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My Take on Character Description

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

Whenever I think about the craft of description, this timeless paragraph comes to mind. Without a single wasted word, Margaret Mitchell not only paints a vivid picture of Scarlett but gives us her background, the time period and location of the story, and even a taste of her parents’ characters. A wonderful piece of craft.

For me, a great character description is all in the details. Scarlett’s eyes are not simply green, they are pale green without a touch of hazel. Her brows slant upward. Her skin is magnolia-white. Using simple words, Mitchell lets us see Scarlett as if she stood in front of us in the flesh. As for her personality, she has twin brothers caught by her charm. We know she’s a vixen from the very first sentence.

The best character descriptions do double duty. They convey a lot more than physical appearance. Even one telling detail can be enough to make a character come alive – the way they walk, sit, approach another person. This becomes easier if you practice observation. Watch people when you’re out and about. Ninety percent of human communication is non-verbal. Practice putting it into words.

A word of warning: When writing body language, it’s easy to fall into the “stage direction” trap. You don’t want your description to read like instructions to an actor. Analyze how some of your favorite authors handle body language and borrow from the best.

Describing a character through another character’s eyes is one way to develop both at the same time. This is especially true of romance. The hero and heroine’s first impressions of each other set the stage for the relationship. Why not use that moment to give a physical description?

So, what makes a great character description? Detail. The true art is in using the right details, and the right amount of detail. Observe, observe, observe, read, read, read, and borrow from the best.

6 Comments

  1. Janet
    April 20, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Great post, Jennie. It's so easy to describe our characters' appearance, but so much harder to do it while conveying character traits, emotions, and perhaps a hint at plot (in your example – Scarlet's Irish heritage, her mother's aristocratic background and Scarlet's own vixen ways: how can she not get into trouble and move the story forward?).

    Wondering about some of my descriptions – off to check them out 🙂


  2. Jennie Marsland
    April 20, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Hi Janet, I think I should check out some of mine, too!


  3. Julia Smith
    April 21, 2010 at 2:34 am

    That still shot of Scarlett is one of my favorites – a favorite character and a favorite actress. Like you and Janet, I'll just check out a few of my own character descriptions, now…


  4. Red Writer
    April 21, 2010 at 5:51 am

    I'm with Julia, I love that photo. She is my favorite heroine in literature, so maddening and yet written so well I feel I am Scarlett through that whole novel.

    Great post Jennie!


  5. Jennie Marsland
    April 21, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Hi Julia and Red Writer,
    When I came across that still on Wikimedia Commons, I just had to use it. Wasn't Vivien Leigh breathtaking? It's no wonder casting Scarlett was such a challenge. Not every actress could pull off that character.


  6. Kelly Moran
    April 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    very true. excellent post. writers need to pull out the norm and break it. sometimes it's as simple as a minute detail.

    i have another contest going on at my blog. how are you?
    xo


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