Describing your character: The power of a single detail

Alexander has red hair and hazel eyes.

His cheeks are fuzzy with stubble.

He wears a button-down shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms.

On his wrist is a watch.

These details build a picture in your mind of a man named Alexander. But what they don’t do is make him feel like a unique, living, breathing human being.

That is, not until you lean close — and smell the chlorine coming off his still-damp hair, from his morning swim.

And only then does Alexander start to rise up from the page, giving you a clearer sense of his life and personality.

Why is that?

The initial details about Alexander’s hair color, eye color, and clothes aren’t very unique or surprising. They’re kind of… expected, and easy. They’re things writers often reach for — the things you notice about a stranger who bumps into you on the street.

The chlorine in his hair, in contrast, is an intimate, closely-observed detail.

And that intimacy is a powerful thing.

Specific, closely-observed details bring characters to life, because they tell a story about the character — cuing us into what makes them a unique human being.

Writing multiple details like this in your descriptions is ideal, but even just including one as a “tent-pole” descriptor can help your characters come to life like never before.

How to find a good tent-pole detail

My approach for finding a good, closely-observed tent-pole detail is to start with a general understanding of the character, and then riff on various details that could illustrate their personality or background. More often than not, these details start out broad or miss the mark, but if you keep tweaking and probing to make them more specific, your character’s unique personality will eventually start to shine through.

For example, in one of my previous posts about writing interesting characters, I describe a character named Sal as having “wispy blonde hair, knotted up in a bun with a mechanical pencil.”

That mechanical-pencil messy bun was my tent-pole detail (which I supported with others, like wire-frame glasses sitting askew on her nose and a Metallica sticker on her phone case). But I didn’t have her hairstyle figured out right away.

At first, all I had was my desire for Sal to have a bit of a messy, no-fuss look (to reflect her personality), so my initial description went something like: “She wore her wispy blonde hair in a messy bun.“

But that wasn’t unique or specific enough. So I thought about how to make her messy bun more distinct. That’s when I recalled a friend of mine who once tied her hair up with a pencil. Adding a pencil made things more interesting, but it still felt a bit too trendy for Sal. So I twisted it to be more offbeat — making it a mechanical pencil.

And there it was. Suddenly, I had the detail I was looking for, and while the rest of my details helped flesh Sal out, it was her hairstyle that ultimately elevated her description into something truly unique to her character.

You can do the same.

Simply dig deep to find what makes your characters unique, and put what you find on the page.

Then watch as your characters come to life through description.

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