Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Show Don't Tell - Character Appearances

As writers, we are always told show don't tell. We want our readers to form a decent visual of our characters, though. How do we do this?

A paragraph that describes our character's appearance in detail is easy. And lazy. And often boring! We can use a few descriptive lines. Metaphors are a great way to describe a character as well. But what are other ways in which we can convey how a character looks?

We can use what I call the Mirror Trick. Whenever we see our reflection, we always pause. (Selfish/self-conscious human nature!) We can use these moments and allow our character to offer a description of some feature, such as annoyance with long, frizzy hair or concern for expanding waistline.

Another way to elaborate on a character's appearance is through the eyes of another character. (Right now Rocko is annoyed that her brother is showing off his strength and lean body!)

Using interaction among characters is another trick. Through our description of action and scenes, we can convey many traits and qualities of our characters.

Sharp teeth.

Agile necks.

And still sharper claws!

Your character descriptions may vary - LOL!

What are other means by which to 'describe' a character's appearance.


  1. Diane, your photos are just too cute. Love these kitties.

  2. Nicely put, as usual, Diane.

    A technique often overlooked is to include only the bare minimum of physical description (and, even then, only what is crucial to story and/or characters' interactions). For the rest, use action, reaction, and other characters' comments to fill in who the character really is (rather than worrying a lot about what they look like).

    That way, your readers can build their own universe of characters in their own minds. Just don't switch gears later and throw in a new physical trait (something which can be jarring when it contradicts the mental image the reader has created).

    It may serve little purpose to tell she's a natural blonde...unless that fact is used by other characters to identify her...or you then reveal she's member of Mensa.

    I often find that too much description interferes with my reading enjoyment.

    Just my two cents.

    Walt Shiel

  3. Those cats are adorable!

    Your mirror trick is a great one, Diane. I like to reveal my characters through dialogue.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Good point, Walt! I don't like using a lot of description anyway. Besides, even with details, each reader will form his or her own opinion of the characters looks.

    Glad everyone likes the cat photos. I used to shoot stock for Cat Fancy, so I have thousands of kitty pics!

  5. I like it when authors show how a character affects his or her environment to further describe the character. Like how "the chair creaked and groaned under his weight" or how "she barely took up any space within the room." It suggests plenty while still leaving lots of the reader's imagination.

  6. I like the photo illustrations of your points! I have used the mirror reflection before and find it works well. Using an action can also help describe a character, such as - In order to avoid hitting his head, he had to bow each time he entered or exited a room.

  7. You make some very good points. Bottom line, we need to trick our readers into reading the character descriptions throughout the story line.... If they don't even realize they're reading it but a picture is forming in their heads, we've done our job. ;)

  8. Loved this:
    "(Right now Rocko is annoyed that her brother is showing off his strength and lean body!)"
    It totally fit the picture. The cat facing the camera seemed to be thinking exactly what you wrote.

    Good post.

    Straight From Hel

  9. Helen, doesn't Rocko just look SO annoyed!

    Coffeelvnmom, you said it most eloquently!

  10. Love and totally agree with this post/tutorial. I can't stand it when an author stops the story dead and devotes an entire paragrpah describing in exact detail every single facet of a character's appearance, dress, emotional and personality makeup, family history background, sexual persuasion and romance history, and favorite flavor of ice cream.

    Marvin D Wilson

  11. I agree that TOO much detail can be annoying and cause the reader's mind to wander or lose interest.

    I learn so much from posts and comments! It's great to see this world from the "other" side!!!

    And I do always just LOVE your cat pictures! Keep 'em coming!! :)

  12. I almost always use the perspective of another character, and involve action or relevant thought, so it flows with the story, and isn't just stuck in there to tell us what a character looks like.

    Strong characterization goes a long way in developing a mental picture of the character physical appearance in the reader's mind too.

    I love your pics! Agile necks describes our goats well.

  13. Love this illustrated tutorial. Very clever. Do be careful with the pause and describe oneself, though. The looking-in-the-mirror description has become a cliche that agents will see as coming from an amateur. Only the famous seem to be able to get away with it.

    No one will mind if it's a cat, though. They can get away with murder.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Offering writing tips on Twitter, www.twitter.com/frugalbookpromo

  14. Great post. I try to move away from basic physical descriptions and add emotional ones.

  15. As always great advice and adorable cat pictures!! I think being to desriptive can sometimes distract from an otherwise great book.

    Chris C

  16. Love the photos. Talked a lady this morning at my local vet who owns a rescue service for cats. She gets in up to 120 annually, but on the flip side she is able to abopt out about 100 a year.

    This morning she showed me a litter of kittens who they are having to feed because the mother is too ill.

  17. Allyn, that's still really great odds!
    Our two cats, Rocko & Spunky, were strays that we took in. My husband said two's the limit - otherwise, we'd probably have more!