Monday, April 2, 2012

Crafting a Creative Character Description

When introducing a character, many writers begin and end with a list of the physical traits of the character: eye or hair color, height, etc. Try a different approach: direct commentary. Say something about this character’s effect on the world around him or her.

Illustration by Eric Brace
Please Write in This Book
Listen to Roald Dahl capping off his description of the formidable Miss Trunchbull in Matilda: “Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush—climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away.”

In The Whipping Boy, Sid Fleischman doesn’t tell us what the prince looks like. Instead he says: “The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path.

For your next personal writing project, choose one character to receive special treatment. Ask: How do others see or respond to this character? Write a sentence or two about the character’s effect on the world.

If you're a teacher, here's how to approach this lesson.
1. Read the above examples first.
2. Choose a character from a book you've all read and brainstorm commentary about the character. If your students are too young to understand the concept of commentary, try using the term "gossip." If you were gossiping to someone else about this character, what might you say?
3. Ask your students to do this with a character in one of their own stories.

Have fun coming up with surprising ways of making characters come alive.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post. It came at a perfect time - my fourth grade students are in the process of creating their characters for a realistic fiction story. I look forward to trying this idea out.

  2. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

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  3. Hi Mary,
    You always offer such useful info! I'm in the midst of writing a short story in first person and will try this exercise on my main character. But I wonder if you could suggest a way of using this kind of description in a first-person narrated story--overheard gossip? something read on a school transcript? It's especially hard to get a character to describe him/herself!

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