Describing people is hard. Any fool with eyes and a thesaurus can find some way to describe the basic physical characteristics, but that’s only useful if it provides us with necessary information. Got a character whose bright blonde hair catches the eye of the bad guy? Useful to know. But do we have know that he’s also about five-six, slim build, with a scattering of freckles between his deep blue eyes and thin lips? And does that information have to be dropped in the very second that character appears? What use is that?*
I know, I know, you can make the argument that you’re painting a word picture and allowing the reader to imagine the scene in full high-def colour. There’s some merit in that. But I prefer thumbnail sketches of characters with whatever information is necessary at that time. Anything else can be added later, as it is required. Put another way: we don’t need to know the colour of every character’s eyes. We really don’t.
Not when we can do something much better with much less. One of the best character descriptions I ever read came in a single sentence:
“There are flowers in her hair, but they’ve faded slightly, just like her.”**
Tells you everything you need to know about that woman, and not just how she looks. It speaks to her character, not just the arrangement of her molecules in physical space. And it does it in less words and less space and with a twist that makes you feel sorry for her. Much fucking better than any exact measurements and shade of hair could do.
Today’s Monday Challenge: write a character description in one sentence. Just one. Try to capture the soul, not just the image. Make us feel something for them instead of creating a static picture. Ask yourself: what makes this character interesting right now?
Here’s some examples I’ve created for your amusement:
He might have been pretty if not for his eyes, which had the bright mindless glint of a predatory bird.
Young as she was, she moved with a gingerness that suggested old wounds buried somewhere under her armour, pain flickering every now and then across her usually cool expression.
His greying hair was clipped short over a face that had been remade one punch at a time until no trace of who he had been remained.
Your turn. Go.
*I only ever read one book where it was acceptable to me when the narrator described everyone she met, and that was because she was a trainee law officer whose job depended on being able to accurately describe people and memorize their features. This was a skill she was actively trying to develop, so it made sense for her to dwell on thin lips or high foreheads or accurate measurements of height. Still, after a while it became irritating.
**From Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett.