On Writing

Writing Pitfall # 8: Over Description of Characters and Development


Good character descriptions and details are the beginnings of any great novel. Of course you have the plot, but we’re not talking about that right now. Today, the focus of this article is how to develop your characters and use proper descriptions without info dumping on your readers with excessive information.

  • Create a character profile or worksheet.

This is where you keep all the basic information about each character. It’s a handy little tool to help you remember every detail like physical characteristics, mental profile, relationships with other characters, etc. Writers Write has a great list to use when creating an in-depth character profile.  Much of what you put in your character list won’t even make it into your manuscript; most of it is for your purposes in developing your character. So go ahead and list that Bob your villain only eats at Burger Kill or that Sally your heroine can’t stand to paint her toenails. It’s all going to help you in the end. Knowing your character’s motivations will lend to their emotional viewpoints in your book.

  • To avoid info dumping in the start of your novel, describe characters’ physical traits sparingly.

Many times authors rush to describe all of their characters’ traits when they are introduced, usually within the first couple of chapters. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it doesn’t leave much to the reader’s imagination. It’s telling the reader instead of showing the reader what the characters look or act like. Stephen King said it best, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”  Very inspiring words from Mr. King. It’s also very smart. In his book It, the reader didn’t see Pennywise, the crazy scary clown, right away.  King described the clown very sparsely; he used his reader’s imaginations as a tool, knowing their minds were more fruitful than his words.  Which in return created a very frightening mental image of Pennywise’s first appearance.

So what do you do? As an author, you can  pepper the character descriptions throughout the first part of their book, this can help the reader create their own picture of what they think the characters look like.

  • Be vague on the details.

So your male protagonist is tall, dark, and handsome. Does that mean you have to tell the reader he’s six foot four, has medium length dark brown hair and light blue eyes, is muscular with bulging biceps, and wears a size thirteen shoe? The answer is no. Most times the simplest descriptions are the best kind.

Here is an example of vague and simple descriptions: Martin walked around the room like a predator. The light shone off his jet black hair. If I wasn’t so afraid of his hulking presence, I would have laughed at the way he had to duck down when he went through the doorway.

The author isn’t fully describing Martin but the reader now can picture a menacing man with black hair who is very tall and muscular.

  • Have opposing characters describe one another in their narratives.

Who wants to hear your main protagonist describe themselves in narrative? It can be pretty narcissistic or self-depreciating. For instance, instead of the main character telling the reader they have blond hair and brown eyes, have another character in the scene do it for them.

Here is an example: Wanda never liked the way she looked. She thought she was too plain compared to her friend from southern California.  Her friend, Bree, had other ideas on the subject. “Wanda, why do you put yourself down? You’re beautiful, a typical SoCal beauty. Any guy would fall for a hot blonde with deep brown eyes. You make Reese Witherspoon look like a bag lady.”

  • What better way to help describe a character’s mentality than their surroundings?

You have a character that is a happy-go-lucky sort. Would you have them always in rainy Seattle or sunny Florida?  Florida! Sometimes picking your locations can help set the mood for your character’s mentality. Let’s take, for example, a hot new thriller romance. The author is aiming for a dark and gritty vibe for their brooding male protagonist. What would work best as a proper setting? Chicago or the suburbs of Orange County, California?

  • Research.

So you’re not familiar with depression or mental illness but one of your supporting characters is bi-polar. Or maybe your female lead is a musical progeny.  You’re going to have to do some research. While you won’t necessarily be describing all facets of mental illness and treatment or what a concerto is, blindly listing or describing things about either subject serves to make you as the author ill informed. Get familiar with symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment or study more about what a musical genius would go through auditioning for Julliard or whatever situation you put them in.  The idea is that if you as an author can get into your character’s mindset, the reader can as well.

  • Interview and observe.

If you’re writing about a police officer in the K-9 unit, search out your local police department and ask to interview one of their officers who work with K-9s. Odds are you can find someone who can help you out. Then, if allowed, ask to observe your subject. Your hard-hitting police mystery can develop new depth if you can see for yourself how an officer and his dog work together, their emotions, and friendship.  If you can’t do it personally, YouTube is another wonderful source for observations.

With these helpful guidelines, you can start effectively describing your characters without over describing. Good luck and happy writing!

Next Article in the Writing Pitfalls Series: Writing Pitfall #9: Overuse of Dialogue Tags

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