How to Describe Characters

We are all guilty of it. The boring, ho-hum character description—brown eyes, brown hair, tall, or thin.

I’m preparing class notes for my Writing in the Pines retreat this weekend. When we aren’t eating and writing, we will be talking about characters and scene. I’m digging through my favorite books to find great descriptions I can use as examples. One of my favorite go-to authors is A. Manette Ansay. She’s written some great novels (Vinegar Hill, Sister, Blue Water, River Angel) and even a memoir titled Limbo. I often search Ansay’s books for examples because she is a master describer of setting and characters. In one of her books (sorry, I can’t remember which)she has a minor character who only comes into the book a few times. It would be so easy to forget who this character is, except that Ansay did something I think is brilliant. Whenever the character appears she is wearing an awful winter scarf. A scarf knitted into raised piano keys of black and white across its length.

As soon as the ratty, piano-key scarf is mentioned, I know exactly who she is. The scarf is a cue to the reader that jars your memory and immediately places the character in your mind. Brilliant! Simple! But so effective.

So this Friday night at the writing retreat when we are all gathered around the fire pit eating s’mores, we will be talking about characters, real and imagined. And I’ll be telling the story of the piano key scarf. Wish you could be there to join in the conversation. But don’t worry, I’ll be sure to eat a few extra s’mores for you.

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