A Character Description Writing Exercise
How Do You like This One?
“She seemed surprised for just a moment and then she smiled. Bright eyes, dark hair cut long and tied back, wooden burette that held it up on one side; kind of a tilted smile – made her look perpetually curious about something unspoken. Catherine Sheridan looked a little like Cybil Shepherd in Bogdanovich’s Picture Show movie, but brunette, her features a little more sculpted, a little more aquiline. When she smiled at me it was like being kicked sideways into something beautiful.”
This wonderful character description is from “A Simple Act of Violence” by R.J. Ellory.
I have no idea how many books I have read in my sixty-five years. Easily thousands, and within those thousands, tens of thousands of character descriptions; if I were pressed to remember I might recall twenty-five of those character descriptions.
Twenty-five out of tens of thousands; if I am a pessimist I would say that those numbers are horrible. If I am an optimist I would say what a remarkable job those twenty-five authors did in creating a character so dynamic that I remembered him/her from the thousands I have read.
I love the character description above. It is not the best I have read by far, but it is distinctive and done well enough that I could form a mental picture of the character. His reference to Cybil Shepherd was perfect, and his mention of her smile kicking him sideways was nicely stated.
That is the type of character description I hope for; I want to create a character that seems real and is definitely memorable.
So how do we do this? There are suggestions to be sure, but when we get right down to it, the writer must hitch up their belt and just do it. Remember that we all have five senses, so using those senses when describing your characters is helpful. The more we can help the reader gain a mental picture the better. Besides the senses, though, we want the reader to gain an appreciation for the character of the person.
What follows, then, are several pictures of real people. What you are going to do, if you are feeling adventurous, is write a character description of those people for practice. The pictures will be your reference material; I want you to use them to help you paint a picture of words for someone not looking at the picture. I have added my thoughts as well to help you along. Got it? Great! Let’s begin.
How About This Beauty?
I found this lady at a local street fair in our neighborhood. I was instantly drawn to her because of her smile. That smile tells me that this is a person I would like to meet and know as a friend. She appears to be a very friendly and kind human being. There is compassion in that face. There is wisdom in that face. This is not a person who spends wasted moments worrying and fretting; rather she radiates a positive energy that I find very refreshing.
How about you? What do you see in this woman and how would you describe her?
Very practical points
And Then We Have This Free Spirit
One look at this picture and I am instantly struck with a feeling of devil-may-care. This person is telling the world that she is comfortable with who she is and she is going to dress any old way she sees fit. However, the other thing I noticed, or perhaps surmised, is that there is no happiness in this face. There is a definite contrast in messages being sent here. The clothes and appearance say fun-loving, but I do not see fun-loving in her countenance.
I would find it difficult to get a handle on this person because of the mixed messages I am receiving from her, and perhaps that is the angle I would approach when writing a description of her. This is a complicated woman who just might be difficult to know on anything but a surface level.
Beautiful indeed but so much more in this young lady; her physical characteristics would be easy to describe in words, but there is depth in this person that would take some hard work to describe.
Is she aloof? Is she somber? Is she simply a serious person with serious thoughts on her mind? I actually spoke to her and found her to be very welcoming and friendly, but considering the fact that she was manning a booth at a public fair, her outward appearance did not seem welcoming. Is that intentional or simply a reflection of her inner self? In capturing her in words I would have to capture that inner essence to do her full justice.
Good tips: I want to know how she wrote on the board backwards.
My Son in All His Glory
This picture was taken of my son about eight years ago. He was twenty-one at the time. What do you see? I can tell you that he is 6’2” tall and weighed about 270 in this picture, but that is just a brief snapshot of his physical stature. Who is he as a person? Can you tell from his expression and facial features?
Perhaps I am projecting because I know him so well, but to me there is a kindness in his face, and his smile is welcoming. Do you see it? Both are true in describing my son. What else do you see?
Very important book for freelance writers
My Favorite Picture of All-time
Yes, this is the love of my life, Bev, and I took this picture about four years ago up on Mt. Rainier. Now, as you will notice, you can see very little of Bev’s features in this picture, but I think you can still gain an appreciation for who she is as a human being.
What do you see? Notice how she embraces the vista before her. She is perfectly at home in the wilderness. The wilder the better for Bev; the more natural the better. This is a woman who loves life and who makes life seem more colorful when she is in the scene. Do you see that from this picture?
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Was this exercise helpful?
So What Am I Trying to Tell You?
It is no secret that I believe writing to be a craft. I treat writing with the respect it is due. I have learned from the greats who came before me, and I try to apply the same level of dedication to my writing that Hemingway did to his.
Describing characters should not be a throw-away activity for a writer, and it is certainly more than a simple physical description. When writing character descriptions, the writer should strive to capture the heart and soul of the characters. It is in that capturing that the writer opens his doors and invites the reader into his literary home for a cup of tea and an enjoyable read. If we, as writers, can do that….if we can make our characters come alive and seem real….if we can give a sense of the type of persons that they are….then we will have done our jobs as writers.
Now grab your cameras and get out there and take some random shots of interesting people. File them on your computer and maybe take some notes of your impressions. You never know when you are going to need a fascinating character to complete your next short story or novel.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”