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  Creating Memorable Characters
Physical Appearance vs. Imagination:

by Cheryl Wright

Excerpt 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 little imaginings.

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 strain… "

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 expressive eyes.
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 ponytail.
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 cowboy boots.
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 two.
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 flying glass.
It wasn't her, couldn't be her, she told herself over and over. When tears began to roll down her cheeks, Kareena turned away.


- 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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