Description can be a difficult thing to get right, and yet it can be the backbone of any story. If you want your readers to become absorbed in what you’re writing, it’s important that you describe your characters and setting well. I’ve found that you can easily insert description of your setting while having a character travel or simply study his or her surroundings. But describing a character can be a bit more difficult. Should you have your main character look in the mirror one morning and ruminate on his appearance? Should you take an omniscient approach and describe your character from above? And how much description should you include? How do you know which characteristics to describe?
Author Ursula K Le Guin had this to say about description: “It’s not just facial features—a way of moving, a voice quality, can ’embody’ a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again…. To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.”
I think this is great advice from Le Guin. If you’re having trouble with your own characters, look at the characters around you and try to describe them. Describe your family members, your friends, and even strangers. Eventually you’ll start noticing characteristics that are particularly intriguing, and which lend color and flavor to the people you’re writing about. A well-placed detail can help even a minor character pop, as Le Guin says above. You can even harvest some of these characteristics to use for the people in your story. You might want to start jotting down verbal tics or mannerisms that you observe to keep for later.
So, don’t worry about describing every last physical attribute of your characters, or even what they wear each day. To really make your characters interesting and memorable, choose mannerisms and other features that will distinguish them from the pack. These are the characters that will endure in your readers’ minds and, ultimately, be more interesting for you to write about as well.
— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan