How to Write Vivid Character Descriptions: Be Invisible!

One of the most difficult areas of description is when it comes to showing the appearance of a protagonist, especially when writing in first person POV. We need readers to “see” our protagonist, but how do we deliver description that feels natural and active? Luckily my friend Nola Sarina, Author Extraordinaire, is here with terrific advice on using Voice & Being Invisible to convey details not only about the main character, but the rest of a story’s cast. Please read on!

 Fleuron

mirrorMost authors have encountered the advice: “Avoid the dreaded mirror scene!” Why? Because using a mirror to describe your main character is a crutch upon which many authors rely to give their readers a visual snapshot of the characters in a book. But giving a snapshot not only interrupts the flow of a scene, it also reminds the reader that an author wanted them to see something. To make an authentic, deeply-connected bond between reader and character, the author must immerse the reader in the character’s voice and stay out of the character’s way.

Image via @Jill111 @ Pixabay

So how do you stay out of the way and give your reader a vivid, visual connection with your characters, without interrupting the flow of the moment?

Physical description of a character only matters if your character has a reason to acknowledge it. Your main character will likely notice the thick, curly red hair of the girl she has a crush on. But will she notice her own straight, faded-red hair and her clothing choice of the day? Not likely, unless it directly applies to the moment. Even then, it must be laced into the scene in a delicate way so the reader does not recognize the author’s desire to show the character’s appearance.

So how can you get visual imagery across without resorting to a mirror or forced-feeling self-observations?

Take a look at this passage, which features a very common, yet disengaging, pattern of physical description:

I tried to keep my cool, tossing my long, faded-red hair over my shoulder as the popular but judgy Sarah raked her critical glare over me. Her freckles wrinkled along the bridge of her nose. Wearing black leather pants and a black tank top, I was a stark contrast to her blingy, Barbie-pink look.

When I am faced with an apprehensive encounter, I don’t often think about the fact that my hair is faded, or red, or long. I just toss my hair. I might try to convey a certain attitude with the motion, but I don’t think about the color or the length until it applies to the moment. I also wouldn’t make clear-cut observations about my antagonist’s popularity (though the reader absolutely needs to know these things) because these observations are largely situational and intuitive. The same is true for my outfit or surroundings. In a situation where I don’t fit in, I’m focused on the reactions of those around me—or my own reaction to their apprehension—not the colors, sizes, or styles.

So while this example isn’t wrong, it interrupts the action of the scene to give your reader a snapshot-view of the characters in the author’s voice before moving forward. It’s a bit like saying, “Look at these characters and then I will show you what they do.” But to seamlessly integrate the description and the action in a continuous flow, the author shouldn’t say anything at all. Rather, the main character says, “Come with me, let’s go!” and flows right into the story without reminding the reader that it was once imagined and written by someone else. The author should be invisible every step of the way.

Don’t use description dumps to give your reader a chance to see the appearance of your character. Instead, give your character a chance to show their appearance to your reader through voice and action.

I tried to keep my cool, tossing my hair over my shoulder. But a long, faded-red strand swung too far around my head and whipped me in the eye, earning a smirk from Sarah as she raked her critical glare over my figure. Her friends, sparkling like Barbie’s closet in pinks and bling, moved in to form a half-circle around me, reeking of popularity and judgement.

“What is this, the Goth Club?” Sarah said, wrinkling her freckled nose at my all-black-and-leather look.

This way, your reader still has a sharp, vivid picture of every character in the scene (including the main character), and sees these things as they happen—as they matter—rather than pausing to study a snapshot of characters in the scene first.

Making sure that your character is the one who tells the story, not you, keeps your author voice out of the way, and allows your readers to immerse completely into the experience of the character. By becoming an invisible author, you encourage your readers and your characters to connect on an intimate, authentic level through the journey they take together.

NolaNola Sarina lives in Southern Alberta, Canada with her husband and three children. Born in Minnesota and raised to appreciate reading and writing of all types from an early age, she found her favorite titles within the genres of dark fantasy, science fiction and romance. She is the author of the dark fantasy romance Vesper series, and also writes paranormal romance and erotica with co-author Emily Faith. Please stalk her on Facebook and Twitter!

VesperGilded Destiny

A woman’s memory returns when she falls in love with the monster who took it from her. 

AMAZON

GOODREADS

Jaded Touch

It took three scars to break her, and two men to save her…

AMAZON

GOODREADS

Phantom Nights

Release Date TBA

The darkness Samantha’s faced in her life pales in comparison to what she’ll face to save the demon she loves.

GOODREADS

Do you try to be an invisible author? What do you struggle with most when it comes to writing character description? Let us know in the comments!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Cliches, Description, Experiments, Guest Post, Point of View, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to How to Write Vivid Character Descriptions: Be Invisible!

  1. Pingback: Writing Advice Masterpost Part 1: Plotting, Characters and World-Building – Nerdy and Wordy

  2. Ola W. Halim says:

    I love this. Very encouraging. And I’ll always keep this on my side as I write on.

  3. Sara Beth says:

    I’m not going to lie, this is really, really hard to accomplish. I’ve read plenty of seasoned authors’ works who don’t even know how to do this. Still working on this particular skill myself. My method is writing the characters like they’re in a play, making sure they interact with every prop and piece around them, and inserting physical descriptions in that way. However, that’s not always the right way to do it either. It’s difficult. for sure.

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  7. Donna says:

    Very enlightening. Looking back on descriptions of my characters, I’ve written them wrong–they’re dumps. Thanks for the clear, easy to understand advice.

  8. Nola, I’ve been trying to put these ideas into words for a while now – thank you for doing such a wonderful job at it. Your examples are clear and fully illustrate your point. Thank you!

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  12. Carleen M. Tjader says:

    I can understand it, see it in your wonderful examples, and yet, find it very difficult to do.
    Thanks for the tutorial, though.

    • Nola Sarina says:

      Maybe you could try giving each description an action, and then looking to see which ones can be spaced out over a few paragraphs? Hair swings, swishes, slaps us, falls out. Clothing snags on stuff, cinches too tight, drops off a shoulder. Trickle these detail/action combinations in through the course of your opening chapters. I hope this helps!

  13. Julie Musil says:

    Such great examples here. Too much description definitely pulls me out of the story! And I have to cut that stuff out of my own work, because it does sneak in there from time to time during first drafts 🙂

  14. :Donna Marie says:

    You know, possibly because I recently read Brown Girl Dreaming and am presently reading Feathers, both by Jacqueline Woodson, she comes to mind. She has such an authentic, seamless way of including these details about character. I love the way she writes 🙂

  15. Sara L. says:

    Great reminders and tips, Nola! The more naturally we slip that information in, instead of throwing a heap of it into the story at one time, the more smoothly it reads. I’ll keep this in mind when I revise my WIP. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  16. Benessa says:

    Sweet and simple article. Thanks for this it helps 🙂

  17. Jodie Renner says:

    Excellent points, Nola. And so well-expressed. Love your example! I give similar advice to authors in my upcoming book, Captivate Your Readers, out Feb. 28. All about stepping back as the author and letting the readers make a direct connection with the characters, as you recommend here. So glad we’re on the same page! Maybe I’ll see you at WWC in Calgary in August?

  18. Phoenix says:

    Very helpful post. Loved the before and after examples . Really showed me exactly what you are talking about.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

  19. Kai Strand says:

    I think one of the toughest things to work into a story is the color of the pov character’s hair. Great advice. Thanks.

    • Nola Sarina says:

      It’s always a challenge, same with things like weather. “It was raining” is informative but distancing. “Torrents of rain splattered the windshield, obscuring my view of the vehicle in front of us…” Still tells the reader it is raining but doesn’t break away from the character’s personal moment, and establishes mood and stakes, too.

  20. jerry says:

    ‘I tried to keep my cool, tossing my hair over my shoulder.’

    As said in a self editing book I go by, the first question to ask here is ‘How far?’ This type of line is just as bad or worse than the mirror scene.

    • Certainly there are other ways to handle this rewrite, but here I feel compelled to point out that Nola acknowledges your concern with the next line. The intent here is to show how physical details can be active and part of the scene, rather than act as a red flag of the author’s intent to toss lump description at readers.

      • Nola Sarina says:

        Hi Jerry!
        I appreciate your concern about the line, and as editors/writers we are often prone to editing with a very literal eye. But when I have annoying strands of hair hanging all over my neck, and there’s sweat or static or I’m trying to look confident even though I am feeling irritated, the most accurate description of the action I take to get my hair out of my way is to “toss it.” A gentle brush or adjustment just doesn’t cut it. Be cautious not to paint the whole text beige and bland when editing with a literal eye. Colourful language is both common and acceptable, particularly in genre fiction or first person.

  21. My greatest challenge in writing character description is knowing when to stop with the detail. I often go overboard in describing character, scenes, emotions. It requires intense editing and learning how to say something I’ve said in ten sentences into one or two instead. There I go again! Verbose! LOL
    Judy

  22. Nola Sarina says:

    Hi Denise! Glad you found it helpful! *waves from Alberta*

  23. Terrific little article. Beautifully illustrated and appealingly succinct. Worthy of passing on. Cheers!

  24. Southpaw HR Sinclair says:

    I also love before and after examples in writing. Thanks!

  25. Denise Willson says:

    Great example, Nola!
    Oh, and we’re fellow Canadians.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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