How To Write Description In A Novel: Characters

Posted at 04:16am on 3rd September 2009

Revised: 15th September, 2010

Writing and publishing a book requires an understanding of how to write description. Describing characters is a necessary part of creative writing, as is describing location. But I had to smile when I read a review in The Daily Telegraph, of the American TV drama, The Tudors. It appears that in order to refresh viewers’ minds as to Who’s Who, from the first series, characters not only told each other what they were called, but also – helpfully – gave a brief CV of themselves! I can just imagine it.

“Good morrow, fair Anne Boleyn, the second of my eight wives, and a replacement for Catherine of Aragon. Your King, Henry VIII, bids you take care lest you be beheaded – ostensibly for treason, in reality for producing a mere Queen for the succession and no King.”

Clearly, this is ridiculously explicit. But it is always a thorny question for aspiring authors to know just how much descriptive writing should be included in a novel. The above example of writing badly would not only detract from your narrative, but might deter a publisher from taking it on. So how do you go about producing creative writing descriptions which are neither too sketchy and uninformative, nor too lengthy and clumsy?

HOW TO DESCRIBE A CHARACTER

Writing a character description in note form is a necessary part of planning your novel. You should know each of your characters inside out: personality (you can take a free personality test on this website to establish your character's personality traits); height and weight, hair and eye colour; schooling; likes and dislikes – the list is endless. However, this is not a licence to include every detail when you begin to write the story.

The usual way of describing appearance is to do so, unobtrusively, as part of the action in a scene. Author, Joanna Trollope does this to good effect in Second Honeymoon when, at a defining moment in the lives of a couple whose last child has just left home, the husband suddenly registers his wife’s appearance in a new way, with a renewed clarity that strips away all familiarity. He sees her hair piled on top of her head and secured with a comb; he perceives this as making her look little more than thirty – though we know, because she’s already told us that the twenty years she’s lived in this house is almost a third of her life; and he also recognises that he has a fight on his hands when it comes to establishing a new phase in their lives, because she looks “small and defiant”.

Do you see how this description fleshes out this woman, not only physically, but as a character; a personality? Yet it is not delivered as straightforward prose, but as a stream of consciousness straight from the mind of the man who has woken up beside her morning after morning. This is, essentially, his view of her.

In one scene of author, Rosie Thomas’s, Moon Island, the thoughts of one of the characters is used to describe her own appearance, as she is about to go out. We’re told that this young woman – a girl, really – finds that it’s too late to fix her hair, or to put on a looser top which would have hidden her fat. In that one brief sentence, we learn not only how she looks at this precise moment, but also her permanent physical condition and state of mind. She’s fat. And she doesn’t like it!

LONG CHUNKS OF DESCRIPTIVE WRITING HAVE A LIMITED USE

Describing physical appearance at any length should only be undertaken on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. If, for example, your heroine was running from a dragon which was pursuing her with evil intent, on rounding a corner and perceiving a knight in shining armour she’s hardly going to take in much beyond a hope that he might be her saviour. A long description of his height and hair colour, strength of character and his honour would in every way detract from the conflict of the moment.

Later, however, when divested of his chain mail, our damsel in distress might well pause long enough to note his rippling six-pack, his steely thighs and bulging biceps, the cleft chin at odds with his blonde curls and full lips . . .

In this example of describing physical appearance, the author is not simply telling us about the knight. She is telling us, also, something about the state of mind in which our rescued damsel finds herself: gratitude; admiration; a warm rosy glow of appreciation.

In this instance, also – following, as it does, a period of intense activity and crisis – it would be quite legitimate to take a long leisurely look at the physique of the knight, as seen through the eyes of the damsel. The contrast between the two scenes would add to the texture of the narrative.

The point about this style of description in writing, is that it is subtle, imaginative, indirect and always seen through the point of view of one of the characters. Always, always, compare your style with that of established authors when writing character description. And make sure that you never, ever fall into the same trap as the writers of The Tudors.

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We'll take a look at How To Write Description In A Novel: Describing Location

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