Our readers’ first encounters with our characters usually come from the outside–through descriptions of their manner, clothing, or physical appearance. By choosing details carefully, we can be sure that this first impression will be vivid and memorable. These details should create a visual image that allows the reader to “picture” the character, reveal something about the person behind the visual image, and show the reader something unique and interesting about that character. Something that will make readers keep turning pages to learn more: Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…but it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw…her eyes were pale green..her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia skin. With this opening description Margaret Mitchell shows the contradiction between Scarlett’s appearance and her willful nature.
Writers can also use a character’s reaction to her own appearance to indicate personality. How does your character feel about his or her appearance? Depressed? Envious of others who seem more attractive? Or proud and vain? Remember the scene in which Scarlett tells Mammy to keep cinching her corset, because “I simply must have my 17 inch waist again.” What does this tell us about Scarlett’s character?
A writer might also use a character’s manner of dress to indicate personality. How does your character dress? In sweat pants and flip flops? In sharply- creased khakis and loafers worn without socks? In an expensive designer suit?
What about personal mannerisms? Does your character file each piece of paper as it comes across her desk? Fold her bath towels using the uber- precise Martha Stewart method? Does she walk with her head down, swing her arms, hold her handbag in a vise like grip? All can be clues to character.
A few well-chosen details are more compelling than too many. Pick two or three that make your character intriguing, and leave your readers wanting more.