P. D. Wright

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Writing a Description of Your Main Character in First Person

Well, I suppose I should start with it’s been a long, long while.  I honestly have been thinking about blogging for several months now, but I didn’t know what to say.  Then an innocent question posted on my writer’s group forum spurred this monstrous reply and I thought, “Well, I guess I can make my comeback blog post about this!”  If any of you have been waiting, or watching, or lingering, I am (hopefully) back at least for now.  :D

I know a lot of other authors have tackled this on their blog, but I thought I’d throw my two-cents in.  These are my special secrets! (OK, everyone uses them, but I am very pleased with the outcome every time I use these techniques, and anyone who doesn’t know how to do this might find this interesting).

The question was asked about a male character in a fantasy world, so please excuse if all my examples seem focused on fantasy.

As a writer who writes primarily first person POV I know a few tricks to adding descriptions to your main character – whether or not I manage to implement them properly is another story all together, but I am familiar with them and that has to count for something.  :D

1.  Introduce your character’s appearance slowly (well, slowly as in using different sections of the first chapter).  Start with her/him/them noticing one aspect of themselves as they walk, i.e., “My tunic, as always, was stained with ink from (whatever the reason).”  A little later, “Strands of brown hair fell into my face, obstructing my view.  I pushed my hair back in exasperation.”  And a little later again, “I’d always towered over the kids my own age, and most of the adults, but this person left me feeling dwarfed in their presence.”  Or, if they ARE the tallest person in the room, “As always, I seemed to tower over everyone else, unconsciously I found myself slouching, attempting to remove the distance between us.”

Your FIRST descriptor should be something that tells us about not just how the character looks, but also their personality.  In fact, I think all descriptors should incorporate personality, but your first should show a key part of the character’s personality.  Are they a slob?  Describe their messy clothes.  Are they proud?  Describe their good looks.  Are they average?  Describe their plain hair and non-descript appearance (haha).  Are they kindhearted?  Describe how they mute their extraordinary appearance in an attempt to not stick out.

2.  As you noticed in one of my examples above, a great way to introduce height is to compare it to other people’s – after all, in a fantasy world, 5’6″ isn’t going to mean much and in a futuristic sci-fi world it might be better to use centimeters (which won’t mean much to your American readers).  The trick to this is providing a full comparison – if your character is very tall, have them tower over everybody, if they are just tall for a kid, have them ALMOST as tall as an adult.

One of the biggest mistakes I had in the first version of my current WIP was not providing a full comparison to properly get out the fact that my character was supposed to be short.  I had a character standing nearly a head taller than her, but what I regretted to include was that all of the adults in her village were taller than her.  It leaves the reader wondering if she’s short or if the other character is just a giant.

Comparisons can also work for non-height descriptors.  For example, “I wiped my hand on my tunic, leaving another dark ink mark upon the already stained cloth.  My master was so fastidious about his appearance; I’d often wondered how he managed.  Wasn’t he using the same inks as me?”

A good comparison will provide insight into not only your character’s personality, but also the personalities of the characters they are comparing themselves to.

3. Girls are easier to deal with in first person than boys.  At least as far as descriptions go.  I’ve never once met a girl who was completely thrilled with how she looked, and girls tend towards the over-dramatic when it comes to their imperfections.  “I was short – petite as my mother liked to say – but it often left me feeling like a child lost in a sea of adults.”  Or even, “My parents had both stopped growing at a reasonable height, but like a weed, I continued to grow.  I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before I towered over even the boys in the village, and then no one would have me.”

4.  You can use others’ expectations for your character to describe your character.  “Because of my tall, muscular frame, my mother had always thought I’d become a blacksmith or a guard, and certainly I was built for such labor.  I think I broke her heart when I entered an apprenticeship for a scribe.”

Just as comparisons can add to other character’s personalities, a good expectation line can tell myriads about them.  From the previous line we get that his mother was invested in her child’s future, wanted him to go into physical labor, perhaps desired the prestige of a child in the palace guard, and didn’t like to be contradicted.

5.  If all else fails, you can incorporate a mock-mirror scene by having the character look into a pool of still water.  This is a weak way to add description, at the very least, but if you can’t come up with another way to manage it, this is a possibility.

REMEMBER: you have the entire first chapter to introduce your character.  Do it a little at a time.  I know a lot of people want to know what they look like right away, but as long as you do it early enough in the story, your reader will easily redevelop their vision of the character.  If a description comes in chapter 3 or 4 you run the risk of having your reader refuse to envision the character as you do, which can lead to complications when you attempt to use descriptors.  “I brushed a strand of brown hair out of my eyes.”  Who’s putting brown hair in your blonde character’s eyes????

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