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Writing Boffo Character Descriptions

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read involved writing dynamic character descriptions. Briefly, the advice was to write your character descriptions using similes instead of listing physical traits. In other words, describe the character in dynamic, rather than static, terms.

Below are several character descriptions from my newest novel, Death Trout Fork, the first, then the revised versions.

The static picture of fifteen-year old Ashley: “She was tall and slim with long reddish-brown hair and a quick stride.”

The rewritten dynamic description:

“Her mannerisms and long chestnut hair reminded me of a Thoroughbred yearling, all legs and energy with the promise of future grace and beauty.”

The revised version incorporates movement and a vision of the future. Which is more interesting? Which one brings an image to mind? Obviously, the second one.

Here’s another example, this time using a simile to describe a son and his mother:

The first description:

“Zach and his mother sat close together. They seemed nervous and uncomfortable.”

The rewritten description:

“Zach pulled out a chair for his mother and sat down close to her. They reminded me of two rabbits huddled in the corner of their cage, quivering at the sound of a dog barking nearby.”

In addition to making the descriptions more interesting, from these two brief sentences, story questions emerge. Why are these two frightened? Is it just their personalities or is there something sinister in their lives? If a writer can use physical description to help create story questions in readers’ minds, they will want to read further to get answers to their questions.

The value of using similes to spice up character descriptions can’t be overstated. Creating images in the reader’s mind helps to make the characters real and makes the reader want to know more about them.

This technique can help create negative images, as well as positive ones, in the reader’s mind. Here is a description from my second mystery, Three to One Odds, in which I introduce a police lieutenant.

“Sam Kubisky appeared to be in his sixties, with thinning gray hair and a bulbous red nose. The flesh around his watery blue eyes sagged and settled into tired pouches as though too weary to care anymore.”

I could have said Sam was old and tired, but don’t the sagging pouches around the eyes say it in a more interesting way? By personifying the flesh around his eyes, the reader learns more about the man than about his eyes, and isn’t that the goal?

Of course, dynamic descriptions need to be reinforced throughout the novel in the way the characters talk and behave. I couldn’t, for instance, have Sam move through his scenes with the energy and enthusiasm of a young man new to the job. The description I’ve written requires him to act and speak in a manner consistent with the image I’ve created in the reader’s mind. Each time Sam appears, he acts like a jaded man who is just holding on until it’s time to collect his pension.

As writers, we have to be as true to our characters are we are to ourselves. We wouldn’t describe ourselves in bland, uninteresting terms. Neither should we describe our fictional creations that way.

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