Character Details: How to Choose

Whether you know everything about your characters before you start writing or nothing about them, you can’t include every single detail in your manuscript. (Well, you can, but you probably shouldn’t.)

As Nancy Kress says, you’ll want to “choose artfully.” You’ll want to home in on the particular details your readers are looking for.  Which details are those, you ask?  Read on . . .

What makes for good description?

Description is good when “Each phrase adds value,” says Ms. Kress. She says that the best description accomplishes three things at once:

  • it gives a strong visual image and coherent impression, so that we can picture the character in some important way
  • it gives us details or clues to the character’s personality and/or backstory, conveying a sense of individuality
  • it intrigues us and gets us wondering about the character and about what will happen next

(If this criteria reminds you of the past/present/future aspect of three-dimensional characters–I thought so too.  Seems “good” description may be more helpfully called “three-dimensional” description.)

What other multitasking can description do?

Description Can Imply Relationships

“Use description to indicate relationships with others,” says Ms. Kress. “This works best if you allow us to first glimpse your character when he’s in the presence of other people. Visualize the scene carefully before you write. Where is everybody standing? What do body language and facial expressions say about these people’s relationships?  When you’re sure you know, search for an interesting way to convey that information to us.”

Description (Or Lack of It) Can Imply Personality

“Use other senses to indicate personality,” says Ms. Kress. “Describe your character in terms of a characteristic sound, smell, feel or perhaps even taste.”  Or the sixth sense.

For example, to imply “a detached or alienated character,” create “an ambiance to match, go through and delete nearly all the description. Is the story improved? If not, you can always put it back,” says Ms. Kress. “Leaving out description results in characters subtly unconnected to their surroundings.”

Description (Or Lack of It) Can Emphasize Things

“Leaving out details may throw whatever is omitted into sharp relief,” says Ms. Kress.  For example, “Leaving out dialogue puts emphasis on setting.” And “Leaving out explicit motivation forces the reader to supply it for himself.”

Yeah, but which details should I use?

Not just any details, say many of the craft masters. You’re looking for the right detail.

There are many ways to approach detail selection.  Here are a few:

“So what kinds of details are right?” asks Ms. Kress.  “The ones that grab the reader’s attention.”

Another “technique is to choose details that match your character’s inner self,” says Ms. Kress, “and then to use language that makes that connection clear.”  Or “choose physical details that apply to how the character is feeling at the moment, rather than as indicators of permanent personality.”

Dwight Swain says, “Center your description on whatever sticks out like a sore thumb, the way a cartoonist does when he caricatures a prominent person.  The big ears, the buck teeth, the potbelly, the turned-up nose–these are handy tags to tie to.”

When choosing among possible details to include, Ms. Kress suggests asking yourself which details would best:

  • create strong visual images
  • add up to an accurate, coherent impression of your character’s personality
  • suggest more than their literal meaning
  • convey the character’s view of the scene, not the author’s . . .
  • not unduly slow down the pace, because it has meaning for the character; we thus receive it as more than just static pictures
  • appeal to more than one sense (sight, sound, temperature)
  • seem fresh . . .

Sol Stein would add that the details you choose should:

  • relate to your story

How do I find fresh details?

“Observation is the answer, of course,” says Mr. Swain. “To that end, make it your business to pay attention to the behavior of the people you meet, on every level.  Focus on it, labeling” interesting details you see for use in your stories.

Mr. Swain says further, “While finding adjectives, putting labels to manners, you also gather incidents that convey impressions–even if later you don’t use them.  Collect or devise bits which will reveal precisely why people think of this person or that as roughneck/roué/saint/sad sack or what have you. What does he do that leads others to think of him in such terms?

Another way to find fresh details and mannerisms for characters is to think like an actor.  For exercises to help with this, check out Brandilyn Collins’ book Getting Into Character.

Maybe I should be asking “Which details should I leave out?”

Leave “out everything nonessential,” says Ms. Kress. “But how do you define essential? Genre can be one guide. . . . Do consider genre when you consider what to leave out. This applies to both what you describe and how long you describe it.”

Mr. Stein suggests leaving out cliched details.

So how many details do I need?

Several craft masters say that quality is more effective than quantity.

“It depends on the book’s length, purpose, voice and overall tone,” says Ms. Kress, “But as a rule of thumb, a half-dozen details are plenty. If you choose carefully, that’s usually more than enough.”

Speaking specifically to character mannerisms, though I think it could be said of all details, Brandilyn Collins says, “A character should display only as many mannerisms as are necessary to convey what is important about him or her without distracting from the story and the character’s role in it.”

Last Tips

“Use word choices that further reinforce [the] impression” you’re going for, says Ms. Kress.

And Steven James says, “Trust your readers in all this. Tell them what’s essential, and let them fill in the rest.”

Top Books on Choosing Details

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Well, that’s it for me.

What about you?  What do you look for in good description?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up Next

We’ll look at some craft-master advice on choosing one character detail in particular: names.  See you then!


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