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Physical Appearance vs. Imagination:
taken from 'Think Outside
the Square: Writing Publishable (Short) Stories' - Written by
Cheryl Wright ©
When I read a book or story, I like to draw my own
conclusions about that character's appearance. If the
writer tells me bit by excruciating bit what she looks
like, I just feel like screaming: "I want to imagine
her for myself, not what you want me to see!"
It's no different when I'm writing the story myself.
I know that every reader sees something different in my
characters than I do. I also know they don't want me to
describe every little detail. So, I build a sketchy
picture for the reader to build on and to add her own
For some writers, this presents a problem. Many writers -
not just new writers, but also seasoned writers - often
use a mirror to describe the way their character/s look.
"As Mary Ellen passed by the hallway mirror, she
caught her reflection. Did she really look that
bad?" She moved closer; deep shadows under her
normally vivid blue eyes, rosy cheeks dulled from the
As a reader, I know what I don't like. When I'm writing,
I endeavour to avoid those same dislikes.
So how do I describe my characters? Here are a few
snippets from various stories I have written:
From Popcorn Murders
"His eyes were roaming my tall frame; I wasn't
skinny, but I certainly wasn't fat. I suddenly felt
self-conscious in my new skin-tight jeans and t-shirt. He
was eyeing my substantial bust and I looked up into his
Tony reached out and ran his fingers through my long
brown hair. Silently he leaned forward, lightly brushing
his lips along mine."
From Mystery at Joe's Gym
"I felt his gaze travel casually upwards from my
black court shoes, along my black stocking'd legs and
short black skirt - which I felt compelled to tug
downwards but resisted the urge - then finally on my
white short-sleeved shirt.
His eyes rested comfortably on the small gap at the top
button where my cleavage began. He lifted his eyes to my
face and smiled. His perusal lasted only seconds, but
felt like a lifetime.
Damn, but he was good!"
From Saving Emma
"He silently observed as her eyes began to scan
his body. From experience, Gary knew the first thing
she'd notice would be his massive height; six foot five -
far from ordinary. He reached up and ran his hand over
his chin. Goddamn it! He hadn't shaved this morning -
today, of all days. At least he'd tied his hair back in a
She stared into his eyes, his deep brown eyes. Hers were
wide with rage. Her eyes slid to his open denim shirt,
then lingered on his hair-covered chest. After settling
on his flat belly, they drifted to his crotch. Goddamn
her - she was checking out his... Nah, she wouldn't do
that - would she?
Her appraisal continued on his jeans -- his threadbare
jeans. Gary groaned inwardly. Why did he have to dress
like a slob on his days off? At least he was wearing his
Gary looked down. Oh God, thongs!"
(This snippet from Saving Emma is part of a scene entered
in the Scarlet Boa Competition 2003. It made the short
list of the top ten)
From Arms of a Stranger
"As he approached her again, Kareena took a good
long look at him. He was easy on the eyes; tall --
probably around six-two, big compared to her tiny
five-four. He was smiling at her; did he know she was
giving him the once over?"
From Winter Sabbatical
"Travis surveyed the young woman standing before
him. She was around twenty-four years old -- Daniel told
him that much -- she was slightly built, and her tight
jeans and body-hugging skivvy only served to accentuate
her thinness. She had deep, dark circles under sad brown
eyes that made her look pale and drawn.
As he looked down on her, Travis gauged Marissa's height
to be around five foot four, solely on the fact the top
of her head was slightly below his shoulder, he being six
Her face reminded him of a porcelain doll, albeit a sad
doll, and the sun shining down on her long chestnut hair
was making it gleam."
And not once did I tell you what the character looked
like. Damn, but I'm good!
Seriously though, I just bet you imagined each of those
characters without me actually giving you a bit by bit,
step by step commentary. Notice how in each instance bar
one (Saving Emma), the description came from another
character? The first two were told in first person POV,
the final three in omniscient. (It makes no difference
what point of view you use to employ this method.)
That said, there are times when you may need to
incorporate a mirror in your prose:
From Arms of a Stranger:
"Mason warned her about her face, but still
Kareena didn't expect what she saw in that mirror. She
stood for endless minutes staring at her reflection; the
reflection she didn't recognise.
Tiny cuts were scattered about her face, and on her left
cheek - only millimetres below her eye - the gash that
needed stitches. Her face had taken the brunt of the
It wasn't her, couldn't be her, she told herself over and
over. When tears began to roll down her cheeks, Kareena
·- Leave as much as possible to the reader's imagination
·- Don't have your character look into a mirror to
reveal their appearance unless absolutely necessary
· Write a short description of a character without
divulging every conceivable detail. It may help to tear a
photo of a model or celebrity out of a magazine.
Copyright Cheryl Wright. All Rights Reserved.
"Think Outside the Square: Writing
Publishable (Short) Stories" is available
for US$8.95 from for immediate download.
About the author: Cheryl Wright is an Australian author
and freelance journalist. In addition to an array of
other projects, she writes a monthly travel column for a
magazine in the US and is the author of "Think Outside
the Square: Writing Publishable (Short) Stories". Her debut
novel "Saving Emma" will be released
January 2005. Visit Cheryl's website www.cheryl-wright.com
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