Bring Characters to Life with Significant Exterior and Interior Details
You know something is wrong with your characters, but you’re not sure what. They’re just not real enough for you. They aren't unique. She’s missing a certain something that would make her indelible in every reader’s mind. He’s missing a quality that will make him memorable long after the reader has finished reading. As a result, your novel, novella, or short story isn’t working because your characters aren’t working.
What do you do? You could start over from scratch and reinvent your characters—or you can deftly add significant exterior and interior details to what you’ve already created.
Significant details bring two-dimensional or flat characters to life by making them rounded and three-dimensional for the reader. Most significant details allow readers to see your characters more clearly and know your characters more deeply. If you answer the following lists of questions for your readers early in your story, you won’t have readers questioning you—or your characters’ motivations—later on. Most importantly, if you use the right amount of significant detail, your characters and your story will become unforgettable.
Significant exterior details
- What is your character’s worst physical feature? Why does the character think this feature is so bad? Is it something that the character has always known, or is it something that others have pointed out to your character? What (if anything) does the character do to diminish this feature? Or does the character accentuate this feature? Why?
- What is your character’s best physical feature? Why does the character think this feature is so good? Is it something that the character has always known, or is it something that others have pointed out to your character? What (if anything) does the character do to accentuate this feature? Or does the character try to diminish this feature? Why?
- What is the very first thing you notice about your character? Is it a look, a gesture, a way of walking or talking? Is it a specific exterior feature like eyes, nose, hair, size, lips, or wardrobe? Is it a scent or an aura? In other words, what specific thing do you want to linger in your readers’ minds throughout your story?
- What physical feature(s) would your character most like to change? Is the change (i.e. wanting to be taller) even possible? What changes in your character’s life would occur if this change were really to happen? Has the character made any attempts to change this feature or is your character content? Is this a physical feature others have suggested the character change?
- Does your character wear makeup? How much or how little? What colors? What body parts does your character try to accentuate—or diminish—the most? Are there times when your character wears a great deal of makeup? Are there times when your character wears no makeup? How much time does your character take in applying makeup? Does your character use makeup as a mask or a beacon?
- Does your character have tattoos or piercings? What are they? Why did your character get them? Does your character keep them hidden or let the world see them? Is there any significance to each tattoo or piercing? How do these tattoos or piercings make your character feel? Does your character regret getting them?
- What adornments does your character wear? Does your character wear a watch, earring(s), a necklace, a locket, a bracelet, hair bows and ties, or ring(s)? Are there any stories behind any of these adornments? When does your character normally wear them? How old (or new) are these? Is your character a collector? Does your character wear different adornments for different events?
- What is your character’s “signature outfit,” one he or she wears most often? What makes this outfit special or necessary? Does the character have more than one signature outfit? Does your character have a different outfit for every possible event? When your character dresses down or relaxes, what does your character wear? When you character dresses up, what does the reader see? What outfit is your character most comfortable wearing? What outfit wouldn’t your character be caught dead wearing? What colors does your character most (and least) like to wear?
- What scars, defects, or other physical flaws does your character have? Are they noticeable to others or only to your character? Is there a story behind a particular scar, defect, or flaw? How have these flaws shaped your character’s life? Does your character try to cover up these flaws? Would any of these flaws endear your character immediately to your reader? Would any of these flaws repulse your reader unintentionally?
Significant interior details
- Does your character have a nickname? How did your character earn this nickname? Does your character like his or her nickname? Do other characters know your character more by his or her nickname than his or her real name? Is there any significance to this nickname?
- What is your character’s developmental age? Does it match his or her chronological age? Why or why not? Has your character’s development been arrested or accelerated? Does your character have juvenile tendencies? Is your character “wise beyond his or her years”? Does your character feel young or old—or somewhere in between? Are there times your character feels too old or too young? Does your character try to hide his or her age?
- What mental or spiritual feature(s) would your character most like to change? Does your character consider himself or herself to be a deep thinker or a surface dweller? Did your character’s education prepare him or her adequately for life? Does your character’s job or vocation match his or her schooling? Is your character an overachiever or an underachiever? When does your character find time to think or meditate? Does your character think first, last, or not at all? Is your character a leader or a follower? Would your character rather be a leader or a follower? Is your character generally hard-working, lazy, or somewhere in between? Does your character have any goals—past, current, or future? Are any of these goals attainable?
- How religious is your character? Is religion even important to your character? Does your character consider himself or herself to be Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist? Is your character religious at times and not religious at other times? Does your character feel he or she is sometimes a hypocrite? Is your character searching for any kind of enlightenment or peace of mind? Is your character superstitious? Does your character believe in luck, karma, or fate? Is your character an optimist, a pessimist, or a little of both? Does your character have a working knowledge of right and wrong, or does your character believe there are “gray areas” worth exploring or exploiting?
- What are your character’s daily routines or rituals? What is your character’s daily hygiene routine? What are the routines your character follows in the kitchen, at work, or on the way to work? Are there significant rituals that your character performs often? Are there rituals or routines that your character doesn’t like to perform? Why does your character do these rituals? What happens if your character’s routine(s) and ritual(s) are interrupted? What specifically gets your character out of bed in the morning? What motivates your character throughout the day?
- Does your character have any bad habits? How long have these bad habits been around? Has your character done anything to remedy these habits? Does your character think his or her bad habits aren't actually that bad? Does your character enjoy pointing out the bad habits in others? Is your character careful not to let anyone see his or her bad habits? What happens if he or she is caught? Is your character addicted to anything? Does your character take medication for anything?
- Has your character had good, bad, or indifferent dealings with the government? Has your character ever been in trouble with the law? Is this trouble ongoing or was it a blip in the past? What is your character’s attitude toward the police, the government, the legal system, his or her employer or co-workers, or the people he or she comes into contact every day? Is your character political or apolitical? Does your character have any pet peeves? Are there specific “deal breakers” your character adheres to when it comes to relationships?
- Where is your character’s true home? Does your character have a true home? Was your character’s childhood ordinary or extraordinary? Are there moments in your character’s childhood he or she would rather forget? What is your character’s most favorite (or horrific) memory of home?
- What is the last book your character read? What books (if any) are on your character’s shelves? What is the last magazine your character read? Does your character read the articles or only look at the pictures? What is the last movie your character watched? What are some movies in your character’s collection? What music does your character prefer? What music is on your character’s “playlist”? What TV shows (if any) does your character watch religiously? What sports does your character prefer to watch, play, or avoid playing or watching? What food does your character like or dislike? What foods should (or shouldn’t) your character be eating?
- Does your character make friends easily? Is your character shy or outgoing? Does your character prefer a steady relationship or a series of relationships? Is your character looking for “the One”—or does your character believe that “the One” does not exist? What specific qualities is your character looking for in "the One"? Is your character generally successful or unsuccessful in relationships? How has your character built (or sabotaged) past or current relationships? How does your character express love, hate, frustration, or contentment?
Significant details in character sketches
Here are two character sketches I created for my couple in You Give Good Love, a romantic comedy set in Brooklyn. I referred to and focused on these sketches and their significant interior and exterior details while I wrote the first few chapters.
- DYLAN HEALY; 36; Irish-American; generally wears jeans and a hoody splotched with multicolored paint; long black hair over his ears, dark brown eyes, rounded shoulders, a little over six feet tall; overly outgoing in a typical smiling, in-your-face way; sometimes wears hair in a ponytail; has a fingernail scar on his chin, scars on his knuckles; beard stubble in abundance; Colin Farrell with long hair and a Brooklyn accent; loves to eat out and craves variety in his meals; loves everything about Christmas; somewhat artistic; dreams too much for his own good; puts others first to his own detriment; can’t stay still; an old soul in a young body; generally sees the sunniest side of life …
- HOPE WARREN: 33; an “Island Girl” from the Bahamas by way of Canada; at beginning of novel, she is anorexic at 5-9 and 100 pounds; long, brown, Medusa-like dreadlocks frame a dark black face highlighted by a small, flat nose, somewhat smooth skin, severe cheekbones that hold up her (black-framed) glasses, dark brown eyes a little too wide-set and huge behind those glasses, plump brown lips pinched perpetually into a straight line, and a long tight jaw and chin; the perfect teeth behind her lips rarely emerge unless she’s eating; aside from a nice set of abs, a flat stomach, and long legs, she has none of the curves she is “supposed” to have as an African-Bahamian-Canadian woman transplanted to Brooklyn; wears plain blue work smock over baggy jeans to hide her flatness and her hardness, her heavy locks are bunched with a simple white hemp string; whenever she’s outside, she wears a toque to contain her dreadlocks; hates her job with a passion; hates the holidays more; occasionally suicidal but worries what would happen to her cat; a gifted artist who prefers to doodle; has major trust issues involving men; generally sees the worst in every possible situation …
Once I have established these significant details early on in my narrative, I don’t need to repeat them ad nauseum. Readers do have memories. A writer doesn’t have to describe the size of a man’s hands or the length of his fingers, for example, in every other paragraph. See Fifty Shades of Gray for innumerable examples of this type of useless repetition. Establish what significant exterior and interior details you want your reader to remember from the start and get going with your narrative.
If you paint a vivid picture of your characters immediately using significant exterior and interior details, your reader will see, know, and ultimately cherish your well-rounded characters by the end of your story.