From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Wednesday, April 15

Description Tip: Making “Sense” of Your Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’ll be honest—description is my least favorite thing to write. I always have to do a revision pass specifically to add more description, and I have critique partners whose job it is to whack me with the description stick when I slack off. Because of this, I’ve created little games to make it more fun for me.

If you have a similar distaste (or you’re just looking for fun tips to help with description), try this:

1. Pick a sense. Or for random fun, use a random number generator and pick one the five: (1) Sight (2) Smell (3) Hearing (4) Touch (5) Taste. [If you use dice, try adding a “sixth” sense for intuition]

2. Pick a scene in your novel. What’s the dominant emotion in that scene?

3. Now edit the scene for the chosen sense, based on the dominant emotion.

For example: If you picked smell, and the dominant scene emotion is joy, then think about all the smells that are associated with joy. Look at the scene and ask:
  • What in the scene smells joyful?
  • What smells would make the POV character feel happy or think about something joyous?
  • What smells would the POV character notice only because of this emotion?
  • What unpleasant smells would be judged favorably because of the emotion? Such as, a normally icky smell makes the POV character happy instead.
  • Why would smell be the thing the POV character notices most in this scene? (Could speak to something in the character’s backstory)
  • What joyous smells might affect the POV character in a negative way? Such as the joy of others makes her unhappy or angry.

Looking at a scene with a particular sense + emotion combo in mind encourages us to think more creatively about what we describe. It’s not just the same basic “what’s there” details, but unique elements that bring the scene to life in a memorable way. It also helps us layer the senses, since most of the time sight is the number one sense used for description.

(Here’s more on identifying where your description is holding your back)

Optional Ways to Mix it Up

Choose the least obvious or least likely sense to work in that scene: If the scene takes place outside at night, sight would probably be the hardest sense to work with. But thinking about what someone would actually see in the dark, or how they’re trying to see, could craft an interesting scene if we pull out unusual details.

Choose the opposite emotion: If the dominant emotion for the scene is joy, what if the POV character saw the scene from a sad or miserable standpoint? (Obviously this will only work on scenes where the contradiction fits the scene).

Pick two emotions and/or senses: If the scene is emotionally charged, try doubling up on the senses. For an extra challenge, pick contradictory emotions or senses and play off the contrasts.

Have fun with your descriptions and look for ways to make them about more than what something looks like. Not only will it be more fun for you to write, but you just might add a unique and compelling aspect to a scene.

How do you feel about description? Do you write it first, last, or as needed? Who are your favorite descriptive authors or novels?

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound


  1. This is my biggest struggle as well. I'm sure that most of my characters are born without a nose or nerve endings. Which is funny because whenever I think of something from my childhood, smell is a dominant part of the memory. I like these tips, though. I'll give that a try as I edit.

    1. They say smell is the strongest memory trigger for us. And it's such an easy way to get our characters to remember an important detail--catch a whiff of something that leads them right where they need to go. I need a smell to help me remember that, lol.

  2. I'm with you on having to go back and add descriptions. Most of my first drafts take place in the dreaded Blank Room of Whiteness. :)

    1. I know that room well. I really ought to decorate it one of these days.

  3. Great tricks to bring out senses I may not have thought of including! (Since I virtually ignore three of the five senses on the first pass, I always have to go back and add more sensory detail as well.)

    1. It's a lot of fun. I first started doing it when I had my protagonist blindfolded and in trouble. It really made me think about how to use the other senses. Not that it helped me put them in on a first draft, but at least I knew I could on the second, lol.

  4. I love this. I have a hard time writing description too, so these techniques will be great.

    1. I've had a lot of success by picking one thing to work on in a scene. There's something about giving a single scene my total focus that brings out the brainstorming side of me. Hope it works just as well for you.