Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.” It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build.
He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.” This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect?
When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination.
When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present.
Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images.
We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?In addition, Flaubert describes the book that held her attention during mass and the images that she particularly loved—a sick lamb, a pierced heart.Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses, never getting away from the stuffy schoolroom atmosphere, she gradually succumbed to the mystic languor exhaled by the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers.On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond.Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become.In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves.We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her.In the opening scenes of the film , we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral.One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms.One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images.This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction.