate to them, especially when some of them carry cultural weight as well. If you make your protagonist of a certain race, for example, then yes, it'll be easier for people of the same race to identify with him, but make it harder for people of different races, especially if you add the cultural differences. The same applies to weight, sex or piercings and clothes that identify the protagonist with a certain social group that the reader may or may not be part of. I'm actually writing a story, right now, where the only thing you know about the protagonist is their name and, unfortunately, sex, though I'm trying to find away to skip that, too. The whole book is about their life and psyche, and you can deeply relate to them on the mental level, but there are no appearance details to obstruct you.

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Sun Dec 15, 2013 12:12 am
Rydia says...

Thank, I'm glad you liked it and I'll definitely think about your suggestion to put together a question list - that's a good idea!

That's also an interesting idea about how appearances might obstruct connectivity as well. I can see where you're coming from, though I always find it easier to relate to someone when I know what they look like, not necessarily because I share their background or social group, but because then they're a person. I find that when I can't visualise the character, it's hard for me to really feel like part of their lives, but when I can imagine them as myself or a close friend then I'm sucked in to the story.

Playing with identity is definitely worthwhile though and I wish you luck with your experiment!
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Sat Jan 11, 2014 12:15 pm
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deleted5 says...

Thanks Rydia! The bit on settings was very helpful to me! I always miss out that.
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Sun Dec 21, 2014 7:24 pm
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FireBird99 says...

Thanks! This was a lot of help in a small package. It will definitely help me =)
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