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Description: Fiction Characters

By Sherry Soule

Description is tough to write. Many writers neglect to add character descriptions to the narrative in order to enrich their scenes. Some writers add too much description with long, wordy blocks of exposition. These types of descriptive info-dumps are also called core dumps, expository lumps, and death to the reader.

Avoid creating a long, laundry list by using tedious descriptive words or doing an info-dump to depict a character. It slows the pace and smacks of author intrusion. Now, I know some of you will argue that other published writers do this, but it is still jarring to the reader and in most cases, readers will just skim over it.

A clever writer skillfully tucks the description into the narrative by lacing it through action and dialogue. Don't forget to engage all the senses. Most writers only describe how things look by telling, but you should always strive to SHOW instead. How does panic affect the body? How is fury revealed in a character's actions? What does meeting an attractive stranger do to your senses? Go ahead and be audacious.

Each time a new character is introduced, the writer needs to provide the reader with a visual illustration. It does not have to be a lengthy description of the character, a few key words or action tags can SHOW a reader, too. The right blend of description, dialogue, introspection, and action can create a strong image for the reader. It will involve them in the story and enhance the atmosphere and mood. Poor descriptions can leave the reader grappling for a visual and feeling disconnected from the characters and the scene.

I'm going to include some examples to show you what I mean. This first example is boring, like a tedious list and too wordy.

Bad example:

Sam glanced up from his comic book. A fat man with stringy dark-brown, brown eyes, and a bulbous nose walked into the bookstore. The man was wearing jeans with thick socks and Birkenstock sandals and a faded T-shirt with Aerosmith printed across the top. The fat man walked with a limp across the room, past the bookcases and toward Sam.

"Can I help you?" Sam asked as the man approached.

"Here to pick up my book," he said, loudly.

"Sorry, this week's order hasn't come in yet. Do you wanna give us a call next-"

The man leaned across the counter, and glared into Sam's astonished face. "Whaddya mean my book didn't come in yet?" he asked, raucously.

Sam opened his mouth to respond but stopped.

Then the guy straightened up and tugged down his long shirt with a thick hand. "Now. Where's my book?" he repeated.

Now this is a "better" example of how to lace in description with dialogue and action. Hopefully, a bit more showing and I tried to include a few of the 5 senses.

Better Example:

The bell over the door chimed and Sam glanced up from his comic book. He put it aside as the customer maneuvered around the bookshelves with a heavy limp. When he caught a glimpse of the man's clothing, Sam's eyebrows rose. It was the middle of summer and the guy had on jeans with socks and leather Birkenstocks. Crazy. It must be a hundred degrees today.

"Can I help you?"

"Here to pick up my book," he said.

"Sorry, this week's order hasn't come in yet. Do you wanna give us a call next-"

The stocky man leaned over the glass counter and glared at Sam. His stringy brown hair fell into his hazel eyes, and the man pushed it aside with a pudgy hand. He lowered his head, his breath soured by stale beer and cigarettes."Whaddya mean my book didn't come in yet?" His bulbous nose twitched with anger.

Sam's shoulders slumped. Great. Another pissed off customer. It's not my fault the freaking shipment is always late.

Before Sam could respond, the man straightened, tugging at the collar of his faded Aerosmith T-shirt in an attempt to collect himself. "Now. Where's my book on ritual human sacrifices, boy?"

Here's another example of a "bad" example of description with an info-dump and wordy sentences. This is a laundry list-boring!

Bad example:

Tad noticed a tall woman wearing a striped skirt with bare legs and high heels enter through the front doors of the building. She had green eyes. She examined the lobby. She was clutching the handle of her designer purse very tightly. She licked her red lips and then she frowned. Her short fluffy blond hair was styled in a feathery medium-length haircut and it rested on top of her slender shoulders. Her ivory shirt wasn't tucked in. There was some blood on the sleeve. She stared at the parking lot.

Then she spotted the security desk, and she walked across the marble-floored lobby toward Tad. He sat up and tried to straighten his uniform and his tie before she made it to the desk.

"May I help you, miss?" he asked with a smile.

Her hand rested on the top of the desktop. She had long red fingernails. Her lingering gaze bore into his, and Tad frowned and then he swallowed loudly.

"Can you please tell me what floor I can find, Stanley Martin's office?" she asked coldly.

This is the "better" version of how to lace in description with dialogue and action. Don't forget to add a few descriptive characteristics, such as the character's clothing, hair, facial expressions, scars, weight, or height. Add action to it to make it more interesting. Keep your writing tight and try to filter out any redundant phrases or words.

Better example (again, I tried to include the 5 senses):

A woman wearing a striped skirt, with the longest, smoothest legs, Tad had ever seen entered the building. Her emerald eyes searched the lobby, her hands clutching the handle of her Fendi purse tightly. She licked her red lips, the corners of her mouth tipping downward. She half turned, staring at the parking lot outside the sliding glass doors, muttering a curse. When she pivoted back around, he noticed her silk blouse was partially untucked. A splatter of blood on her ivory cuff.

Spotting the security desk, she glided forward, her flaxen hair styled in a feathery bob bouncing off her slim shoulders. Her high heels clacking against the marble floor, echoed like a shotgun going off in the quiet room.

Tad sat up, quickly adjusting his wrinkled uniform, and straightening his tie. A waft of exotic, flowery perfume reached Tad before she did.

"May I help you, miss?" He gave her a toothy grin.

She studied him for a second, a long ruby fingernail tapping the desk. Tad pressed his lips together and gulped. Damn, she's even sexier up close.

Her voice dripped like honey, "Can you please tell me what floor I can find, Stanley Martin's office?" She withdrew a 38. Special from her purse and pointed the gun at him. "And don't make me use this."

Now use these examples to improve your fiction story by sprinkling description throughout the action, dialogue, and introspection.





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