Character Description – Visual

Police sketch artist…he knows.

When I was teaching writing workshops for High School kids, there was one thing that always got that epiphany ‘aHA!’ moment that I liked so much. Description. Character description to be specific. We took it slow. I got my share of stories about guys with cornrows, blue jeans, baggy white T-shirts, and Air Force Ones. Gradually, I would start to share the writers’ secrets. And one of the first ones was this: for the most part, describing your character is a waste of time. People will argue about this, so let me explain what I mean.

My kids liked adjectives. Black hair. Tall guy. Pretty woman. Someone please shoot me. There are two things at play here. One, unless you make them interesting, the reader is going to see your characters the way they see them no matter what. I have read whole novels where the protagonist refers to his black hair, but he’s still blond to me. Doesn’t matter. Two, the things that do matter are the things that are unique.

I’d usually start by asking all my students to describe me. They loved this of course. We were very close, so they weren’t afraid to talk shit. It usually was something along the lines of  “bald ass old white dude who buys his clothes at the Salvation Army and rides a motorcycle”. Fair enough. All those things were true. Then I would ask them how many people in San Francisco fit that description. Bingo.

Then I would ask them to describe their mothers or grandmothers. “Old, fat, brown hair.” OK, those things were probably true. Then I told them to take out a new piece of paper. They had five minutes to describe their Mom or Grandma in such a way that I could find her in a crowded BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station at six PM on a Monday. And I had to find her quickly to warn her that someone was planning on killing her.

Now, we started getting somewhere. Suddenly these women had birthmarks on the sides of their necks. They had weaves. They walked with canes. They wore glasses…black, plastic-framed glasses. They walked with limps. They were wearing floral dresses. You get the idea.

New piece of paper. Describe me again. “White dude. Around 30. A little over six feet tall. Wearing a blue shirt with white pearl buttons – sleeves rolled up. Head shaved.  Two tattoos on his right arm – a red K and some circle shit. Dean tattooed on his other arm. Big guy. Yoked but a little fat. Not fat fat. Brown eyes with purple circles under them. Red Dickies. Big ass black boots. Keys hanging off his belt. Chain around his right wrist. Lots of scars on his arms. Looks pissed all the time – he’s not – but he never smiles. Not a regular-ass white dude, either. Like one of those white dudes who you know don’t own no nice car.” Lots of laughing. This was always fun. And I’d reciprocate. We’d all describe each other. Big old goofy, Dumbo ears.  Fake-ass looking, wannabe mustache. You get the idea.

Then we would talk. And then we would write. And suddenly the characters blossomed in my mind as I read. They weren’t formless, generic things that my mind glazed over. Because, as we learned, it is what makes us different that makes us interesting. This applies to psychology, but we won’t get into that right now. If you want me to see your character, a pegleg is a lot more helpful than “grey hair”.  Four teeth missing and a broken nose is much more vivid than “tall”.

We had lots of fun days in the writing workshop, but this was always one of my favorites, because flipping that one little switch makes writing come alive. Tell your reader the important things – character markers that resonate – let them fill in the rest. Is it more important that I know she is exactly 5’7” or that she has one blue eye and one grey eye.  Salinger gave Holden gray hairs for a reason.

How would you describe someone who mugged you to the cops? That’s a good way of thinking about it, too. They need to know what separates your jerk from all the other jerks.

Human beings have a lot of things in common. It is what we don’t have in common that makes us unique and interesting. And that is the approach you should take when you write. Honestly, I don’t care to know the exact bodily dimensions of your character. My mind is going to change them anyway. But you do need to distinguish your characters…and the way you do that, visually, is by showing me the weird shit. If I wanted you to find my mom in a crowded bus station and I said, “look for the old lady with brown hair,” it would take you hours. “Look for the older lady with short brown hair, a little gray in the front, wearing white sneakers, black jeans and an old red and white striped t-shirt. She wears frameless glasses and she is very thin and she is wearing a black fanny pack on the front.” Now go find her.

Now, those weren’t particularly interesting details (sorry Mom – you could have pink hair), but they are specific. Now, you get specific and you find those unique quirks, ticks, twitches, lip curls, nervous hand gestures, swaggers, scars, and eyepatches…then we’ve got some character markers your reader might pay attention to.

The same thing applies to psychological characterization, but it is more fun. Tune in on Thursday.  Same IU place, Same IU channel.

Author: JD Mader

JD Mader is an award winning short story writer and novelist. 'Joe Café' and 'The Biker' are out now, as well as 'Please, no eyes'. and the collaborative 'Bad Book'. Mader has been writing for half his life and has no plans on stopping any time soon. Learn more about JD Mader at his blog and his Amazon author page.

36 thoughts on “Character Description – Visual”

  1. Right on.You've hit the nail on the head.

    As for me, I describe the physical attributes only as far as necessary and let the readers fill in the rest. As you say, they do it anyway. But gestures, quirks of behaviour, unique details, those I do include – like the errant curl that just won't stay in a bun, or the pinching of the bridge of the nose that denotes fatigue or worry, the lift of just one eyebrow – just the things that set that character apart from the crowd.

  2. Is it wrong that the first thing I fixated on was: JD is over 6 feet tall?

    I agree with all the points mentioned above and will definitely think on this post when I'm writing. But what I enjoyed most was finding out more about the writing classes and your students. You've mentioned them before and I've wondered how the classes worked and what your approach was.

    I'd love to hear/read even more about those times. They certainly were lucky to have you as a part of their lives.

      1. Hey thanks, I look forward to reading the stuff about teaching. I've wondered about it since you mentioned that when you gave a writing assignment for the students to do in class that you would also do it. Quite brilliant 😉 my friend.

  3. Lots of light bulbs flashing down here as well. I'm going to get my daughter to sketch a whole series of faces for me because my characters are all aliens and if I can't see them right down to the last cilia no-one else will either. Thank you!

  4. Very informative post, JD.

    I use extension character profile sheets on my main characters — I mean extensive, like 7 pages to get to know them inside and out, which includes all that you mentioned above and then some, lol. I use a one page character profile sheet for secondary characters. Do you or have you used anything like that before?

    1. No, but what I do do is write little vignettes and stuff about my characters that aren't meant for the book or story to get to know them. Kind of a similar idea, but I'm not very organized. 😉

  5. "describe their Mom or Grandma in such a way that I could find her in a crowded BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station at six PM on a Monday. And I had to find her quickly to warn her that someone was planning on killing her."

    Hmm, that is a Great one to remember. Thanks, JD.

  6. Fantastic. I work as a teacher aide in a primary school, and I always cringe when the teachers tell the kids to "use lots of interesting adjectives", 'cos I know if any of them want to be writers when they grow up then somebody will have to train that back out of them.

    And as for – "Looks pissed all the time – he’s not – but he never smiles. Not a regular-ass white dude, either. Like one of those white dudes who you know don’t own no nice car." –

    I so want to steal that.

  7. This is great! Wish I'd had a teacher like you in school. And really good ideas to deal with unique characterization. I cringe when you read one of those 'looking in the mirror' scenes in a book. I agree with all the things you're saying.

  8. We definitely need more teachers like you, JD! I had one in 9th grade that I will never forget and that was half a century ago. Ugh…what I just did to myself!!!!

    Great things to think about when I create my next character…or when he/she/it creates itself by talking in my head.

    1. Thanks LRB. I loved teaching and if my ears weren't failing me, I'd still be doing it. There are good teachers though. I've said this a million times. Teaching is weird because it is really hard to be a good teacher and really easy to be a shitty one. But they're out there.

  9. It sounds so much easier coming from you than it ever did from ANY of my creative writing teachers in high school and junior high. It could be that I hated my high school creative writing teacher but she was one of those people who went on and on and on about the deeper meaning in the colour pink and just would not stop talking. Drove me nuts. And maybe I was a little mean and vindictive when I wrote a story based off of Rob Zombie's "House Of 1,000 Corpses" song, but still. She started it.

    I remember thousands of characters where the protagonist was blonde and my mind refused to give up the brown hair I had pictured.

    Great post, and one the mechanics of which I will be using for my characters. Thanks!

  10. Fantastic post! I agree wholeheartedly. Descriptions of characters tend to be tedious and we always fill in the blanks anyways, don't we? Just those few markers are needed and our imagination will flesh out the rest. We are reading after all, not watching.

    I've always felt the same way about descriptions of rooms or locations. Just a couple of details to create the setting and let the reader flesh it out, bringing in more detail as necessary instead of one big info dump. Hard to do in sci fi sometimes, but critical to keep the reader with you.

  11. Dan, I have struggled with character descriptions for a while. Now I get it. Fantastic post. Thank you so much.

    Boyd Lemon-Author of “Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior’s Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany,” "Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages," the author’s journey to understand his role in the destruction of his three marriages and “Unexpected Love and Other Stories. Information, reviews and excerpts: http://www.BoydLemon-Writer.com.

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