Monday, March 9

Day Nine: Tighten the Character Descriptions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Welcome to Day Nine of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This second stage is all about getting our characters up to speed. We’ll be looking at ways to flesh out our story people, finding the right balance between description, backstory, and infodumping, tightening our POV, and putting the heart and soul into the novel.

Now that we’ve fleshed out our weak characters and strengthened who they are inside, let’s take a quick peek at their outsides.

Today, we’ll focus on the physical descriptions of our characters.

Most writers know what their characters look like and have sprinkled details into the descriptions as they wrote, so this should be an easy step. But for those who tend to put description of any kind last, this is good time to add those details.

1. Make Sure You Know What Your Characters Look Like

This might seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but not everyone thinks about what a character looks like on a first draft. For example, I focus more on figuring out who they are than what they look like, and often don’t decide on physical details until the second draft.

For every one character who doesn’t have the standard police-blotter description, go ahead and create one (unless of course, you aren’t using physical descriptions in your novel).

This is also a good time to flesh out or create your story bible to keep track of these kinds of details. It’s not uncommon to forget what color eyes a secondary character has, or where someone grew up. This is especially useful if you plan to write more than one book with these characters.

2. Add or Strengthen Descriptions When a Character is Introduced

The first time readers meet a character is typically when the author describes them. For POV characters, these details are often spread out over the scene or chapter. For non-POV characters, it’s common to see the details in a quick summary from the POV character of that scene.

Much as I sometimes wish tossing in hair and eye color was all a reader needed to get a sense of a character, we usually need to do more. Check to see if the descriptions are helping to bring the characters to life.

What are the obvious physical details about the character? The classic hair, eye, height, etc., details.

What are the details that only the POV character would notice? Describe anything that gives us an opportunity to give a little insight into our POV character. What does she see and how does she feel about it?

What details suggest or hint at what’s unique about that particular character? If the character is a world-class pianist, maybe the POV character notices long, graceful fingers. If he’s ex-special forces, then maybe there’s a scar or military bearing that stands out.

3. Revise Any Cliched or Stereotypical Descriptions

Cliches and stereotypes are information shorthand, so they slip into first drafts all the time. Go through your scenes and rework any descriptions that rely on cliches or stereotypes. Some common things to look for:

The mirror description: Unless you’ve come up with a unique way to have the character look in a mirror (or any reflective surface) and describe themselves, look for other ways to show the description.

The self introduction: Another common cliché is to have the character introduce themselves in some way and then say what they look like. “I’m your average gal, five foot four, brown hair, blue eyes” or “I’m nothing special, six foot, black cropped hair and brown almond eyes.”

The slipped-in detail: It’s not bad to see a detailed slipped in casually, but it can feel awkward depending on the narrative distance. For example: “I brushed my long, blond hair.” Who remarks on the length and color of their hair when they brush it?

The seen-it-before look: There’s a bit of a joke in YA fiction that a large percentage of best friends have red hair. Villains are often dark haired with dark eyes, sweet, innocent characters are blond and pale, and funny sidekicks are brunettes with quirks. It’s not a bad idea to look at your descriptions and think about why you choose them.

The one-detail-that-defines-you: Be wary of having one particular detail that defines a character in a stereotypical way. Not all Asians are martial arts experts, not all Southerners are slow, not all Christians are Bible thumpers.

(Here’s more on describing characters)

4. Trim Any Extraneous Character Descriptions

Not every writer will need to add descriptions—some will have too many and will want to do a little trimming. Trust your instincts on this, and if it feels like too much, cut back a little. If you’re not sure, the rule of three can help you decide what can go: cut back in any place where you use more than three details in a row. If you notice you use multiple details a lot, try reducing them by half and see how it reads. Add back more details as needed.

(Here are more articles on creating characters)

By the end of today’s session, we should have tightened our character descriptions so they’re as strong externally as the characters are internally. Next, we’ll work on balancing how all that character work fits into the novel itself.

Tomorrow’s Step: Balance the Backstory

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Janice, I've been a lurker here for years, but I just wanna say "thank you" for your dedication to helping other writers. I honestly don't think my words will ever be enough. Thank you for everything. This revision series is amazing, just like everything else you post <3

    1. Most welcome, and I'm so glad the site's been helpful. That's why I do it, and it's always nice to hear a thank you. Thanks!

  2. Janice, thank you for the amazing content. I've purchased over fifty books on the craft of writing and none compare to the articulate information you've given me for free. You rock!

  3. I like number 3! I am guilty of the seen-it-before look, but I also love changing villains to have blond hair, big brown eyes, beautiful voices etc. and my sidekicks are typically really short with black, blond, or purple hair. I think I'm most guilty of the slipped in details.

    1. We see them so often they just automatically slip in there. If you want those details and you have reasons for them they're fine, but it's never a bad idea to make sure we're aren't being lazy by accident :)

  4. Thank you so much for this! Number 4 helped me greatly. I seem to pile on character looks when the MC sees them first.
    Hey, do you have any tips for writing main(ish) character death scenes? Thanks a bunch!

    1. I don't think I've ever done anything on death scenes, actually. That's a topic worthy of it's own article, but for quick tips, I'd play to the reader's emotions. A main character dying is a big deal, and they'll either love you for it or hate you (or both). Make sure the death is vital to the story and not just to shock readers, and make sure readers know it had to happen.