By Brooke Thompson
Character descriptions are much like scene descriptions, yet they are especially essential for stories. Whether it’s your main character or a supporting character, these descriptions set up for the audience what kind of person they will be.
Whether you are writing for young kids or young adults, “show don’t tell” plays a huge factor in stories. Showing a character’s behavior or appearance can really make or break a character, so first impressions are everything.
Let’s look at a couple of examples in both children’s and young adult literature.
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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 by Allard describing Miss Viola Swamp as “a real witch.” He backs this statement up by adding the line “and gave them lots of homework.”
Character description for Children 7-10 years old
When writing character descriptions for 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 main character 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 was a prisoner in Tartarus who wasn’t allowed to eat or drink, yet he was surrounded by water and food.
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,” having an unkempt appearance, and the rather comical phrase “his last haircut had been done with a weed whacker” really provides the reader a visual of the kind of person Tantalus is.
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, for example.
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 does it give the reader a visual about that character but it also provides them a deeper understanding of that character and the protagonist’s relationship with them.
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 the protagonist, America describes her mother shows some respect: “For a Five, she was a little on the heavy side, which was odd. She wasn’t a glutton…” Also, while America gives this description about her mother, we also learn a little bit about her.
“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 a bit of concern in America’s description in the latter half where she talks about how her mother was getting older and seemed like she had an “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 is living in.
Adding subtle clues like this in your character description will not only make your writing more interesting, but it also provides your audience a better understanding of your character’s environment.
Character descriptions are not always all about telling your audience what your character looks like.
As we can see through the above examples, descriptions include their personality and what kind of people they are. This can be done all while giving clues about the world they live in.
Adding details like this will make your audience more invested in your story. More importantly, they’ll be able to immerse themselves in your character’s world.