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NANOWRIMO - Characters' Appearance

Saturday 2nd November 2019 – Characters: Part One – Appearance

This is a tricky one!  To make your characters entirely believable, your reader wants to see beyond the physical exterior.  But, all the same, you as the writer need to consider what your characters look like.  It can be slightly awkward when a character’s hair colour suddenly changes, or they mysteriously grow a foot taller in two weeks.

Photo by Tayla Walsh, Pexels

Not many of us notice the colour of someone’s eyes the first time we meet them.  Instead, we usually see their face as a whole and associate a certain emotion with them.  People might have strict, pointy features, or perhaps a sullen frown or laughing eyes.  These descriptions are a lot closer to what we experience when we meet someone, a sense you want your readers to have.  They don’t want to imagine they're looking at a photograph, they want to encounter your characters as an equal.

There are, of course, obvious exceptions to this.  In some genres, the colour of someone’s eyes may be significant.  If you have a family of characters, you might want to highlight a physical feature which make them all look alike (for example, we have a “Temperton nose” in our family, which is a very distinct shape).

So, here are a few things to think about:
  • Know how tall your characters are. You don’t have to announce their height to the reader, but perhaps they are so tall they have to duck under lintels, or they’re short enough to fit under a table.  Also – and this is a biggie! – know how tall they are compared to your other characters.
  • What do they wear? You can tell a lot about a character based on their clothes and their jewellery.  Do they have a wedding ring?  Do they wear a suit?  Do they have a logo on their t-shirt?
  • Faces are animate objects.  When one part of them moves, other features tend to take the strain.  Example: when you frown, your forehead creases.  So, you don’t have to constantly be writing about the shape of someone’s mouth, you can vary the way of detailing expression.
  • Think of something your character is like.  If someone is well-built, they might be as wide as an ox, or if they are light on their feet, they could be as graceful as a swan.  There are hundreds of animals you can personify, and instantly your reader sees an added dimension to the character.
  • All these things being said, think carefully about clichés in descriptions.  Sometimes, clichés are so well used because they work, sometimes they just help lazy writing!
Virginia Crow


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