Great Character Descriptions come from Unique Characters
Do you want a great example of unusual characters? Read Chris Crutcher’s amazing book, Whale Talk. On the school’s swim team, there are unusual characters:
- a mixed-race kid who organizes the team
- a kid who’s been abused and can’t think quite straight and his physical appearance reflects this
- and a kid with a missing leg — yes, a one-legged swim team member
What a whacky, interesting and varied set of characters: they naturally demand an interesting description of the character.
Physical Characteristics for Your Characters
- Go for the unexpected, the contrast. Follow Crutcher’s lead and think of the roles, jobs, expectations for your character and think about going for the opposite in physical characteristics. Villains are beautiful and heroes are ugly. Swimmers have only one leg, and athletes don’t care about winning.
- Support the other character qualities with the physical description. Here, villains are horrendously ugly, and heroes are walking gods. Swimmers are svelte and muscled.
- Don’t just use visual details, but also include kinesthetic details, or how the character moves. Graceful, limping, stutter-step, lumbers, waddles, stomps. Lots of great verbs to add interest here.
- Think about clothes. Clothing should match the time period, of course, but even within that, there’s room for your character to show some personality. Bland, business clothes say one thing about a person, while brightly colored, latest style clothes say something else. Be careful not to date your story by including just the most recent style of clothes in the description. Be specific, but vague enough that the story can remain a classic–unless, of course, you want the time period stamped on the story indelibly.
- Hair styles change, too. But my favorite is to think about beards or facial hair. Marc McCutcheon, in his book Building Believable Characters lists 102 types of facial hair and 41 types of hair.
Here are a couple of the beards: Assyrian beards are long with plaits or spiral curls; a barbiche is a small tuft of hair under the bottom lip; a cathedral bears is a full flowing beard that splits like a fish tail at the bottom, worn by the clergy in mid sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries; and the peach fuzz of a young man. And yes, women can have facial hair, too, especially as they grow older. In fact, an older woman who has her mustache lasered off, says something about her vanity.
If you have trouble visualizing characters, some writers like to find a picture(s) of a real person(s) to set beside their computer as a model for their character(s). National Geographic magazine and other magazines who feature photos of people are popular for this.
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