Writing Tip: On Characters’ Physical Descriptions

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Just a quick post today on something I noticed in a recent read…

Character’s physical descriptions: necessary because you want your readers to have a firm picture in their minds of what your characters look like. But they can also be tricky.

I recently read a book where the protagonist was a timid guy who lived with his mom and was too scared to talk to the girl he liked.  I pictured this guy to be slight, skinny, and blond. Halfway through the story, he was described through the eyes of the woman he liked as a big, muscular brunet. Huh. I went back to see if I’d missed something, but no; there was simply no physical description of him up until that point. I enjoyed the rest of the story, but it was jarring to have to adjust the picture in my head so drastically halfway through the book.

It can be hard to fit a physical description of your protagonist in organically at the beginning of your story. After all, in real life we don’t go around thinking about the color of our own eyes all the time (and the looking-in-the-mirror opening is one of the worst clichés ever–at least, in my opinion). So here are some ways I’ve done it and seen it done successfully:

Multiple points of view This is the easiest way, admittedly. When all your characters are viewed through the eyes of someone else, it’s normal for that other character to think about their hair or skin or eye color–especially if it’s someone they’re attracted to. Cassandra Clare does this well, it’s something I’ve done successfully, and it’s not very hard to do.

But what happens if your story has only one point of view: your protagonist’s? You could try:

Your character encounters someone they haven’t seen in awhile. I used this in my second novel in the second chapter. This way that person could remark on their physical appearance, or the character could reflect on what’s changed about them. It works pretty well, and feels organic to the story.

And then, the best way (I think) to get physical description in early:

Your character’s physical description is important to the plot. In Harry Potter, Harry’s scar and glasses and sticking-up hair are important to mention early on because they’re a source of antagonism with the Dursleys. In Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, the protagonist is insecure about her upcoming marriage because she considers herself overweight and unattractive, particularly compared with her beautiful sister, which is the first source of tension in the plot. And finally–countering what I said earlier about the mirror cliché–Veronica Roth’s Divergent opens with the protagonist’s mother cutting her hair in front of the mirror. But this is important to the plot because the protagonist lives in a society where she only gets to look in the mirror once every couple of months. All of these situations make sense.

How about you? Do you have any tricks for getting character description in early in a non-obvious way? I’d love to hear!

Image taken by me

 

 

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