By Brooke Thompson
Character descriptions are much like scene descriptions and are just as essential for stories. Whether you are describing your main character or a supporting character, these descriptions signal to the audience what kind of person the character will be.
From stories for young kids to novels for young adults, “show, don’t tell” plays a huge factor in stories. Introducing a character through their appearance or behavior can really make or break them, so first impressions are everything.
Let’s look at a couple of examples in both children’s and young adult literature. These samples will come in handy especially if you are a hybrid author or self-publish your children’s books.
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How to Write Character Descriptions for Youngsters
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Character description for children 4-6 years old
In the book Miss Nelson Is Missing! by Harry Allard, he begins the story with a teacher who is at her wits’ end with her students. In order to get them to behave, she dresses up as the scary Viola Swamp.
Here’s the description Allard gives her:
“A woman in an ugly black dress stood before them”
“Miss Nelson’s kids did as they were told. Miss Viola Swamp was a real witch. She meant business. She put them to work and gave them lots of homework.”
Even though the descriptions are minimal, the reader gets a sense that this teacher is a very strict, no-nonsense type of person from the description of Miss Viola Swamp as “a real witch.” This is supported by the line “and gave them lots of homework.” These creative descriptions are more effective than simply saying that Miss Viola Swamp is mean and stern.
Character description for youngsters 7-10 years old
When writing character descriptions for youngsters this age group and teen fiction, you can decide how much description you need for your characters.
For example, look at Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan. The protagonist Percy Jackson is seeing Tantalus for the first time. This is his description of him:
“Next to him, where Chiron usually sat (or stood, in centaur form), was someone I’d never seen before—a pale, horribly thin man in a threadbare orange prisoner’s jumpsuit. The number over his pocket read 0001. He had blue shadows under his eyes, dirty fingernails and badly cut grey hair, like his last haircut had been done with a weed whacker.”
For those unfamiliar with Tantalus in Greek mythology, he is a prisoner in Tartarus who was punished by being surrounded with food and water that he couldn’t eat or drink.
Percy’s portrayal of Tantalus hints at this when he calls him a “horribly thin man” and adds the detail of him wearing an “orange prisoner’s jumpsuit.”
Not to mention, Percy’s depiction of Tantalus is rather terrifying. “Blue shadows under his eyes,” suggest unhealthiness, and the rather comical phrase, “his last haircut had been done with a weed whacker,” captures his unkempt appearance and damaged state.
In children’s fiction, character description doesn’t always have to be about appearance. It can also show behavior. Take Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary.
Through this passage, we can see how the older sister feels about her younger sister:
“Beezus felt the biggest problem with four-year-old Ramona was that she was just plain exasperating. If Ramona drank lemonade through a straw, she blew into the straw as hard as she could to see what would happen. If she played with her finger paints in the front yard, she wiped her hands on the neighbors’ cat.”
By describing Ramona’s actions, we can easily understand what kind of people both sisters are. Stating the obvious, Ramona is a rambunctious, young child and Beezus is easily annoyed by her sister’s antics. How Cleary conveyed this through her writing is a prime example of show, don’t tell.
Character description for Teen Fiction
In teen fiction, character descriptions are everything. Not only do they give the reader a visual about a character, they also provide them with a deeper understanding of that character and their relationship with other characters.
Let’s look at Kiera Cass’s The Selection.
“I looked over at my mother. For a Five, she was a little on the heavy side, which was odd. She wasn’t a glutton, and it’s not like we had anything to overeat anyway. Perhaps that’s just the way a body looks after five children.”
The way America, the protagonist, describes her mother shows her feelings toward her: “For a Five, she was a little on the heavy side, which was odd. She wasn’t a glutton…” America is objective about her mother’s appearance yet is still fond of her.
When America gives the following description about her mother, we also learn a little bit about America herself:
“Her hair was red, like mine, but full of brilliant white streaks. Those had appeared suddenly and in abundance about two years ago. Lines creased the corners of her eyes, though she was still pretty young, and I could see as she moved around the kitchen that she was hunched over as if an invisible weight rested on her shoulders.”
From this passage, we learn both characters have red hair and we get a sense of their relationship. There is also concern in America’s description in the latter half where she talks about how her mother’s youth is betrayed by the “invisible weight” on her shoulders.
Additionally, we also get a little bit of world building from this character description. The phrase “For a Five” indicates a level in the caste system while the phrase “it’s not like we had anything to overeat anyway” also shows the economic situation the character and her family are living in.
Adding subtle clues like this in your character descriptions will not only make your writing more interesting, but also give your audience important details about your character’s environment.
Final Thoughts on Character Descriptions for Youngsters
Character descriptions are not always all about telling your audience what your character looks like.
As we can see in the above examples, descriptions shape the character’s personality while giving clues about the world they live in.
Adding details like this will make your audience more invested in your story, and help your readers immerse themselves in your character’s world.