Mirror, mirror – 5 perspectives on character description

I’ve recently read all three of Gillian Flynn’s novels (Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl) and I’d recommend them all. Great plots, nasty characters and some excellent writing. I’ve been particularly struck by the way she paints vivid physical descriptions of all her characters, major and minor. Here’s an example from Dark Places:

On the sidewalk, some old guy, his face a confusion of wrinkles, his nose and mouth looking like they were molded out of a twist of clay, scowled at them once and walked into the bar.

I love that. And this one:

…the skin on her face diamonded like a snake

And this one:

He had features that were too delicate to be attractive on a man. Men shouldn’t have rosebud lips.

Flynn’s descriptions stand out because of her word choices and her attention to detail. But also because they are ‘in voice’. They’re descriptions coloured by the point of view of the character meeting the person and for me this makes them ring true. It also inspires today’s prompt.

To find a fresh approach to your character descriptions try the following exercise. If you don’t have a character in mind, go to the mirror. You can be your own model. If you have a character but not a clear idea in your head of what he or she looks like, surf the internet for a face and figure that fit the bill. If you don’t have a character and can’t face the mirror, find a photograph or a picture in a magazine.

Once you have someone to study, grab a notebook. Jot down notes – phrases or whole sentences – describing this person from different points of view.

  1. An elderly motorist seeing your character being hit by a car
  2. A tired waitress finding your character crying in restaurant bathroom
  3. A frightened child that your character doesn’t know but wants to help
  4. A relative who secretly hates your character
  5. A disgruntled co-worker, watching your character stand up to make a presentation

Hopefully you’ll have found something new but if your character still doesn’t stand out, try making them more distinctive – give them a limp, a lazy eye, an unfortunate mole (or a fortunate one?) and run through the list again. Use all the five senses. Use similes. And don’t be daunted. This isn’t an easy prompt. For it to work you need to imagine five new characters to describe the one you actually want to write about. But imagining is a writer’s job after all. Go to it.

This entry was posted in description, developing characters, literature prompt, writing from life, writing prompts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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