Visualizing Characters Through Description and Dialogue

When we watch a film, the characters are foisted upon us. The actors are the physical manifestations of the characters, and their accents, hair, faces, and clothes are no longer subject to our imagination. When the actor matches the ideal of the character, the audience is by and large content. But when the character does not match the actor, then the audience is disappointed. In order to avoid this, most authors describe their characters as soon as they are introduced, allowing the reader to form an image. Authors, while they are writing their stories, have very clear images of their characters, and their description is an important part of making the character come alive to the reader. If the reader cannot imagine what the character looks or sounds like, they can have difficulty identifying with the character. Identifying with a character is vital – without that connection, a reader can feel detached from the story.

Since everyone has a different way of imagining things, readers’ views of characters can vary greatly. Some will see a character as being physically attractive, others less so, and others will imagine the personage as being quite plain. However, basic things can be imposed – and author can give a clear picture of a character’s sex, height, eye colour, hair and skin, build, and clothing. However, when describing a character, the author has to walk a narrow line between giving too little and too much information.

Different genres of books deal with physical descriptions in vastly different ways. It’s almost a given that a book focusing on romance will describe a character all throughout the book. It’s a manifestation of falling in love. When we fall in love, we think, dream, fantasize about our love interest extensively. Therefore, romance readers will readily identify with endless descriptions of the physique and emotions of the characters. But readers need to project their ideals upon the character. Too much description can leave some readers feeling frustrated, especially as the book progresses. Describing the characters over and over leaves very little to the readers’ imagination. The same with clothes – unless the character is defined by the clothing or the clothing is important to the story, it’s best to be sparse with detail at risk of sounding like a fashion magazine (admittedly, some readers like this).

In science fiction or horror stories, the characters are lavishly described to the reader once at the beginning of the book in order to set the tone of the story.

In murder mysteries, it’s important to visualize the detective and often the victim as well, so that the reader can identify with one or the other.

In children’s books, characters tend to be simply but well-described, along with their traits of character. Pippi Longstocking comes to mind, her description never varies: Pippi is red-haired, freckled, unconventional and superhumanly strong – able to lift her horse one-handed. She is playful and unpredictable. With that, the author has given the reader all he or she needs to know to imagine the character.

Most of all, description should be like a slightly blurred photo that uses the reader’s mind to add the details to bring it into focus.

Accent too plays a part – unless the dialogue is written in the vernacular the reader will hear his or her own voice, with only slight variations. For English readers, for example, Americans will hear American accents, British the British accent, and so on. And even if an American reader is reading a book set in London, the American reader will not superimpose a British accent over the dialogue unless prompted by spelling.

‘Ow, sow lover-ly sittin’ absa-bloomin’-lootly still,’ Eliza Doolittle croons, as she sits in her chair and imagines lots of ‘cowl at noight and lots of ‘eat’. The movie ‘My Fair Lady’ shows us how she looks and sounds – but in the book, only creative spelling can show us ‘ow, er, how, she sounds.

Too much creative spelling can lose a reader. Interest is held just as long as it’s possible to read a story and follow it without having to stop and try to figure out what the author meant. Dialogue written in the vernacular has to be near perfect – it’s better for a beginning writer to try to portray a subject’s accent in small doses. However, a character can be completely identified by speech patterns. If I write; ‘Use the accent sparingly, you must’, a certain Yoda springs to mind!

Punctuation is another thing an author can use to show what a character is feeling. Exclamation marks, dashes, italics, cut off sentences, etc., are all part of the manifestation of a character’s personality. Punctuation in a dialogue can show a reader what a character is feeling better than just telling the reader what the character feels. Use exclamation points as sparingly as possible – too many, and the reader feels yelled at!

Here is an exercise for you; write a short (2 or 3 lines at the most) paragraph introducing and describing the same character for different genres: romance, science fiction, YA (or children’s book), mystery. You can even add a line of dialogue if it helps describe the character as well.

Have fun!

Here is an older post along the same lines, with some comments by readers:

And if you want to post your descriptions in the comment section, go ahead! I will be happy to read them!