Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them
(And Write Better Descriptions In General)
When asked to describe their characters or when writing their character profiles, many people tend to use the same over-generalized descriptors over and over. The result tends to be what I call a "Forer profile" - it's so vague that it can fit any number of characters - all of whom are wildly different - equally well. And when the same character description could fit a sneaky trickster as it could a determined soldier as it could a grad student opening a florist's shop, that's a problem. So, I'm going to outline how to give more and better information on your character to give people a better idea of what sort of person they're reading about.
Table of Contents
- Useless Description Example 1: "My character loves animals/books/movies/music/whatever."
- Useless Description Example 2: "My character is fun to be around/My character loves having fun."
- Useless Description Example 3: "My character is loyal to xir friends and would do anything for them.
- Useless Description Example 4: "My character has a temper."
- Useless Description Example 5: "My character is unique/different from the others because..."
- Useless Description Example 6: "My character is mysterious..."
- In short, it's not about what your character IS. It's what your character DOES.
Useless Description Example 1: "My character loves animals/books/movies/music/whatever."
For the sake of simplicity, we'll go with "animals" for most of this particular section. Question is, what do you mean by "animals," and how does your character relate to them? Does your character like cats and dogs? Cobras and tarantulas? Does your character keep pets, or does xe have to admire them from afar? Instead of saying that your character "loves animals," try to describe how your character relates to or interacts with animals, and you'll convey far more information about your character. For example, you could write "my character spoils his cat." This tells us three things about your character - 1. he's likely a cat person, 2. he owns a cat, and 3. he pays a lot of attention to it.
Here are other examples of useful statements:
- "My character volunteers at the animal shelter."
- "My character is taking horseback riding lessons."
- "My character watches birds while hiking."
- "My character's room is decorated in assorted wildlife posters."
- "My character frequently watches Animal Planet."
- "My character owns dozens of books about spiders."
- "My character is a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society."
All of the above statements are only a few words longer than "my character loves animals," but contain huge amounts of information in comparison. From a statement such as "my character watches birds while hiking," we can induct that the character is particularly fond of birds, enjoys being outside, and has an active lifestyle. "Owns dozens of books about spiders" not only informs us that the character is passionately interested in spiders, but is also that xe probably enjoys reading.
Don't say your character loves flowers - say that your character raises a flower garden or plans to become a florist. Don't say that your character listens to music - say that your character enjoys classic rock and folk music. Don't say your character likes reading - say that your character enjoys reading history and fantasy fiction. And so on and so forth.
Useless Description Example 2: "My character is fun to be around/My character loves having fun."
Fun is entirely subjective. What I find fun, you may not find fun and vice-versa. Plus, pretty much everyone likes to have fun in some form of another. Saying your character likes to have fun is sort of like saying that your character wears clothes and sits on chairs. What we need to know is what your character finds fun, or why people might perceive your character as fun. For example:
- "My character loves jamming to the Beatles."
- "My character loves traveling to new places."
- "My character likes to experiment in the kitchen."
- "My character likes playing volleyball."
- "My character loves to do her friends' hair."
- "My character likes to watch comedy shows with other people."
- "My character enjoys playing tabletop RPGs."
Useless Description Example 3: "My character is loyal to xir friends and would do anything for them."
People frequently use this descriptor (or a variation thereof) as a rather cheap shorthand to say that their character is a good person. However, loyalty and self-sacrificial tendencies a good person do not make. Someone can be loyal to people who do horrible things to others, or their sacrifices might actually cause more harm than good. If you've ever said that your character is loyal and would do anything for xir friends, ask yourself:
- Would your character pass up on a job interview to pick up a friend with a flat tire if it meant losing out on the job altogether, thereby having no money paying the rent, thereby resulting in homelessness?
- Would your character sell the vehicle xe had spent years saving up for to pay off a friend's gambling debt - for the third time?
- Would your character go so far in covering for a friend's crime that xe would accept a punishment that would mean separation, even alienation from other friends and family members for years to come, possibly the rest of xir life?
- Would your character get up at two in the morning and haul ass to drive three states over to pick up the friend who was evicted from xir home for drug use, leaving behind a six-month-old baby sick with the flu to do so?
- Would your character sell a 14-year-old child into slavery to a sadist in order to save an old friend?
If you answered 'yes' to any of these, then your character is at best probably not very bright, and at worst an outright villain. If you answered "but my character wouldn't be friends with a gambler/addict!" - think again. Good friends can and do fall into bad situations. Just because someone wasn't a gambler or addicted to a substance when you met xir, doesn't mean xe won't be later on.
The following are more likely to be useful - and true-to-life:
- "My character is usually eager to help xir friends when xe can."
- "My character volunteers for charity work when possible."
- "My character has looked after xir friends when they were ill."
Useless Description Example 4: "My character has a temper."
This one can also take the form of statements like "my character is usually calm and caring, but can become angry and aggressive if irritated too much" or "usually kind and loving, but can also be very angry if something sets xir off."
News flash: Everyone is like this, so this statement says absolutely nothing about your character at all. Everyone has a temper to a certain degree. Setting it off is all about finding the person's hot button or buttons. Some people are just more sensitive or have more buttons than others. Question is, what sets your character off? Here are some examples:
- "My character is insecure about xir height and becomes upset when someone points it out insensitively."
- "My character quickly loses xir temper when people leave messes behind."
- "My character is easily irritated by people invading xir personal space."
- "My character quickly becomes irritated when other people behave in a childish or irresponsible manner."
- "My character is afraid of germs, and feels personally disrespected when people leave things like dirty laundry or dishes around."
Useless Description Example 5: "My character is unique/different from the others because..."
Nine times out of ten, characters described as unique or different actually isn't that different at all. For example, one Harry Potter OC I saw was described as being "different from other students" because she mouthed off at teachers. Precisely which students it makes her different from is a mystery - in pretty much any Harry Potter roleplay, a certain number of characters who mouth off to teachers are practically a prerequisite. In canon, Harry snarked at teachers all the time. Just describe what your character does and leave it at that. If your character really is unique, it will stand for itself in the story or roleplay.
Useless Description Example 6: "My character is mysterious."
This descriptor is frequently used to try to generate intrigue around the character, but more often than not it ends up being unhelpfully vague. On its own, "mysterious" can mean a lot of things. So instead of describing your character as "mysterious" and leaving it at that, ask yourself what could potentially make your character mysterious and describe that instead. For example:
- "Little is known about xir past, and xe has so far been unwilling to talk about it."
- "My character tends to be very private and quiet about xir business."
- "My character has shared very little about xirself with others."
- "Xe does not have a clear memory of what happened, and so far investigations have yielded very little information."
In short, it's not about what your character IS. It's what your character DOES.
That's basically the whole thing in a nutshell. Don't describe what (you think) your character is - describe what your character actually DOES in xir world. Compare:
"My character loves fashion and listening to music."
"My character likes to sew her own clothes and do her friends' hair. She has a large collection of music, which includes artists like Enya, the Temptations, and Lady Gaga."
The first statement is incredibly vague and doesn't actually give any useful information. The second tells us that we're looking at a creative, sociable gal who has a wide variety of musical tastes.
Something that can be particularly effective are practical, rather than abstract descriptions. Practical descriptions don't work in every case, but I find they work excellently for throwing around ideas or pitching a new character. Basically, I will describe what I can see the character doing under various circumstances. Here's one of my practical descriptions:
"I can see somebody possibly coming to this character to commission a weapon or something. They enter his house, and a coffee-bot rolls up and offers coffee. The 'bot doesn't have a face precisely, but its design evokes cute googly eyes. After a bit, Martin calls the characters over. He tinkers with something or stares at his lappy for at least thirty seconds before swiviling around on his chair. Then he looks at the characters with his fingers steepeled, his index fingers just touching his chin... and he's wearing his grease-stained underwear."
I could have just said "my character is an inventor who tends to get too wrapped up in his work at times," but that wouldn't have been as informative - or fun! - to read.
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Tips To Create Better OC Relatives of Canon Characters