Characters and setting are the two components of story that usually have some form of description attached to them. Of the two, character descriptions often need to pull double-duty as they occur during the first few pages of a story as a sort of ‘introduction’ between the reader and the character.
A common way of doing this is using a mirror to describe a character. In itself it isn’t a bad option, but the usage of it has lead to the mirror description feeling a little cliche simply from overuse. As with anything in writing however, it can be used, but you may need to put a unique twist on it.
Otherwise, you might need to try finding a way to get a character description in that doesn’t involve them analyzing their own appearance. So here’s a few ways to get you thinking on how to do that.
As an exercise: Do all of these away from the story, as if they just randomly happened in the day-to-day lives of your character.
Active Descriptions often use motion and action to really show off both character and personality.
- Describe your character as they try to fit in a space that is too small for them. Think outside the box on this one–why not have your 6″2′ character trying to squeeze into a coach seat on an airplane? Or your teenage character stubbornly trying to get into their favorite shirt from four years ago?
- Describe your character chasing after a lost dog and then again running away from a dangerous criminal. The key here is to think about what the goal is. For the dog, they’re after something, so it’s a good place to show off their physical abilities as they chase Fido. For the criminal however, think of what they’d do to survive, and focus on the parts of their description that reflect that.
- Describe the character at a sports game. Are they on the field, or cheering from the bleachers? How involved are they and what would everyone around them notice?
Quiet Descriptions focus more on ticks and habits your character has and can help characterize them right from the start.
- What do they do when they hear a pen clicking repeatedly while trying to study or work? Or are they the one clicking the pen? Depending on the situation, this can show how they feel about the activity in question, as well as helping show how in-control they are of their emotions (especially if you bring in a confrontation with the pen-clicker).
- On a sleepless night, what would they do to try and sleep? The choices they make when they realize they can’t get to sleep and the steps they take to try and correct that offer insight into their history and personality. Cups of hot milk might be a good choice for some, but others might skip that and go right for the sleeping pill. Still other characters might very well accept their fate and use those sleepless hours to get work done.
- Describe your character as they try to calm down from a: fit of rage, crying spell, severe nerves. What do they do for each of these, and how does their response change with each emotion?