Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Lynn Chandler Willis: Character Description

Lynn Chandler Willis

Above plot, dialogue, setting, style and anything else you want to add, the heart of a good story is the characters. There are many ways to make your characters leap off the page and into your readers’ hearts. One of my favorite ways is to add description. Not just “he had red hair” description but in-depth, down to the soul description. You're the creator of this character—their DNA is in your hands and it's up to you to show it to the reader.

How to add physical description without it looking like a grocery list:
He has red hair. How red was his hair? Candy-cane red or blaze orange? There’s a difference. Did he also have freckles? Many red-heads do, you know. Pale or tanned or sunburned? Many redheads easily sunburn. Perhaps he smells
like sunscreen. Does he like his red hair? Maybe he has a perpetual frown because he longs to be dark-headed?

How to add to the characterization without the reader knowing it:
What kind of clothing is he wearing? A business suit? Jeans and a t-shirt? Even the t-shirt can tell a reader something about your character. Does it have a logo?  Nike—he may be athletic. Duck Commander—he may be an outdoorsman and hunter. Grateful Dead—may be an aging hippie, music lover, art student, yard sale shopper. Does his shirt have a funny saying on it? Is it political? Sexy? Redneck humor? Any one of these shows the reader who the character is without telling them he is a business man.

How to bring a character to life:
So now the reader knows our character has orange hair, freckles and is wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. What else can we add to bring him to life? A limp? A stutter? A scar? Was he born with that limp or did his foot fall asleep from sitting cross legged while meditating? Is the limp a war injury? A football, basketball, or car-racing injury? A personal injury lawsuit in the works? Or maybe he’s not really injured…. All of the above helps bring a character to life. And, it can be done in a few short sentences.

Example: His hair looked like tiny orange spikes pushing through the top of his head. A Grateful Dead t-shirt stretched across his sagging belly. He shuffled over to the counter, a painful limp contorting his grizzled face. “‘Nam,” he said as if that explained it all.

This character has now become real, a three dimensional being rather than a stick figure. The reader now has a vivid image of what he looks like, how old he is, and a glimpse into his past without even realizing it. The description didn't need to drag on for paragraphs—everything the reader needed to know at the moment was shown to them in a few sentences.

So the next time you come to writing a character description, don't tell the reader the man was wearing a hat. Show us he was wearing a NY Yankees ball cap, backwards.

The Rising:

A little boy, beaten and left to die in an alley.  A cop with a personal life out of control. When their worlds collide, God intervenes. Detective Ellie Saunders's homicide investigation takes a dramatic turn when a young victim "wakes up" in the morgue. The child has no memory prior to his "rising" except walking with his father along a shiny road. Ellie likes dealing with facts. She'd rather leave all the God-talk to her father, a retired minister, and to her partner, Jesse, a former vice cop with an annoying habit of inserting himself into her life. But will the facts she follows puts Ellie's life in mortal danger? And will she finally allow God into her heart forever?

About the Author:

Lynn Chandler Willis is the author of the bestselling True Crime book Unholy Covenant (Addicus Books, 2000), Grace Award finalist The Rising (Pelican Book Group, 2013), and the forthcoming Wink of an Eye, winner of the 2013 St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best 1st PI Novel competition. It will be released by Minotaur Books Nov. 2014.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Welcome to Write Right, Lynn! I enjoyed your post. Characterization is such an important part of making a story come alive. I know this will be helpful to lots of writers.


  3. Good tips! For me the challenge in describing characters is to make sure I give enough but not too much, allowing the reader to picture the character in her own way. Was it Stephen King who said that it is the author's goal to cause the reader to picture his own third grade teacher not the author's?

    1. Stephen King has some awesome advice, doesn't he? I hadn't heard that one, but it is absolutely true. A valid point. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for the character picture, Lynn. I'm always challenged to use other senses in description besides what the POV character "sees" in another character. And I have a long way to go with that.

  5. Thanks everyone for the comments! Sorry so delayed - grandson's baseball game :) I'm a firm believer that the best description happens when the reader isn't aware they've just been told the main character is 35 years old, yet somehow they realize it later on.