No reader is interested in a character description that reads like a dossier—unless, of course, you use a dossier to describe a character in your crime novel. Tip: If you say “His _______ was ________” (His eyes were brown) or “She wore _________” (she wore golden chandelier earrings) or “He looked about ________ years old,” your description is probably a report. Do not simply report your character’s appearance; describe it.
Mistake #2: You overdo the description.
Her long hair fluttered in the wind like a pennant of brilliant gold, spun like silk and curling at the tips like the tops of unscrolling ferns. Her eyes flashed like spears of emerald green, glittering like steel but warm like the first leaf of spring. Her dress, the color of an autumn sunset over a lake, glimmered like a butterfly’s wing, and as her bare feet, with their well-manicured toenails, touched the earth, it seemed as though the very moss whispered a welcome.
Parts of this are acceptable, but overall, it is burdensome. Simile is piled on simile, and the reader does not know whether to think of a pennant, gold, silk, ferns, spears, leaves, sunsets, butterflies, or what. The collage of unrelated descriptive objects does not create a cohesive sense of the character.
Nobody really reads such descriptions. And, yes, I did throw in the toenails out of sheer mischief. If you didn’t fully read the verbose description and are now leaping back to find out what I said about her toenails, you’ve just proven my point.
Mistake #3: You use cliche descriptions.
If your heroine’s hair is golden and her eyes are like deep pools (or like the sky), you need to think more creatively. It’s not a matter of pulling out a thesaurus; it’s a matter of thinking outside the box.
Your best bet?
I’m not joking. If you have a random anthology of poetry on your shelf, read two or three poems before you attack the project of describing your character. It will save you so much editing later.
Mistake #4: You introduce the description too late.
Unfortunately, due to my mistake in this category, some of my family members believe that Character A in my novel has straight, blond hair, when I clearly explained in Chapter Seventeen that my character has curly, black hair. Now my wonderful character has been supplanted by someone else’s imaginary person. Learn from my mistakes. If you introduce a character, describe him or her in the same chapter.
Mistake #5: You describe your character in one chunk.
Writers call this “information download.” It doesn’t matter if the description is well-written and cohesive. It’s just too much all at once, like a dense chocolate cake whose very richness makes you unable to finish it. If you’ve ever read (or attempted to read) The Last of the Mohicans, you know what I mean. The descriptions are lovely, but they are also exhausting.
“Well, thanks,” you might say. “Now I know what not to do. But how do I know what I should do?”
You’re in luck. The Don’ts are over and the Do’s are the subject of my next post: The Best Way to Describe Your Character’s Appearance.