Writing better character descriptions (tip 48) Reply

Want to know how to better describe what your characters look like? It’s about finding those details that make your characters “more evidently unique.” And sometimes the best description is no description.

Believe it or not, this is a genuine photo-fit issued by the Bolivian police.

Police descriptions are almost always rubbish. I used to work at a coach station and the police would often come by looking for suspects or missing people. They’d say: “We’re looking for a white guy, medium build, with short brown hair and brown eyes. We believe he might have been wearing a pair of jeans. Have you seen him?”

Why, yes officer: he’s there! And there! And – he’s you! He’s me!

But if they got a writer to describe a guy with a crescent of dandruff on his collar, who glances at the ceiling every few steps; a man who, when he speaks, looks down and pushes the hem of his jeans with a greying trainer – then I might have remembered.

The secret to describing a person (or anything else) is not to say what they look like, but to describe only what makes them distinctive. The secret to description is – to borrow John Berger’s phrase – to describe what makes the object “more evidently unique.”

Consider these six miscreants. If I describe a man of medium build with short brown hair and brown eyes, then I could be referring to any of them. So what about each of them is distinctive?

With number one we might describe his drinker’s face or his bruised cheek or his boxer’s nose. With number two we might concentrate on his scarf or his faux-hawk. Number three is unusual for his pipe and posture. Number four… nope, can’t think of anything for him. Number five wears an earring. Number six has a scar. And so on.

Ah, you say, but what if there’s nothing distinctive about a character’s appearance? Then that’s simple: don’t describe what they look like.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail image for this video uses a photograph by Andrew Hardacre. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/29954808@N00/

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