“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.”
—Unknown

4 Tips to Write a Better Character Portrait

To prepare for this week’s post, I took a look at my notes from the Cheryl Strayed retreat I attended a few weeks ago.  I shared what I learned here and here and here. Thankfully, I was able to find a few more gems—and writing prompts.

Today’s topic? Character portraits.

4 Tips to Write a Better Character Portrait

1. Character Portraits Reveal Relationship

A portrait is a description of a person or a group of people.

From Cheryl Strayed, however, I learned portraits also reveal the relationship between a person and the writer (in memoir) or another character (fiction).

For example, a person might describe his father using terms like “looming,” “powerful,” and “spoke with a deep voice.” In addition to providing a physical description, these words evoke some of that fear or intimidation a child may have for his parent.

Another person (his wife, for example) may use completely different words to describe the same man.

So ask yourself, does your portrait reflect the person’s relationship to the speaker?

2. Character Portraits Are About More than the Physical

Cheryl read us a paragraph from a writer about his mother—but he didn’t use a single physical description.

Instead, he wrote, “She was the type of woman who was charming and beloved by strangers, but all of us close to her couldn’t help but walk on egg shells.”

I made this example up because I couldn’t remember the exact paragraph. However, I do remember the author wrote about his mother’s actions, how she made people feel, and what she said, while completely avoiding describing her physical appearance.

You don’t have to eliminate physical description. Rather, I encourage you to consider how you might create an image of a character if you couldn’t describe his or her appearance.

3. Character Portraits Can Be Made for Groups of People

When Cheryl was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in her memoir Wild, she kept running into a certain type of hiker. This group of hikers spoke a certain way, wore certain gear, and were all hiking for similar reasons. To portray this group, Cheryl decided to combine all of them into one, single character.

In cases where you want to depict a certain type of person, she said, you can choose to either combine those people into a single character, like she did  (in memoir, I might add), or you can literally write a portrait of the group.

For example, “The women of Logan Circle wear Lululemon yoga pants, racer-back tank tops, and yoga mats strapped across their backs.”  That’s how I would describe certain people in Logan Circle, D.C.  It’s not a portrait of one woman, but a type of woman that I always see there.

I understand the fear of stereotyping by describing groups this way.  My suggestion is to try to be accurate and fair, but also to  not be afraid to lean into your character’s subjectivity.

The real question is how the character would see these people.  Would he or she really have a nuanced perspective?

4. When Writing Character Portraits, Follow the HEAT

I wrote down this quote from Cheryl:

When someone you know well does something they always do, that’s a point of heat and interest, and when someone does something they never do, it’s also a place of heat and interest.

In other words, follow the heat.

I think this advice is particularly helpful in memoir.  Is there something someone in your life always does?  Is it in your description of him or her? If not, it should be!

What about a time when someone did something they never do?  Why did they do it? Let us know in the comments!

PRACTICE

I have a couple of related writing prompts for you today:

  1. Write a portrait of someone without describing him or her physically.
  2. Write a portrait of a group or category of people (or type of person).
  3. Write a portrait of yourself at your best or your worst.

Choose one of the writing prompts and write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, share your writing in the comments section. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

Happy writing!

About Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

  • Debra Marvin

    I find it helps me to write notes on how the secondary characters feel about each other and what their history is.

  • Susan Barker

    He was able to drive cattle with nothing more than his stern
    gaze and the other cow pokes respected him for his serious nature. The women in
    town were always treated well by him and fought over who would have the opportunity
    to spend the evening with him.

    He enjoyed whiskey and women as much as the next cow poke,
    but he did not beat them and would take down anyone who tried.

    • Susan Barker

      I find it interesting to describe a character without using physical description, since it leaves more to the imagination of the reader. Adds a little flavor to a character.

    • Namet Invenit

      I enjoyed this. I felt I was in the world of Louis Lamour!

      • Susan Barker

        I must confess, I love Louis L Amour’s novels.

  • kath

    I tried to stay away from directly describing the physical, but a few little details still crept in there. This was a very fun exercise, and it ended up sort of turning into a little story.

    He had the sort of voice people subconsciously gravitated towards. It was somewhere between a deep, gravelly shout and a honey coated whisper, and even in a murmur in almost echoed. No one ever seemed to mind the only words that crossed those lips were obscenities. As long as it was that musical voice that shouted these threats, people listened.

    There was something in the way he walked, too. I would notice it every day in spite of myself, peeking through the frosted windows at the man marching through the snow in a tattered rag of a shirt. He had a certain swagger to him, as did most young unattached men, but it was something more than that. He took each step deliberately and held his head so high I imagined it simply popping off one day from the strain. He was barefoot on ice, but I could imagine him walking just the same way on the red carpet.

    Every movement he made was like that. Every filthy word he spoke, too; everything he did seemed like it had been planned for weeks. There was never a fidget or fumble. He meant every single action he took and carried them out as though he was center stage at the biggest show on Broadway. He knew everybody was watching everything he did with rapt attention, and he liked it that way.

    I just never thought he noticed me, noticing him. Until one morning as he made his usual march past my shop, took an abrupt turn, and crossed the threshold of my store with two long steps.

    As the door clattered shut behind him, he stared at me. He did not make a move or a sound.

    I thought I saw something flicker behind his eyes, and I knew that look was not deliberate. I stepped out from behind the counter and crossed towards him, not fully aware of what I was doing.

    • Namet Invenit

      Suspense!

    • Sheila B

      quite a bit of physical description. I want to know more of his actions besides his swearing. I loved the barefoot on ice line.

  • Namet Invenit

    Okay, here is my 15 minutes…

    My daughter is a five foot nine, auburn-haired contradiction–part Pollyanna and part worrywart, I never quite know how she’ll respond. Now, that she is away at college, her mother and I miss the reverberating laughter coming from her room at night as she entertains herself with online puns and memes. I miss her presence of joy. She lives with a smile and happy disposition, often with the quixotic nature of youth, except when she is not. Then, she is the sourpuss, the prophet of doom. She is not too mercurial; just uncertain and frightened by the new and uncertain world she is thrust into. Still, it is odd to experience her–a bubbly, effervescent, dreamer and apprehensive, anxious fudgeon.

    • Susan Barker

      I used to be called a sourpuss. I was a witch during those times.

  • kwjordy

    My mother is not the person she used to be. Once gregarious and fun-loving, now she is morose and quiet. When once we could not get her off the phone, now she doesn’t even like to answer it. Something about being afraid she’ll never be able to hang up with the caller should he or she be a real talker.

    Mom sits in her easy chair with the TV constantly on. Right now it’s game shows. A few months back it was “Law and Order”, all day and all night. Where Mom used to go
    to bed around midnight and rise no later than 8:00, recently I arrived to her
    room in her assisted living facility to find her in bed at 10:00.

    But Mom is still a voracious reader. At 89 she goes through four or five books a
    week, just as she has for the past 30 years. I didn’t know there were that many romance novels in the world. She used to keep a list of all the books she’s
    read, so as not to repeat them, but after filling three or four notebooks she
    gave that up – it took longer to peruse the list than to actually re-read the
    book.

    Yesterday I called her and I was not certain I was speaking to my mother. She immediately began going on a tear about not being able to get hold of my brother or nephew so they could go to the pharmacy for her. “What’s the matter with them; don’t they answer their phones?!!”

    Of course I put it all down to aging. I’m just shocked at the changes I see happening to Mom on an almost daily basis. She doesn’t eat much and has shrunk in size and weight. She gave away her jewelry, her clothing, and her photos. She used to have at least 15 photo albums.

    My brothers and I have arranged for a psychiatric evaluation for Mom. She must be depressed. If we can get her on the right medication, she’ll be back to her old self in no time.

    We’re crossing our fingers.

    • Annette M Cave

      I hear your words within my own mother, I had recently reflected similar feelings that you have and came to the conclusion that the loss of zen for life stems from the loss of romantic love. A place where age doesn’t really matter nor physical health, although both play their roles. It’s a place where the love of family and friends can only do so much. But you threw me off by stating the fact that she reads so many romantic novels. Or could that be reason enough to want it more? It seems like she is preparing to move on to
      her next realm by giving away her material possessions. Maybe instead of seeking out more medications and evaluations, you can seek out a place for her to find spiritual rejuvenation. Just a thought. …

  • stephanie

    A friend shared this with me. It’s a great way to get started and a much needed nudge. Here’s my attempt at writing prompt #1:

    He teetered back and forth between a world filled with hopes
    and dreams and one filled with debilitating memories that crippled his reality.
    Every step forward became months and weeks of progress towards a better future
    and the happiness he longed to have. Then, in an instant, a trigger – a
    fleeting memory, a tragedy, his or someone else’s, an unkind word – would send
    him spiraling back to devastating moments of self-doubt, the questioning of his
    existence, and a darkness that could not be penetrated by even the most
    illuminating thoughts and fantasies of life without the pain inflicted by years
    of feeling unwanted, unaccepted, unfulfilled. His was a life lived on the brink
    of something bigger, better, bolder than anything he had ever known, but it was
    always out of his reach. He could see a glimmer of the peace that he so desperately
    wanted to feel, but it kept slipping away with every inch gained.

    • Wow, powerful! Especially the last sentence. Really gives insight to the innermost thoughts of this man

  • Michelle Chalkey

    My family says they can see my emotions portrayed across my face. With Grandma Sylvie, however, we don’t need to see her reaction to know what’s on her mind. She lets out her emotion in terms of sound effects. When she is concerned, we hear the rattle of her lungs as she clears her throat dramatically. When she disagrees, the smack of her lips comes just before a faint pouting hmm…. When she heavily disagrees, houses could blow over with the amount of air she lets out in her everlong purring sigh. Yet the cracking of her heart comes even louder than the horrifying sound of her cry, a brutally quick impish sound that paints sadness straight across my own face.

  • Thomas Furmato

    By my third week on the job, I’d learned everything there was to know about what tasks I was supposed to do. By my third month I learned everything else. All the nuances of the computer filing system, why the chef came in at differing times, and what made the owner tick. Discovering this about her was gradual, but connected like two lego pieces when I put the two together.

    You know the phenomenon that people start looking like their pets. Here, Pat started to look like her restaurant. Or, maybe more precise, the restaurant was her, and I just realized it. The art was a scattered collection from far away places and local artists. The rhino tightroping on a unicycle came from a deranged sculptor in Mexico. The mosaic stone portrait was of, and by, her grandson Ryan.

    The building was 30 years old now, and she had been a part of it’s design and construction. I would guess that every jagged wall and peaked ceiling was directed by her finger on the blueprints. After all this time though, the wear is starting to show. A chip of paint, a cracked tile, a wide space in between baseboards. There have been a lot of servers and cooks work within these spaces, everyone of them drawing a paycheck, everyone of them treating the building as if was just a building.

    Pat put a lot into these employees, and it showed in how the place ran. The servers were top notch, filled with knowledge of plates and wines. The chef was creative, and pushed the cooks to follow suit. It was a hard act to keep up, but from day one, the restaurant received rave reviews, and had ever since been at the top in the city.

    We’re in our last season now. The boaters are going to flood into the area and give us a good crowd to leave with. The locals will retain their opinions with a few last visits or a bystander view of how it will all end. They’ll look at Pat as either someone to be remembered or someone to forget. When they tear down some walls and renovate it into condos Pat will spend more time with her grandkids, and play more sets of tennis.

  • Gary G Little

    This a post from Fridays prompt. Fortuitive? You decide. I think it provides the character portrait of this prompt, but I use dialogue. Ok, yes, I cheated. I believe in KISS, no not some boy band in war paint, but Keep It Simple Stupid.

    As first light painted the Brooklyn Bridge in pinks and reds, John watched from the East River. He loved the morning view of the bridge and the city. He and Edward made the trek through Squibb Park for fifteen years, until Ed passed last year. Now John came by himself, for the memories of his partner, and for the view. Ed had loved this city, the bridge, and his love for this bustling hive of humanity had transferred to John.

    John was not alone. Other people, older folk, ambled along the trails and paths of the park. Not paying attention, he suddenly heard “Hey!” from behind. His collision with another chubby, grey headed, old man, left him on his side, gasping for breath.

    The man, stooped, offered a hand, and asked, “You OK?”

    Looking up at the hand being proffered, John thought, “Now what?” He had seen this fella a few times, and had wondered how to say hello. Taking the hand John managed to get to his feet and got his breath back.

    “Cecil.”

    “Hi Cecil, John.”

    “Mornin’ John. You going to be ok? Live nearby?”

    “Yeah, just a block or two north.” John took a tentative step and winced. “Damn, ankle.”

    “Sprain?”

    “Nah, ain’t that bad. Broke it when I was young and stupid and it gives me fits now and then.”

    “I live up that way too. Let me walk that way with you. Want a coffee?” Cecil said.

    “Bailey’s?”

    Cecil grinned at John and said, “Hurting that bad?”

    “Oh, nah, I meant for coffee,” John grinned back. “Though a shot of Bailey’s might help.”

    “Ok. Just moved here. Lost my partner three months ago, and don’t know where things are yet.”

    “I lost my partner last year, but decided to stay.” John said.

    “Partner?” asked Cecil.

    “Yes, Edward,” John said and braced for the impact.

    “Tom, nearly 30 years,” Cecil replied.

    “A little over 15 for us.”

    “Long time, big loss. So, buy you a coffee at Bailey’s? Come up to my place and I can add the other Bailey’s to it?” Cecil said.

    “Sure. Why not.”

    John and Cecil turned and walked, John limping a bit, back up the path in Squibb Park, getting to know each other.

    “Sky diving! That’s young and stupid? You went sky diving?” Cecil was heard to say as they continued up the path.

  • Here’s a description of a character in the novel I’m currently working on. The POV is of my protagonist, and the man being described is the one she eventually ends up marrying. .
    I chose option 1, describing a person without any physical description.
    He was a mystery. One obviously didn’t have to know him long to figure that out. He was the kind of person who, at first glance, was no different from anyone else in disposition or attitude. But if he talked for more than a couple of minutes, his attitude would start to change, like the front he put up was starting to melt away. It was at that point that he would end the conversation and leave, seeming afraid to reveal even the slightest truth of who he really was. All these reactions she had were from a mere 2 days of seeing him only a handful of times, but each meeting was the same. He was living a masquerade, and not a good one, at that. The only thing she knew for sure was that there was more hidden than even she could guess, and sooner or later, he wouldn’t be able to hold it back any longer.
    But what she also knew was that she could not help him. Only God could, and only if this man could let down his walls long enough to let God in.

  • NerdOfAllTrades

    I had been working for Jessica for a few months now, and I thought that I was starting to get a good feel for what a meeting would be before I entered her presence.

    Jessica was never the type to tolerate failure. It was a good sign that she had kept me waiting thus far – if I had been summoned directly into her office, it usually meant that I had done something wrong, and was going to get yelled at. Not yelled at in the sense that Jessica would raise her voice – Jessica never raised her voice, it would be uneconomical – but the edge that she could inject into her voice when she was disappointed with me could etch diamonds.

    It was also a good sign that I had received this invitation through the usual sources. Jessica did things by-the-book. I had only been summoned once in an unusual way – a phone call, directly from Jessica’s aide. That time, it had been to discuss someone else who had disappointed Jessica. Based on the orders Jessica had given me that day, I had made it my eternal purpose to never disappoint Jessica again.

    Finally, the time of the appointment was telling. The office was empty – even the aide had gone home, and the perennial buzz of activity that usually surrounded Jessica’s office (even, and especially, if there was no work that needed to be done) had been replaced with an eerie calmness. Jessica kept her business public; if this was business, she would have made sure that everything was visible. This had to be something personal, something that involved him and not the business – but what?

    I had closed my eyes to focus when the sound of her shoes against the marble echoed through the office with the precision of a metronome, or a bomb’s timer. When she spoke my name, she did so in a voice that could not be quieter without becoming a whisper, yet her enunciation was so perfect that, in that empty office, every subtlety could be heard, even as it echoed back upon itself. Her voice was as rich as caramel, as smooth as silk, but with that icy razor’s edge that indicated that someone, very shortly, would wish that they’d never been born. I sincerely hoped that it wouldn’t be me.

    • Captivating details, enthralling from the start of the story to the end. Not only did you do a good job of describing the character without using physical attributes of the character, but you did a good job of appealing to the senses, such as you did where in the last paragraph you wrote, “I had closed my eyes to focus when the sound of her shoes against the marble echoed through the office with the precision of a metronome, or a bomb’s timer.” I love the description here, because not only could I imagine the sound vividly, the descriptions were so effective, the sound of the womans heels dug under my skin as I was reading this piece. Well done.

  • Miguel

    Here it is…
    I have always characterized myself as the type of person who
    settles in life. For fear of embarrassment that would lead to self-loathing. Always
    finding implausible excuses to avoid feeling like a piece of excrement. I
    isolate myself from my family because I feel shame of them looking at what I
    think they think I am and I try to persuade my thoughts into believing that I
    don’t need them at all when the idea is completely false. The first sign of
    struggle I find in my life, all want to do is run for the hills and dropped
    everything.

  • Teresa Tysinger

    Thanks so much, Monica, for the tips. I have found it really useful…love tip #2! I’m linking your article today in a post on my blog about helpful tips from other authors. http://bit.ly/1BWYbEI Be well!

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  • Sheila B

    I often think that physical descriptins are superfluous and distracting. When reading I like to create my own images of the characters from their actions.

    Here is my exercise:

    The Neighbor

    My elderly neighbor Mr. George who never spoke to or even waved back as I passed him when he was out in his yard mowing the lawn, or pulling weeds, or sweeping the gutter, strode across the street, as soon as I pulled into my driveway that hot summer’s day. I was viewing him coming toward my car via my rearview mirror. He seemed on fire with intent and I immediately felt fear.
    What had I done to offend him I wondered?
    He was notorious for writing complaints to the Homeowners Association about others’ overgrown yards, yapping dogs, and cars parked facing the wrong direction. He called the police when teens had parties when their parents were out of town. A party to him was more than two unfamiliar cars parked in the neighborhood. Although he received invitations like all of us, he never attended the picnics in our local park. Besides his beautifully landscaped yard, he never displayed any kind of holiday decorations, not a wreath on the door, a candle in the window, or a flag flying, though there was a flag pole attached to the wall next to his garage door.
    I never saw anyone visiting. His wife was aninvalid, and I only saw her on a gurney when an ambulance came to take her to thehospital, or return her home. That event
    was repeating more often of late. I felt sorry for the Georges but after the first few months of being a new neighbor and all of my efforts to befriend him were always met with indifference if not disdain, I was not inclined now after several years to care in any meaningful way.
    I thought, “It’s probably the oil stains on my driveway he’s going to
    lecture me about.” I wanted to just grab my two bags of groceries and run inside, but Mr. George’s stride was long, and he was at my tailgate before I could conjure an exit strategy.
    “She’s dead,” he said, his voice completely different than I had ever imagined it, “she didn’t wake up from her nap today. And I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”

  • Sheila B

    it was interesting how many people who did this exercise used sound to describe characters.

  • Character Portrait Of Alfredo
    By Kiki Stamatiou a. k. a. Joanna Maharis

    Alfredo was a hardened soul throughout the earlier stages of his life, resulting from his father pounding his fists and voice of thunder into him, with the ambition to break his spirit. The more the fire from his father’s words came, the more Alfredo rebelled.

    Among his friends, he was charismatic and outgoing, but at home Alfredo, was rebellious, full of rage in his soul.

    Throughout the years, he went to bars where he’d often have drinks with his buddies. They’d go to wild parties where the young women who frequented such doings left much to be desired.

    One woman, who was less than virtuous, befriended Alfredo, becoming his confidant, until one day she left town, never to return until three years later.

    Upon hearing about her return, she never went to see Alfredo. He never received one phone call from her telling him she was in town.

    Finding out from a mutual friend about Elizabeth being in town for a short while, Alfredo went over to a friends house where he confronted her, crying, “Why didn’t you tell me you were in town. We’re friends. You never even came to see me. How could you do this to me?”

    “I’ve moved on with my life, Alfredo. I don’t need reminders of my past and who I was. Your problem is that your too clingy and too much of a downer. Go on and let me live
    my life,” she said flatly, as she threw him out of her friend’s house.

    Alfredo spends most of his time these days, visiting parks and ponds, carrying with him bags of bread he uses to feed the birds, squirrels and other little creatures gathering round him.

    He observes every detail about them with great fascination in his heart. Walking up to the little squirrels he puts his hand full of bread out to the squirrels waiting as they
    anxiously take the bread.

    Noticing Alfredo with his plastic bags full of bread, the geese flock around him as well. He walks up to the and gently puts the bread inside their beaks, treating them and the rest of the little creatures in the park and near the pond like they were his children.

    When he’s not at the local parks or the pond, he likes to go to the north side of town to shoot some baskets by himself at the basketball court.

    At home, he spends his time in the basement of his house playing pool or ping pong against himself, keeping score, just to pass the time.

    Sometimes, he calls up his sister, aunt, grandmother, and uncle, to see how they are doing. They often call him to invite him to go along on their outings.

    © Copyright, Kiki Stamatiou, 2015

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