Describing character: gain perspective

Listen to this post and more on Spotify or

You, dear writer, have all those wonderful character sheets filled out with demographics: Jamie Dotter is, 29, 5’11”, blonde, Nordic features, muscular build, college degree from Wellsley College, law degree from Harvard, in her fourth year working as a lawyer with Grant, Hardy, and Iglesias, etc.

How on earth do you get it from the dry facts to something interesting on the page for readers to attach to? The inclination is to write it in directly. However, doing so leads quickly to info dump.

The true key to getting a character’s details across in a way that engrossing your reader is with relational and perspective-based descriptions that are important to the situation.

First, it’s seldom good writing to have a character describe themselves physically. It goes against point of view (unless they are looking in a mirror) and characterization (unless they are vain). So your characters should be described by others when in their point of view.

The trick is to only describe the things that this other character would notice, either because they are “a leg man” or “a butt girl” or to establish a comparison because they see the other as a rival. This includes not just physical looks, but also the way they move through a space, the way they speak, or interact with or carry things.

A self-centered person is not going to notice the young lawyer is overburdened with files – unless all those files suddenly drop from their arms, or slide off the top of the cart they’re pushing, or the cart is upset while riding over their toes because the young lawyer wasn’t looking where they were going and instead talking to a client on their cell phone pressed to their ear.

And emotions guide word choices. The title of the person might be “lawyer” but the snubbed business executive with the sore foot might demand to know “whose secretary are you?”

A jealous person might see a rival’s face as “coated with makeup” or “too angular.” But even a high-octave voice might be described as “dulcet tones” to someone who is in love. A disliked person is “screeching” when they yell, whereas a person who is liked by the point of view character might be described as simply having raised their voice.

High heels are just that to a person who notices shoes made a woman taller. “Fuck me heels” is the phrasing of someone who thinks the woman wearing the heels uses her sexuality as a weapon. A lover might use the phrase too, usually only on a date though. A romantic hopeful might see not the heels so much as how the heels make the woman’s legs look long and powerfully muscled, and off they go fantasizing about those legs wrapping around their hips.

Also word choice is an indication of how much a person cares about the other person they’re looking at. The choice of a nickname, the origin of that nickname, the choice to use it to their face or not. All these tell the reader about the person being observed, but tell the reader just as much about the point of view character’s opinions and feelings too. That many ties will hold the reader’s attention more securely than just the facts.

Also, if a character is not interested in fashion terms and trends, they’re not going to go on about the person they’re observing wearing Louboutins, or carrying a Gucci bag, or wearing that Dior fragrance, but rather they would simply note that the handbag matches their clothes and goodness, do they smell good – or bad – or they start choking because they’re allergic to perfumes.

An easy fix

One of the ways you can prepare for this is think not about how a character would describe themselves, or even fill out sheets with endless neutral facts, but how three different people would describe them:

1 – an enemy

2 – a friend

3 – a family member


Write about your main character doing something, but have one of the three types of people listed above be the actual point of view character. Focus your word choices on describing the main character on reflecting how the point of view character feels about the main character.

Share your efforts in a comment if you like and get feedback from me for free

Don’t forget, a scene’s goal is governed by the point of view character and their goal.

Happy writing!

~ Lara

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: