The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.
Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us.
Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.
1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”
It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”
This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?
When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.