on writing

On Character Desciptions: Actions vs Traits

Character descriptions are hard.

I don’t just mean the list of physical and emotional traits sort of description, either. No, I mean writing descriptions that convey the sense of the character beneath those initial adjectives. Descriptions that slide unnoticed into the midst of a narrative, as opposed to the quick and choppy bullet-points that fill the spaces on a character bio page.

A couple months ago I took a class on digital narrative (which was fascinating!) and we worked on character descriptions then. And one thing I noticed as we went around the room to share our pieces afterward was that the best descriptions have the fewest physical elements. They focused instead on personality and actions.

Once you understand how the person acts and moves and behaves, I suppose the rest just sort of falls into place.

Anyway. To wrap up, here’s the description that I wrote for this exercise:

Her eyes were not dark, despite her constant scowl and furrowed brow. Her skin was the South Hiran desert, rough and craggy and dry, aging her far beyond her years. She dressed practically. Her soft brown leathers were flexible and contained a plethora of pockets. She carried everything with her.

You could determine a lot from the way she wore her hair. The single braid down her back was most common for the everyday; a hasty bun indicated anxiety or anger; a more complicated braid about the crown of her head foreshadowed a new job. I had only seen her wear it loose once, the brown waves shining in the flickering light of a midnight fire.

She was strong. Years of climbing had trained her muscles and given her much-needed discipline. She once told me that her only moments of true peace had been found while clinging to a cliff-face far above the ground. I suppose it was like meditating, for her.

She loved the sky. That’s why she climbed, I think: it was a drive to escape both the pull of the Earth and the memories that bound her.

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