On Writing: How Much Detail Do Characters Need?

“In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!”
~ Anton Chekhov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886

Some of my students have asked me how much detail they needed to include when creating character descriptions or character profiles and I have always told them there is no such thing as too much. In fact, I encourage them to invent as much detail as possible, because those details will make their characters more real. How do you decide what details to include when creating a character profile? I tell my students to look at their characters from different angles: physical, psychological, professional, and biographical.

The physical description is straightforward: What is your character’s physical appearance? You should include everything from gender to height, weight, girth, hair and eye color, skin color, nose, ears, mouth, teeth, hand size, feet size, and so on. While highly detailed physical descriptions do not always play a huge part in stories, they can certainly be part of the main character’s problem, if not the main problem. Otherwise, a character’s physical attributes will affect how that character will interact with other characters or the environment. For instance, an unusually tall character might have to stoop to go through certain doorways, look down when speaking with others, or push back a seat to fit in a car or at the dining table. Physical descriptions should also include any physical defects, abnormalities, or diseases. Not to be overlooked are physical issues or distinctions such as moles, birthmarks, limps, missing fingers, a broken nose.

Character psychology ranges from personality type to personality disorders, phobias, insecurities, likes and dislikes. This would also include habits and mannerisms that distinguish this character, such as nervous habits, tics, stutters, and the sort. Beliefs can also be included in character psychology, as these shape the way people think and act. Our gangly tall character might be uncomfortable with his height and this would show in a slouch or a general discomfort or uneasiness when interacting with shorter people.

I recommend separating professional and biographical characteristics even if a character’s professional description could be included in biography. This helps distinguish a character’s past from present. Biographical details would include information you’d find in a birth certificate: date of birth, place of birth, parents, and birth order. It would also include family history, places lived, educational background, religion, work background, affiliations, achievements, and awards. This is also where knowledge and skills can be described. A character’s professional description would focus on the character’s current job or occupation, skills, and knowledge. This can be significant because a character’s current job could explain a great deal about habits, work hours, milieu, relationships, preferences, economic status, and so on.

Creating characters can be tricky. After all, you are trying to create real people–or beings, as the case may be–on paper through nothing more than words. We know real people are not perfect, so there really is no reason your characters should be perfect. In fact, they will be the most perfect if they are flawed. That is what makes your characters more real, more human. All the best literature in the world, from the age of classics to contemporary times, reveal characters with a particularly fatal flaw which becomes the cause of the character’s downfall. It can’t be just any arbitrary flaw, either, That fatal flaw must be part and parcel of your character’s complex being–just like any human being. The more intimately you know your character, the better you can lead your character through your story. You will also know what your characters will do, how your characters will think, feel, act, and react because you know every little trait and quirk your characters possess. All those details come from a well-written, highly detailed character description. As I also tell my students, whatever you write in your character profiles and character descriptions don’t necessarily have to appear in your story. Your character profiles and descriptions are your guides to how your characters will behave throughout the story, what they think, do, and plan to do. At no time must you feel obliged to dump your whole character description on your readers in one sitting, unless you plan to choke your readers on unnecessary information. Sure, the information might be important, but not all at once. The way to reveal your character to your readers is gradually. We do not get to know any one person we meet in real life in a single sitting. As a matter of fact, it sometimes takes us years to get to know people–and even then, we sometimes never get to really know every little thing there is to know about them. In the same way we reveal the setting in a story as it is encountered by the characters, we should reveal characters in the story as they are encountered, and character traits and details as they would be revealed in real life. Think of it the same way you meet a real person: the first thing you notice are physical details. Their appearance, their dress, their mannerisms. If you are in the same situation, you might discover that person’s professional attributes–what their job is, what skills they have, where they work. As you continue to interact with that person, you discover a little more–maybe a bit of their family, where they live, where they used to work or study. The longer your relationship and interaction, the more you learn about that person. That is just how your readers should encounter and be acquainted with your characters. Of course, there are ways to accelerate the process, for instance, in an interview or a tragedy–nothing reveals character more than a tragic event. This is when people are at their weakest and also when we see just how strong they really are. Regardless of the scenario you create to reveal your character, remember that not everything will be revealed at once. It’s always good to keep some things a mystery. It’s one of the reasons people are interesting.

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