Details to Use in Describing Characters

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, writing today about the challenges of finding just the right descriptive details to make characters, even the minor ones, distinctive for the reader. Although it is possible to write about someone without ever describing their appearance, in most cases it helps to provide a few hints. If the reader first meets a character in Chapter Two and he doesn’t appear again until Chapter Nine, it is convenient to be able to refer to “the guy with the big nose” or “the woman with the squeaky voice” to refresh the reader’s memory, rather than rehash the entire earlier encounter.

one of the great British faces

one of the great British faces

You can, of course, model a character’s physical appearance on a real person. There are some great faces out there, especially among British actors. And, at least in a contemporary setting, you can describe someone as looking like a young Judi Dench or an older version of Miley Cyrus. There are a couple of problems with that, though. You need to be certain that your readers  know who the heck you’re talking about. And, of course, the reference may end up dating your work.

A better plan is to come up with a few memorable details to describe each new character as he or she comes into the story. The difficulty comes in finding a happy medium between details that are bland—he was six feet tall with brown hair and blue eyes and an aquiline nose—and language that is way too florid. Some of the best (or worst) examples of the latter are finalists in the annual Bulwer-Litton competition for opening lines. That said, the boundary between an over-the-top description and writing that is vivid can often be a bit blurry, and it is very easy to get stuck trying to come up with the right words to describe someone, no matter how clear the writers’ mental picture of the character may be.

david-tennant-tenth-doctorNot too long ago, the Maine Romance Writers’ Facebook page posted a link to a “Master List of Facial Expressions for Writers!” Naturally, this intrigued me, so I followed the link to Bryn Donovan’s webpage. It turns out that Bryn has written an entire book, Master Lists for Writers, and published excerpts online to give folks a feel for what’s in it. I have not read the book, or all of the online lists, but what I did look at is exactly the sort of thing that writers trying to describe a new character would find useful.

What all this is leading up to is a similar share from me. Over the years, while writing both historical and contemporary novels, I came up with my own “Details to use in Describing Characters” list, arranged by an assortment of somewhat random categories. I refer to this collection of descriptive details every time I start a new book. It has saved me many a frustrating stretch of searching for just the right word. Feel free to borrow at will.

attitude:

meek

always listening

slovenly

a great exercise is to find the words to describe this famous character

a great exercise is to find the words to describe this famous character

build:

gangly

narrow shoulders

all angles

beanpole thin

newly-acquired height

wiry

flabby

stolid

sinewy

thin-chested

fine-boned

dainty

bulging biceps

corpulent

spindly legs

slightly bow-legged

plump ankles

dewlaps

angular

gaunt

scarecrow

rawboned

stoop-shouldered

fleshy

slight paunch

here's another, if you don't get distracted by the cat

here’s another, if you don’t get distracted by the cat

slightly concave abdomen

lean

heavy-set

complexion:

pallid

florid

lost looks to swine pox (from the 16th century novels, obviously)

ruddy

splotchy

sallow

full of pustules and a new quat (ditto)

pale, flawless skin

livid scar

swarthy

peaches and cream

dusky

ears:

oversized

protuberant

hard of hearing

ian-mckelleneyes:

mild gray

shortsighted

faded blue

perpetual squint

gimlet

almond-shaped

wide-spaced

murky green

pale, watery

protuberant

trough-eyed (one lower than the other)

brown so dark they appear black

squint-eyed

deep bags under—look of a sorrowful hound

heavy-lidded

molasses-colored

color of hazelnut shells

lynx-eyed (sharp sighted)

mud colored

beady little

wears an eye patch

publisher's way to avoid showing sleuth's face

publisher’s way to avoid showing sleuth’s face

face and facial hair:

negligible chin

broad red beard

moonfaced

horse-faced

double chins

bushy eyebrows

broad forehead

jowly

sculpted features

plump cheeks

high cheekbones

trailing mustache

wispy beard

long beard, narrowing toward chin

hollow cheeks

little tuft of a beard

cleft in chin

freckles

winged eyebrows

pockmarked

red-cheeked

narrow jaw

mole on one cheek

fleshy

fingers:

long

plump

steepled

thick as sausages

gait:

walked flat-footedly with a shuffling movement

awkward

lack of grace

slight limp

rolling

slow-moving

hobbles

scuttles

shambling

light on the feet

cover art with lots of descriptive detail

cover art with lots of descriptive detail

hair:

straw-colored

the color of ___

bald

mud-colored

lank

receding hairline

rich, blue-black hair that reflects sunlight

sand-colored

thinning

ginger

hands:

hamlike

meaty

folded over slightly concave abdomen

laugh:

trilling

rusty

mouth and teeth:

lips flattened in a hard line

thin, cruel

large yellow teeth

toothless

four large front teeth all the same size

pouting lips

small, perfect

missing tooth in front

blue-tinged lips

brown teeth

teeth overlap

toothy smile

small, sexy gap between two front teeth

Is a picture worth a thousand words? Is this Lady Appleton from my Face Down and Mistress Jaffrey mysteries?

Is a picture worth a thousand words? Is this Lady Appleton from my Face Down and Mistress Jaffrey mysteries?

nervous habits:

fidgets

tugs on beard

drums fingers on ___

clenches and unclenches hands

pleats fabric

nose:

hawklike

broken veins in

bulbous

beak of a

bump on the bridge from a break

large, slightly flattened

Roman

aquiline

or is this Lady Appleton? (same artist, by the way, the talented Linda Weatherly S.

or is this Lady Appleton? (same artist, by the way, the talented Linda Weatherly S.

smell:

musky perfume

scent of lavender

old socks

scented kitty litter

voice and diction:

soft-spoken

nasal whine

sniffles

sultry

slow, measured speech

repeats everything twice

hoarse smoker’s

raspy

deep baritone

clipped speech

lazy drawl

careful of words

 

And there you have it. Kathy/Kaitlyn’s little list. They may all be things you’d think of anyway, but sometimes having a quick reference written down can be a life saver. Happy Writing, Everyone!

fallsbooks1

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse ~ UK in December 2016; US in April 2017) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com

 

 

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