When we read books, books with characters we love, we can learn how to write our own characters by studying what details the writers included. There are so many details about your characters you could include in a character description, but which ones do you need?
Let’s look at the advice Stephen King gives in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft about good description and see if applies to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
6 Tips on Writing Exciting Character Description
When you write a story, you want your readers to believe that the characters you create are real. Well, I assume that is what you want. I hate when someone tells me what to think.
Except for Stephen King; he can tell me what to think about writing characters. I just don’t want him to tell me I should be a teacher so that in case my husband divorces me I will have a job to fall back on.
Here are the tips about character description King gives in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
1. Read a lot.
Good description is a learned skill, one of the primary reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read and write a lot.
I know, right? To learn how to write, we just can’t buy books on writing, we have to read actual stories and write a lot. Not just a little, but a lot.
Right now I spend more time cleaning the seven litter boxes than I do writing. Perhaps I need to read more?
2. Visualize what you want the reader to experience.
Okay, I can visualize what I want my reader to experience. Now what?
King says too little description leaves a reader bewildered and nearsighted. This would be really bad for any readers who wear glasses. He also says over description would bury the reader in details and images. We are supposed to use just enough description.
That is like telling me I need just enough baking powder in my cake recipe. However, if we use tip number one as related to cakes, I would have read a lot of recipes and made a lot of cakes, to figure how to write my own recipe. Too much baking powder would make my cake overflow the pan, and too little would make the cake not rise.
If I have read a lot of stories, I will know how much description is just enough.
3. Remember your main job.
Your readers did not pick up your book so that they could read lots of details about your characters. They picked up your book so you could tell them a story.
A little character description can be helpful, but always remember to focus on your primary job: tell your readers a story. You may even find that when you focus on the story, you don’t need much character description at all.
4. Use just enough detail.
Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.
What is the most important aspect of what your character looks like?
The reader doesn’t need a description of every button, ribbon, loose thread, or hair follicle. Include only the details that give the reader the most important aspects of the person in the story.
5. Leave room for imagination.
You do not need to tell your reader everything about your characters. Create a bond with your reader by leaving room for their imagination in your story.
J.K. Rowling didn’t describe in great detail what Harry Potter as a baby looks like. She didn’t describe Harry’s pudgy cheeks, or his hands, his tiny fingernails, his eyebrows, or eyelashes.
We can fill in the details of what we think a baby looks like from our imagination.
Rowling gave us room to in the story to connect to the character. She kept the story moving forward without boring us with details. She uses just the right amount of description, like a cake with just enough baking powder.
6. Write a lot.
I know. This tip was in the first tip, with read a lot. I repeated it because it is important, and it is the tip I need to be reminded of. I tend to read more than I write. And how can a writer get better at writing if they don’t write?
As Stephen King says, “You can only learn by doing.”
Other Writers’ Character Description
Now we know what Stephen King has to say about character description. But what about J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins? Do they follow King’s suggestions in the descriptions of their characters?
Who is Katniss Everdeen?
The first description of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is about her shoes:
I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet.
We know she hunts. Her ability to hunt is the most important detail about Katniss; it is the central theme of her story; it is what keeps her alive during the Hunger Games and in the rest of the series.
We don’t find out the color of her eyes until page eight. Collins describes Katniss by comparing her to her friend Gale:
He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes.
Who is Harry Potter?
What is the most important detail about Harry Potter when we first meet him in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Is it the color of his eyes, his pudgy cheeks? Nope.
Fill in the blank: The most important detail about Harry Potter is _____.
Did you say the scar on his forehead? You got it right!
When we first meet Harry, Rowling gives us two details: his hair color, and the scar on his forehead.
Under a tuft of jet-black hair over his forehead they could see a curiously shaped cut, like a lightning bolt.
The scar on Harry’s forehead is the most important detail about Harry’s appearance. It is the most important aspect of the book, of who Harry is, and the conflict of the entire series between Harry Potter and Voldemort.
We also find out from the title of the first chapter another important detail about Harry. He is The Boy Who Lived.
Like King and Collins, Rowling skips all the unimportant details and tells us the most important features of her characters immediately. We are not burdened or bored with too much information. Like baking powder in a cake, she has included just enough.
Read to Write
When we read books, books with characters we love, we can learn how to write by studying what details the writers included.
But of course, writers write. So write, writer.
How much character description do you think is necessary to include about the people in your story? Let us know in the comments.
I have a few options today for your practice.
Option Number One: Write for fifteen minutes about a person who is out looking for their lost cat. Think about what is the most important thing about their appearance? What details will help me visualize what you want me to see?
Option Number Two: Take fifteen minutes to write a scene introducing a character from a story you are writing right now. Or re-write a scene based on Stephen King’s tips.
Option Number Three: Take fifteen minutes to re-read the first chapter of a book you love and have read. Look for the description of the main character and observe how the author introduces them. What details did the author give?
When you are done, share your story or your observations in the comments below. Please also give feedback to your fellow writers so we can all learn and grow together.