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On Describing Characters

Anonymous asked: “I’ve been writing in first person for my novel, but I’ve found I’m not sure how to describe the main character’s appearance.”

First person in particular can be a bit of a challenge when it comes to describing appearances. I think all the way around the trick of describing the way they look while looking into a mirror is a little tired and often hard to make it feel believable. The method I find most helpful is describing by comparison. 

When your protagonist is describing people they’re close to, they end up describing themselves a little too. This is especially easy when describing characters who are related, just because it’s natural – she might admire her sister’s full lips, because hers are thin. Or might say her brother has freckles – like everyone in her family does. Describing one character intensely might help give you a picture not just of one, but of the person describing them as well, their relationship, and how they’d look together. 

While this is not the only technique, it is one that does so much more than tell you what a character looks like. It tells you who they are, what their feelings are about each other, and what kind of a relationship they have to each other. 

Another strategy I know of – now I don’t know exactly the best way to put it, is when characters describe a past version of themselves – a person they were and how they’d looked then. This is easier if a character has gone through some great change or has grown up or is different or changed somehow – they’re more likely and realistically going to notice what’s different rather than what’s the same.  I think that’s the big thing – characters notice differences, not necessarily similarities. 

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