About Writing

Character Descriptions

The other day I asked my husband, “What the heck does it mean when people describe eyes as ‘almond-shaped’?”

So he pulled up some references on drawing eyes and explained the differences, before grabbing some photographs for me to guess which shape the eyes would be.

I proved that I will never be a visual artist when I described them all as, “eye-shaped.”

A lot of writers describe characters like they’re sitting next to a sketch artist, who wants to know just how wide their forehead is in relation to the height of their nostrils and all that, but personally I’m not visually oriented enough to pull that off. I like to joke that I would make a terrible witness to a crime, because my description would be along the lines of, “He looked like an evil horse, only with fish eyes . . . no, I haven’t the slightest clue how tall he was.”

When I look at someone, I don’t notice many physical details; I think of them in metaphorical and emotional terms instead. That’s why I think that all eyes are ‘eye-shaped,’ but some of them are more fish-like than others.

Everyone is going to picture something different when they visualize my horsey villain, but the mental image will tickle the fancy far more than “long face and wide-set eyes.” I care more about amusement than pedantry when it comes to my craft.

The next time you write a character description, don’t try to force Brad Pitt’s face on all your readers — it’s okay to step back, paint with broad strokes, and say something different. Let your readers choose for themselves what they want to imagine. A story that asks for a little thought in return will be far more engaging than one that spoon-feeds every detail.

If I were an artist…


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