I once read somewhere that you should never write more than three lines of description when introducing a new character. While extra bits of description can be added amidst dialogue or thrown in throughout a scene. Keeping it to three lines is a general rule of thumb for when you first introduce someone new.
The reason for this is so you don’t overwhelm your reader. A big, wordy dump of information is difficult to absorb all at once. But the real question is- how do you go about picking the perfect three lines? How do you decide which character attributes to hone in on when you first introduce?
A great technique I learned to help you focus on the three perfect items or lines is to use too much information or TMI. Right before you introduce a new character, right down absolutely everything you can about them. Write a terrible description. Write everything you know. Be wordy. Once you get everything out on paper, you can start picking through your words to find the most important and identifying qualities.
Most likely you’ll focus on things that set this character apart from the rest. You want your readers to have a distinct view of who this person is. As human beings the first thing we notice about another person is their appearance. It’s human nature. It’s natural. Were not going to know about the lilt of their voice if we’re not talking to them yet. However, if we only see them from across the room, we might notice a bit more than the color of their skin or the color of their hair – those are obvious.
Help Define Your Character with Description
Other things that help define who a character is can be reflected in the way they walk. Perhaps they have a limp? Or maybe they have a scar above their upper lip? The way someone dresses can also reveal a lot about who they are, what they do, their income, their social class, even possibly their education.
In a way you almost have to think like a detective. Look for things that aren’t necessarily obvious, such as gender. It’s not very interesting to say, “Sally was a girl with blue eyes, red hair, and white skin.” Sometimes we can tell a character’s gender by their name. [I say “sometimes” here because science-fiction, fantasy and young adult dystopian novels make up a lot of names.] It’s almost an insult to your reader to spell things out for them. Also, most people with red hair have white skin and fair colored eyes. This doesn’t mean that there is a place for these obvious descriptions to be inserted somewhere in the story if you feel it should be in there. But someone’s hair color doesn’t tell you a lot about who they are as a person.
Another thing to consider is how you would want an author to describe you. Would you like them to describe you generically (i.e. He was a white man with a comb-over). That doesn’t tell us much. That doesn’t even really tell us his age because I know young men under the age of 30 with receding hairlines.
Again, you can pepper some of the more generic descriptions throughout the scenes. But when first introducing them, try to write down every possible thing you know about them and narrow it down from there. It will allow you to capture their distinct image in such a way that it entertains the reader with your language but also cements in their mind how this character stands out from the rest.
Utilize Real Life for Character Description (Things to Consider)
If you’re not sure where to start, start with someone you know. How about the biology teacher who wears a patch over his left eye? The man who pirates freshly released movies and walks around with an actual parrot on his shoulder? Does the character have smoker’s lines around their lips? Missing teeth? Gold teeth? A service dog? A tiny chihuahua in their purse? Are their shoes polished and shiny? How shiny? Is there a pep in their step? Any noticeable tattoos? Piercings? Do they wear a wedding ring? Which hand is it on? (Some religions and nationalities wear their rings on another hand or not at all).
You might also consider what they are doing when you first see them. Are they riding a horse? In a business meeting? Are they alone? In a group? An orchestra? A choir? The list goes on and on. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go ’round. Which kinds of people are you writing about?
Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores, sushi restaurants, and small town cafes.