Writing Tip: Describe with Telling Details—Character

Photo credit: horizontal.integration on Flickr
On Wednesday, I covered the importance of telling details when writing description for settings. Now I want to discuss an equally important type of description that also relies (when done well) on the same kind of details.

I’m sure you’ve all come across a passage, whether in your writing or someone else’s, in which a character was meticulously described from the specific tint of his eyes to the size of his nose and the make of the shoes on his feet. And chances are, the description started to lag and didn’t really leave a lasting impression, despite everything the writer threw at you. 

The problem wasn’t that the character wasn’t described enough, in fact, it was the opposite problem—the character was drowning in so much description that nothing could stand out and leave an impression. 

That’s why a few telling details are always better than paragraphs upon paragraphs of listed descriptions. If you use too much description, your readers won’t be able to pick out what physical markers are unique to your characters—but by utilizing a couple telling details instead, you’ll paint a picture of your characters much more effectively.

Let’s take a look at some examples. In both excerpts, the respective protagonists are seeing a love interest for the first time, and both authors do an excellent job characterizing them with just a couple specific details.  
“A boy was staring at me. 
I was quite sure I’d never seen him before. Long and leanly muscular, he dwarfed the molded plastic elementary school chair he was sitting in. Mahogany hair, straight and short. He looked my age, maybe a year older, and he sat with his tailbone against the edge of the chair, his posture aggressively poor, one hand half in a pocket of dark jeans.” 
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, pages 8-9.
What really seals the description here? To me, it isn’t his mahogany hair that makes the image—it’s his “aggressively poor” posture and the way his long form dwarfs the plastic elementary school chair. Those are the kinds of details that you want focus on when describing your characters. 

Next example:
“I turn toward my new husband. My cheeks are hot; I know they will be blotchy and shining with sweat when he lifts the shield from my face.  
He releases my hand. I clench it into a fist to keep from wiping it on my terno. I see his fingers on the hem of my veil. They are brown and thick with short, clean nails. Not scholar’s hands, like Master Geraldo’s. He lifts up the veil, and I blink as cooler air floods my cheeks. I peer up at the face of my husband, at black hair that sweeps back and curls at his neck, at brown eyes warmer than cinnamon, at a mouth as strong as his fingers.” 
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, page 14.
What I love about this excerpt is that our very first impression of her new husband isn’t his stunning good looks—it’s his fingers and clean nails as he grasps her veil before lifting it over her face. I also love the way that Ms. Carson reminds us of his fingers by comparing the strength of his mouth to the strength of his hands at the end of the paragraph.  

So those are two examples of excellent use of telling details while describing characters, but now I want to hear from you. Do you use telling details when describing characters? Any examples you’d like to share from your work, or books that you've read?

Twitter-sized bites: 
Do you use telling details to describe your characters? Here's why you may want to. (Click to tweet
Are you drowning your readers in description? Here's how to make your character descriptions pop. (Click to tweet)


Sarah Anne Foster said...

I agree, while some character description is necessary, too much can be distracting. You want the reader to be able to picture your characters, but you don't want to bore them with too many details. Just stick to the most important features that will give the reader a good picture.

Ava Jae said...

That's exactly it! Thank you, Sarah. :)

Ashley Fisher said...

This was a great article. You definitely don't want to overly describe your character. Leave a little to the imagination. The person reading can fill in the blanks to their liking and create their dream man or woman.

Ava Jae said...

Exactly! We don't want to underestimate our readers—they're pretty good at filling in the blanks and letting the details you give them do the bulk of the work. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

Luke Moy said...

I really loved this post! I loved it so much that I wrote a post about it! Check it out, if you want: http://shadowconlm17.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-whirlwind-of-description.html

I'm so glad that I found this blog! It's helped me so much with my writing and editing! Thanks so much.

Ava Jae said...

Oh wow! Thank you so much, Luke! I really appreciate the shout-out and I'm thrilled to see just how much the post helped you with your editing. :)

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