The meat and potatoes, heart and soul of writing is people. Who they are, what they feel, what inspires them, who they become. Creative writing that loses sight of this in favor of technical machinations loses its power to move people. Despite compression, all genres start and end here. So, let’s start with the basic ways of describing people.
Physical appearance is the first thing that people notice when meeting IRL. Regardless of how open-minded they think they are, most people make a subconscious, snap judgment based on what they see. Plus, sight dominates human sense perception. As books come more to reflect movies in style, a clear visual image that people can latch onto is very important.
But remember, it’s not enough to simply make a catalog of what someone’s wearing. The details have to be salient -- important enough to remember. There’s a lot of hoopla about "Show; Don’t Tell" but that’s primarily a teaching tool. Details are always more interesting than narration, but they have to be the right details.
For example, this is classic "telling":
Jim was a self-important man who nevertheless liked to show off a nonconformist streak.
John came from a poor family, but never let it affect his sense of self worth.
Janice was one of those middle-aged women who always found fault with others.
There are no physical or emotional images, and while it gives readers a sense of who these people are, there are more vivid ways. Some things to try include:
clothing – What kind of clothes would this kind of person wear? What kind of clothes would this person absolutely not wear?
hairstyle – Would this person have a unique hairstyle? A conservative one? No hair at all?
posture – How would they carry themselves when no one’s looking?
body type – Are they fat, plump, skinny, muscular? Well-endowed (which is important for some people)? Crippled in some way?
facial expressions – Are they usually smiling when no one’s looking? Frowning? Does one eye twitch? Do they have a unibrow?
Adding some images to the above character encapsulations:
Against the backdrop of his severe black business suit, Jim’s blazingly blue tie erupted in joie de vivre. His broad, open smile only furthered the impression that he knew he was a swan in a pond full of ugly ducklings.
John wore ripped blue jeans and a ragged T-shirt promoting a band that was dated before he was born. Still, he kept his shoulder-length hair immaculately coifed and, shoulders back and head held high, he always gave the sense that he was meeting the world on his terms.
Janice, like so many other middle-aged women, had turned to plumpness. Her often-explained lack of children hadn’t prevented her from developing the expression common to mothers-in-law: a tight, pinched look and arched eyebrow lurking behind reading glasses, always ready to transition into a disapproving glare or captious comment.
People’s typical mannerisms also go a long way toward defining them. Do they have a nervous tick? Do they throw their arms in the air and say "Ay, Caramba" when frustrated? Do they always check a chair for sharp things before they sit down?
Building on Jim, John, and Janice, let’s give them each a mannerism:
When approaching an attractive woman at a business conference, Jim would always check his watch unconsciously as if measuring the time he had left before his next adventure.
John had the unsettling habit of gazing unflinchingly into the eyes of everyone he met, which often offended the more conservative element of the town.
Janice tsk-ed to herself constantly. Her friends didn’t know if she was aware she did so. It might have been on purpose, but it could just as easily have been her general unhappiness taking advantage of every opportunity to express itself.
Habits of Speech
Does this person talk a lot, but only occasionally say something important? Do they give mocking, sarcastic answers? Do they try to avoid speaking if possible?
"Did you get your hair cut recently?" Dan asked. He used to be a coworker and always loved Jim’s stories, regardless of whether they were actually true.
"Of course not," Jim replied. "I lost it in a fight with an organ grinder’s monkey. Where the monkey got that knife, I’ll never know."
"It’s been a while." The storekeeper, Elias, was considered talkative by the town’s standards. John, on the other hand, was the epitome of curt stoicism. Rather than answer, he simply nodded.
"I’ve heard simply the best things about this new play down at the community theater," Stacy said, "especially the lead actor. He spends at least thirty minutes shirtless on stage and he’s a looker, let me tell you. Us girls should go."
In response, Janice grunted. As far as grunts go, this was a rather expressive grunt, managing to express her dislike of theaters and the propriety of ogling shirtless men in general, as well as Stacy’s continual attempts to act half her age in particular.
Reactions of Self
A person’s thoughts and reactions to the randomness also give insight into who they are. These can be physical reactions, or they can be thoughts/feelings.
The waiter brought Jim’s drink to him, late. It had been fifteen minutes since the order. He glared and checked his watch again, but said nothing.
The local kids, as they usually did on his infrequent visits, had hidden firecrackers in the dirt berms along the road. They had long fuses and the game was to get them to go off right as John walked by. He never flinched.
When the promised moment came and the lead actor stripped off his shirt, Janice nearly jumped out of her seat. Looking around, she was glad it was dark and hoped that no one had noticed her usual lack of sangfroid.
Something to remember is that mental reactions, like thoughts and feelings, don’t have to be set off like dialog. When writers start out, many are tempted to always tag those with reactions with "he thought", "he felt", and similar phrases:
I’m definitely not going to tip that waiter, Jim thought. He didn’t even apologize for the wait.
John never felt any umbrage at these impromptu fireworks shows. He felt that kids would be kids and that most of them would grow out of it, anyway.
Maybe theater isn’t that bad after all, Janice thought. I should come here more often.
While occasionally heightening a thought is useful in controlling pace and developing texture, it’s equally effective to embed thoughts and reactions in the narrative itself. A mix often works best:
I’m definitely not going to tip that waiter, Jim thought. He hadn’t even apologized for the wait.
John never felt any umbrage at these impromptu fireworks shows. Kids would be kids and most would grow out of it, anyway.
Maybe theater isn’t that bad after all, Janice thought. She should come here more often.
Gossip/Reactions of Others
People talk about other people constantly. For good or ill, the gossip you hear about someone often colors your impression of them, even before you meet them. If the gossip is particularly malicious, people might not even have a chance to get off to a good start. In writing, you can use that to sway a reader's perception.
"Don’t get fooled," Jim’s ex-girlfriends would say. "He’s fun and dashing and exciting, but only as long as the nookie keeps coming." But Jim’s surface charm was such that, when faced with an obviously successful businessman who’d nevertheless managed to keep his sense of adventure, most women melted into his arms. He was their fantasy and like all fantasies never lasted for long.
Small towns love to talk, and Jim’s town loved to talked about Jim. Everyone’s business was known to everyone else, except for his, and a cloud of speculation followed him wherever he went. Some thought he was raised by the snake charmers reputed to have a secret church out in the sticks, while others thought he’d killed a man and was mentally preparing himself for a shootout with state troopers. A few, more rational than the rest, figured he simply didn't like to socialize, but that was dismissed by the church wives as patently impossible.
Other people’s reactions to someone also help to characterize them.
After the play ended, Janice searched out the director. Seeing her coming, the director steeled himself for another angry diatribe. She was well-known for her opposition to "those elements in society which weakened moral fiber," as she’d put it in one of her letters to the local newspaper. He took a deep breath, slicked back his hair and waited for the inevitable.
Lastly for now, what someone owns, as well as the milieu that they’re found in, also helps to shape our impression of them. Describing a person’s car, computer, apartment or cubicle can be just as effective as describing the person directly:
Despite his bravado, Jim was very much a cubicle farmer, overseeing the workers who tended to insurance paperwork like leafcutter ants tend mold. His office, little more than a cubicle itself, was surprisingly spare. Other than his filing cabinets, computer, and current paperwork, there was only one, small picture in an unremarkable frame. It sat to the left of his monitor and no one had ever been able to get Jim to talk about the woman pictured therein.
John’s car was a beat-up old Chevy two-door pickup truck. No one knew what color it was. The kids who’d tried to clean off some dirt only got their fingers dirty, and the more clever of the townsfolk claimed that dirt was the color. It could occasionally be seen sputtering through the streets and was a more common sight than John himself.
Janice’s one-bedroom house was filled with all of the knick-knacks that inevitably gravitate to respectable matrons. Porcelain cats lined the sole hallway, glassware of all colors and sizes could be found on every available shelf, and a troop of gnomes stood guard in the front yard. The welcome mat by the front door showed a fruit bowl, of course.
- Think of a character. Get as clear a picture in your mind as possible.
- Write a paragraph or two (but at least three sentences, minimum) describing that character in each of the ways described above:
- physical appearance
- habits of speech
- reactions of self
- gossip/reactions of others
- Lather, rinse and repeat. Effective characterization is one of the most important skills in fiction writing and the time spent practicing is time well spent.
Just as a friendly warning, if you place all of the descriptive passages that you end up with directly into a story, it will sound overwritten. Eventually, the idea is to intersperse effective description with effective action. However, that requires that you be able to write both effective description and effective action, and it's a lot easier to avoid overusing a skill you do have than it is to work around a skill you don't.
The Google Says...
More Exercises, as well as examples of those exercises to critique
Yet More Exercises, this time from The Writer's Craft
And if you go through all of these exercises, find and do more. Characterization really is that important.