Are You Writing Bad Character Descriptions?

Describing the characters in your novel is tricky business.

You see them in your mind with such clarity that you could write an entire novel about the placement of their freckles and the messiness of their curls. And that’s great for you! But not for your reader.

So how do you write killer character descriptions? Read on and find out!

Mirrors are Deadly

(and so are puddles, ponds, shards of glass or any other reflective surfaces writers come up with)

Please, please! For the love of all things literary, do not have your character describe their reflection. It makes editors, agents, and many readers cringe in terror. Why, you might ask? Because no one in their right mind ever looks in the mirror and describes themselves.

It’s unnatural. It’s cliché. It’s painful. Just don’t do it!

Less is More

Readers love the opportunity to fill in some blanks. When you pack your character descriptions with excruciating details, it dampens readers’ natural drive to involve themselves creatively in your novel. This can result in a lack of active engagement, which may mean that your novel gets flung forcefully into the slush pile.

Keep it Simple

No one wants to read about your character’s “picture-perfect, rose-colored cheeks, like two tiny cherries perched gracefully on a delicious mound of cream.”

It may surprise some writers out there, but “her cheeks were pink” works just fine.

Keep it Real

Readers don’t like to feel inferior to your characters. So if your heroine has “long, flowing, unbearably gorgeous curls that seem to float around her like an angelic halo of light,” you might want to consider taming it down a bit.

I know, I know, you love your characters and want them to be beautiful. But the middle-aged mom reading your novel in her sweltering hot SUV while her son takes karate lessons doesn’t want to develop an inferiority complex over your character’s heavenly curls.

In romance novels, however, these unrealistic descriptions are more expected.

Don’t Beat us Over the Head

If every time your character moves a muscle, she has to “tuck her long, auburn hair behind her ears,” it gets kind of old.

Describe your characters once near the beginning and maybe occasionally throughout (if you’re really afraid readers will forget or if, for some reason, it really matters).

Spread it Out

If at some point in your novel someone is described as “a slender, petite girl with luscious breasts, lovely chestnut hair cut in a stunning bob, and electric-blue eyes that could pierce the soul,” please spread out the descriptions!

Integrating descriptions into action is a great way to “hide” them from your readers.  For example: “She wiped sweat from her freckled skin” is much more interesting and subtle than “She had freckles.”

Have any advice for writing great (not sucking) character descriptions?  Please share in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Are You Writing Bad Character Descriptions?

  1. zack says:

    How are these youtube videos and blog entries don’t have more views and comments? These tips are so helpful and the writing examples are so good. Especially enjoyed the comparison of show instead of tell in your writing.

  2. Heidi Smit says:

    thanks! for everything. I am not always online. I appreciate all the advise and will use it. I write in Dutch so I will try to send a translation that might give an idea of the vibe and the rythm of the thing…

  3. bwire innocent says:

    i love the part where you decribe the characters in bits through out the novel like ‘his held his his hands on his big tummy as he spoke’always had the impression of the the long lines thanks for the insights

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