Stephen King said:
We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) … I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.
This is from a list of his quotes about writing. It makes me want to watch his Epic Rap Battle.
Here are what my husband would call my “quick and dirty” resources. These are the pages I use the most.
1 – Writing with Color: Words to Describe Hair
I found this article extremely helpful. It again not only lists hair colors, textures, and styles, but it also notes the terms that are offensive. I would think, however, that words like unkempt and unruly go without saying. When unkempt is used, I think an old homeless man with a beard that house a birds nest.
2 – Obsidian Bookshelf’s How to Describe Eyes
Stale eye descriptions aren’t difficult to locate. Here is a good starting point.
My favorite description of eyes is Tolkien’s description of Treebeard’s hazel pair. He wrote that they were like ancient ponds in a wood reflecting their mossy greens and deep bark browns.
3 – Writing Help’s 55 Words to Describe Someone’s Voice
Most characters have dialogue. Make your characters voices feel audible to the reader.
4 – Reference for Writer’s Describing Body Types
In my reading I have often noticed George R. R. Martin describing heavier characters as jowly. What does a character’s build say about them, if anything ? Is their body being observed by a different character? What does the observation mean? How do other characters treat them because of their appearance?
Quote by Martin. Image by Blackwater Rush.
5 – Writing With Color: Description Guide Skin Color
This article discusses skin tones and comparisons that are not offensive. To sell the most books possible it stands to reason that you’ll want to appeal to the most readers possible. Don’t offend entire ethnic groups.
Several novels I’ve read lately have assumed you know the majority of the characters are white. One didn’t bother to describe the main character at all except to say he’s tall and thin. The second waited until the third act to discuss the physical changes he’d underwent. I had chosen in my naïveté to imagine him differently.
These terms aren’t listed in the article about skin, but I feel the need to rant: don’t describe my skin tone as bloodless, glow-in-the-dark, or paper white. Doing so will vex me, white privelege and all. Lily white also hits a nerve with me. It brings to mind “lily livered”, and feels like I’m being lumped with cowards because of my appearance.
This probably won’t help you describe, but the Pantone chart for human skin tones is intriguing.
The Platinum Rule of Descriptions and the Estée Lauder Lady
The concept that we should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” permeates Western Culture. The platinum rule goes one step further:
Treat others the way they want to be treated.
An older Estée Lauder sales lady at a Peebles department store told me when I was shopping for makeup for my wedding several years ago, “Well, you’re just one pale puppy. We don’t sell much makeup in your shades.” She proceeded to suggest I visit a tanning bed to look better for my wedding and match their products.
My challenge to you is don’t be the Estée Lauder sales lady. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer you are relaying what you behold in your mind’s eye with your standards of beauty and prejudices. Be honest, be evocative, but please ask, “Would this description be hurtful to someone who actually looks like this?”
Some people have dealt with cruelty and micro-aggressions their entire life simply because of the way sunlight refracts off their outer shell. Not all people are thin, tan, young bastions of Western Beauty. That doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful by other standards, different perceptions.
What character description stands out in your mind?
What resources do you use for describing characters?