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How to write descriptions of people

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Tips on how to write descriptions of people

For some, writing just seems to come naturally, like those annoying people that can sit down at a piano, play around with it for a few minutes, and then dive into something by Mozart. For the remainder of us, writing is something that takes practice and a willingness to learn; to elicit and take feedback for what it is, a chance to improve.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing is accurately, and even more importantly effectively, describing the people and places around us. Sounds easy, but being able to convey a mood, a sense of who a person is by their description is an acquired talent for most.

Knowing how to write descriptions of people is one of the keys to being an effective story-teller, whether you write fiction or non-fiction.

I’m reminded of a line in a book by Tom Clancy, one of my favorite authors until he started writing books with movie adaptations in mind; but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, he wrote in one of his books “…when you shook his hand, you knew there was a man at the other end…” or something along those lines.

The point being that he didn’t mention anything about the size of the hand, the smoothness or coarseness of the skin or anything along those lines, and yet it gave the reader a clear image of what this guy was all about. Therein lies the rub: how to give readers a sense of a person in a way that keeps them engaged.

With (all) that said, here are a few things to consider when writing descriptions of people.

First and foremost, write with all the senses in mind, not just the specific attributes. In other words, show don’t tell.

For example, skin isn’t “perfect,” it’s “…milky white…” Perfect doesn’t evoke a picture as clearly or descriptively as milky white.

Next, ask yourself why you’re writing the description, what is it you want to pass on to the reader? Do you want the person portrayed as kind, mean, angry, humble? Let’s say your objective is to describe your Mom and her cheery outlook on life:

“Somehow, the lines around her eyes made them sparkle all the more. Here’s a lady that doesn’t take herself to seriously, I thought to myself…” What picture did that evoke? Hopefully, an image of a woman with a good sense of humor and a fairly positive outlook on life. We don’t know what color her eyes are, if their too close together or too far apart, but we do know about her.

A couple of other considerations; use adjectives to describe an attribute or emotion. As with the example above, skin isn’t perfect, it’s tan or milky white.

Also, try and avoid words like “beautiful” “splendid” or “delicious.” These aren’t descriptive, they are the result of SOMETHING, but what?

Descriptions of people that share with the reader what makes the face of a young child beautiful are effective, not simply that it is. An example: “Her face glowed with an innocence only a child can feel…” says more to the reader than “She’s beautiful girl.”

When it’s all said and done (and it nearly is), descriptions of people should evoke an image and elicit an emotion from the reader.

Simply describing features? That’s what a police sketch artist is for.

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