4

I have this weird problem: I know my characters, I know what they're like, and I know how they would act in any given situation and in the plot I use them in, but I don't know how to describe their character traits. I have a history for each character, but I can't really put into words how they are like as people. Whenever I go to write a summary of a character describing how they behave, my mind sort of goes blank, even though I know what they do in the story and how they interact with different kinds of people.

Am I missing something? Are my characters simply not fleshed out enough or are my character description skills simply lacking? How do I describe my characters?

15

Well, it is impossible to tell from what you have told us which of these problems you have, but there is a fairly easy test you can do to find out. Write character descriptions of real people you know. If you are happy with those descriptions than your ability to write descriptions is fine and the problem is that you do not know your fictional characters as well as you think you do. If you can't describe real people either, then you know that your problem is with writing character descriptions.

If the issue is writing character descriptions, here is an approach you can try. Describe your characters in terms of:

  • The things they love
  • The things they want
  • The things they are willing to do get what they want

These are not sophisticated psychological categories, but they are the matter of fiction, which we might reasonably describe as character in action. How your character acts in a story depends fundamentally on what they love, what they want, and what they are willing to do to get it.

You may or may not be interested in why they love what the love, want what they want, or are willing to do what they are willing to do, but the why is a separate matter from the basic what of description. You must at least start with the what and go from there.

9

From what you write, I feel that you have a very good idea of who your characters are but struggle to "sum them up". In addition to Mark's excellent ideas, here's a technique I've recently tested out and come to love a lot:

Drill your characters with questions. Ask them about everything that might or might not be relevant to the story you want to tell. Imagine yourself in a smalltalk situation and just ask everything that pops into your head: What's your name? How old are you? How's your marriage working out so far? How did you end up being an engineer on an oil drilling platform? What was your favourite pet? Do you have pets now?

Imagine to be a stranger that is having a beer with your character and wants to get to know them on a casual basis. Afterwards -- ask that stranger about your character: "So you've met that engineer? What's he like?" -- "I don't know, kind of weird, actually. Did you know he used to have a baby goat as a pet when he was a boy? He took that goat on walks with him like a dog! He's from a small Norwegian village, but hates fish. His wife is not all that happy about his job and secretly wants him to quit, but he loves being out there on the ocean. To be honest, I'm not sure that marriage will last much longer ..."

On another note, I'm not sure how necessary it is to "sum up" your characters. Real people are complex, so are well-developed characters. Is it necessary (or possible, or fair) to squeeze their essence into a single paragraph? Unless you introduce your characters like in the movie "Amélie" -- which does an admirable job in selecting a few outstanding, but by no means defining character traits and presenting them as an invitation to get to know these characters better --, you'll most likely end up showing your characters to your readers via their actions in any case. Nevertheless I very well understand the desire to have a neat summary of a character.

  • If I could accept two answers, I would accept your answer as well. I love that technique, been trying it out lately and it really helps out. – noClue Jul 4 '17 at 18:27
2

A thing I learned years ago in middle school was indirect characterization. It follows the age-old rule of show-don't-tell in which you do not say "This character has blue hair" you would say "she ran shaking fingers through long, blue locks," or instead of "she has brown eye" you say "The sunlight drew attention to her tired, chocolate-colored eyes" and so on! I find this makes the writing style seem far more intelligent and less blunt which overall just makes it sound better to me!

1

When you can't tell, show

Do you really need to describe your characters? It might just be easier (and more interesting to read) to give a short description of how they look when they first appear, and after that just work with what you know and can write about. Which is: How they would behave in a certain situation. Think of a situation in which your character might act remarkably different to what you'd expect from an "average" person. Include one or more of these situations for each character to show the reader what kind of person the character is. If it fits, have a character tell a story from their past in their words ("You knew that guy we just came across?" - "Yes, back then when I was still in the army, we..."). And again, instead if describing the characters, let the readers see how they behave and form their own opinion/view of them.

1

You really don't need to describe physical traits. The stories I read don't usually say what people look like, unless a trait has something to do with the story. (In fact, a paragraph of physical description is a paragraph I'll skip.)

As far as personality traits, just have your characters do stuff. How do they behave? What do they do when they come into a room? How do they answer the phone? How do they drive and walk and drink coffee?

"Show don't tell" should often be ignored, but not in this case. Don't tell the reader what kind of person your character is. Let me see who she is. If I were sitting next to her and her friend at a bar, I'd get a good idea of who she is by just paying attention to her actions and words. Let your reader make that discovery themselves.

0

This is just MY point of view . . . It highlights a common issue with aspiring writers.

YOU should not describe your characters because YOU are nothing to do with the story. It's all about how the character appears to other characters.

It doesn't matter if YOU think Sleeping Beauty is hot - it only matters what Prince Charming thinks.

I have a female character named "Charlie". Here's how her description and characterisation are built.

C1

"She wasn't black, as in Wesley Snipes black, but you could tell she wasn't Snow White. How a baby that colour got inside Mom's belly seemed to be a major point of contention."

"Grade school, Charlie turned out to be a weird kid, but cool with it. Even if she wasn't my sister I'd still like her. I think we'd be good friends, probably BFFs. My little sister grew to be that sort of chick, free-spirited and easy to get along with."

"She beat that boy so bad he lost his retainer and pissed in his shorts. When Jimmy's best friend tried to enter the argument – she punched him out too. She blacked both his eyes – raccooned that fat little fu**er."

C2

"On paper this battle shouldn't have gone past the first round. Not only was it us two united sisters, Daddy's little princesses, against one evil stepmother but, physically, the woman was the smaller than us. Don't get me wrong she weren't no dwarf – five-six, maybe. But she was giving a good couple of inches away to me and at least three to Charlie. If it came to it, any one of us could have taken her – easy."

C5

"Charlie punched him – full force. A right hook sent him flying out of the chair. The boy didn't know what hit him or where it came from. Before he could regain his feet Charlie was up, standing over him. She drained the remnants of a beer bottle over his face, and held the bottle by the neck, prepared to break it in search of sharp edges to do some real damage. If I was a religious person I would have prayed. If I wasn't scared shitless and rooted to the spot I would have done something heroic but I stood, motionless, with one thought playing in my mind – Charlie Miller. Use your words!"

OK

Some might declare TLDR but, from the text above - describe the character. Using this method the character is 'built' by the reader rather than being painted by you.

Excerpt 1 tells you "Charlie" is mixed-race female baby.

Excerpt 2 tells you "Charlie is independent but popular.

Excerpt 3 tells you "Charlie" had a violent streak.

Excerpt 4 tells you "Charlie" had grown to 5'9" - 5' 10"

Excerpt 5 tells you "Charlie" was still violent.

Whilst this may seem long-winded - now characterise the narrator.

It's all basic 'SHOW don't TELL' and 'Never stop a story to insert a description*. Building characters, like to story itself is about 'the journey'.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.