Welcome!

Cheryl Reif headshotI'm a fantasy writer, daydreamer, and science geek loving life in sunny Boulder, Colorado. I have my PhD in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (MCDB, if you want less of a mouthful). I put that degree to use creating detailed explanations for magic systems and mythological creatures; and, of course, the science background also lets me write about cool science and nature discoveries!

Join me Mondays & the occasional Thursday to explore storytelling and the creative life—and how the old "rules" no longer apply.

It's time to rewrite the rules that hold us back. Don't you agree?

3 Essentials of Effective Character Descriptions

footprint-71137_1280Imagine this scenario: You’re working on that all-important first chapter. You have all your resource files open on your computer, or perhaps printed out and spread on the table beside you: timelines, plot points, character notes, setting details.

You pen the opening paragraphs, setting the scene while avoiding too much description. You add a dash of dialog, a little action. Your main character is on the scene and you know exactly what she looks like, because you’ve written pages of description. You might’ve even written up a nifty character interview. Heck, you know everything from her favorite nail polish color to the contents of her backpack.

It’s time to paint her picture for the reader…and you have no idea where to start.

You know you’re not supposed to include an information dump in the opening pages. You also know that you need to create some kind of mental image for your reader. Preferably in a way that flows naturally, without bogging down the scene.

This is where a lot of people get stuck. You could throw your hands up in despair–or you could apply these 3 guidelines for flowing key information about your characters into your story. Which brings me to my first point…

Tip #1: Find the right place for character description.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the need to cram everything important into the first few pages of your first chapter, take a moment to step away from the keyboard. (Seriously. Stand back!)

Now: What is the most important thing you want your opening to do? How will it pull your readers into the story? Description isn’t the most exciting way to draw readers into your novel, so most books won’t begin with a close look at the character’s appearance. It gets woven in, piece by piece, as the story unfolds–and those opening pages might not have any description at all!

Instead, you might start your story by showing your main character’s actions or reactions. You might begin in the middle of an important conversation or memory. You have lots of choices. The point is that you don’t have to do everything in those opening pages. You can focus on world-building or getting the action rolling or creating the right atmosphere–and let description wait.

Tip #2: Focus character description  on a few “defining details”.

Once you decide where your character’s description fits into the narrative, your next step is to choose a few defining details that paint your character in broad strokes. That lengthy character description you wrote earlier? It’s a great starting point, but you need to pare it down to the essentials.

Check out this description of main character Meghan Chase, in Julie Kagawa‘s novel The Iron King.

The morning before my birthday, I woke up, showered, and rummaged through my dresser for something to wear. Normally, I’d just grab whatever clean-ish thing is on the floor, but today was special. Today was the day Scott Waldron would finally notice me. I wanted to look perfect. Of course, my wardrobe is sadly lacking in the popular-attire department. While other girls spend hours in front of their closets crying, “What should I wear?” my drawers basically hold three things: clothes from Goodwill, hand-me-downs, and overalls….

I finally slipped into cargo pants, a neutral green T-shirt, and my only pair of ratty sneakers, before dragging a brush through my white-blond hair. My hair is straight and very fine, and was doing that stupid floating thing again, where it looked like I’d jammed my finger up an electrical outlet. Yanking it into a ponytail, I went downstairs.” –The Iron King, Julie Kagawa

Talk about focused description! Although the author spends two paragraphs on Meghan’s looks, she really focuses on two key details, Meghan’s clothing and her hair. (By the way, that description doesn’t appear until page 3 or so of the book.)

Tip #3: Write character descriptions with purpose.

You’re probably thinking, okay, but how do you decide which details count as “defining”? One way to do that is to look at where your character’s key emotions and personality traits intersect with his or her appearance.

Discover your character’s defining details at the intersection of PERSONALITY and PHYSICALITY.

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If you look at the above passage again, you’ll see that the narrator–Meghan–has specific reasons for mentioning those particular details. The author could have written something like this:

Meghan gazed into the mirror, taking stock of her appearance. Her hair was straight and very fine, pulled back into a ponytail. She had a straight nose and even teeth, but her eyes were her best feature, an emerald green that people always thought must be from colored contact lenses.” [NOT from The Iron King]

This version has a longer laundry list of details–but why is Meghan thinking about her appearance? Looking into the mirror is an overdone technique for wedging description into the narrative. Although there’s presumably a mirror in the scene Kagawa writes, it’s never mentioned.

Instead, we know exactly why Meghan mentions her clothes: She wants to impress a boy, and her wardrobe is sadly lacking in the boy-impressing department. Every detail about her clothing speaks to that point. At the end of her description, we’ve got a clear picture of what she’s wearing not only at this instant, but at almost every other instant: clothing that’s well-worn, serviceable, and probably second-hand.

Tip #4: Write character descriptions with attitude.

By the time Meghan actually reveals something about her physical body, she does so with actions and inner dialog that convey her attitude clearly: FRUSTRATION. ANNOYANCE. IRRITATION. She could have simply described her hair as “straight and very fine;” instead, she frames it all with the fact that it’s “doing that stupid floating thing again, where it looked like I’d jammed my finger up an electrical outlet.” We learn that Meghan wears her hair in a ponytail because the author shows her yanking her hair into that ponytail.

(By the way, did you notice that Meghan has a reason for commenting on her hair, too? It’s bugging her–which provides the excuse the author needs to have the character noticing her own hair.)

Here’s one more awesome example of an author weaving character description seamlessly into the story, from Veronica Roth‘s young adult novel, Divergent:

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.

When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot….I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention–not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection, I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose–I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.” –Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

In this case, the description does appear in the book’s opening. This is how the book begins: with the main character getting her hair cut. It works, even though Roth uses the “looking into the mirror” trick, perhaps because it has a surprising twist. Tris (the main character) isn’t just gazing at herself in the mirror. She’s sneaking a look. She hasn’t looked in a mirror for three months–which immediately makes the reader wonder why not?

This description is focused: we learn the color of Tris’s hair (dull blond) and the shape of her face, eyes, and nose. That’s it.

It all has a purpose: This description introduces readers to a world where people aren’t allowed to look into mirrors whenever they want.

And it has an attitude: Tris is curious and uncertain and maybe just a bit rebellious. After all, she does sneak that verboten look in the mirror….

Your turn: How do you weave character description into a story? Please share in the comments!

David Morrel on What Writers Want

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I had the opportunity to hear best-selling author David Morrel (also known as “Rambo’s Daddy”) speak this past weekend–at Genre Fest, a joint event sponsored by the Colorado Authors League, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. His topic?

Writing the Best-Selling Novel

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from his talk–how-to tips, maybe, or the traits of best-sellers. And indeed, he spent the first half of the session talking about ways to “game the system” and become a best-seller. (Hint: find a niche that doesn’t already have authors who dominate that genre, or copy the latest best-selling success story. He didn’t advise these strategies, just pointed out that they’d worked for some authors.)

The real meat of his talk came in the second part of the morning, when he dove into why we might want to write best-selling novels. Citing the principles of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), he asked us two questions:

  1. What do you WANT?
  2. What will that DO FOR YOU?

If you want to write a best-selling novel, why? What are you hoping that will accomplish in your life? Do you hope it will give you fame? Fortune? Validation as a writer, or as a person?

Those things, Morrel said, aren’t enough.

When it comes down to it, all we have is time…so why is a particular book worth a year of your life?
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Discover the answer to that question and you’ll discover the motivation you’ll need to take you through to writing THE END.

Discover Your True Subject

If you want a career as a novelist, you have to pay attention to you.” –David Morrel

Imitation might bring short-term success, but the real trick is figuring out what you have to say. Why is your subject important to you? What theme, idea, or emotion do you want to explore? Those are the things that will give you the steam to keep going. IMO, they’re also the things that will make people want to read what you write.

Morrel explained that you discover “your” subject by paying attention to yourself–your motivations, your fears and desires, the emotional undercurrents in your life. Daydream, he said. Pay attention to the mini-narratives that your subconscious creates when your mind wanders.

They’ll show you the way.

What do you want as a writer? And what will that thing–whatever it is–do for YOU?

3 Steps to a Problem-Solving Mindset

Forgetful. Lazy. Wasting your time. Those are a few of the “name-calling” labels that came up in Monday’s post on the dangers of labels. You could probably continue the list with labels of your own–you know, the things your inner critic starts chanting whenever you don’t measure up as a writer or a person.

Labels are death to creativity.

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Labels send the insidious message that you that you can’t change your situation. They keep you stuck.

Fortunately, you can fight back against those negative labels–by taking these steps toward a problem-solving mindset.

Step 1. Become Aware

Before you can banish damaging labels from your self-talk, you have to notice when and where they crop up. I gave some examples of negative labels in Monday’s post. Sounds easy enough to identify your inner name-calling, right?  In the heat of the moment, though, it’s easy to accept whatever your inner critic throws your way without stopping to question it.

Here are a few clues that you’re dealing with a “label problem”:

  • You feel stuck
  • You feel powerless to change a situation
  • You feel judged or worthless

These feelings are a signal that subconsciously, you’ve identified some problem as beyond your control. And although some situations will be beyond your ability to affect, most aren’t. Start having a conversation with yourself. Find out what’s making you feel stuck. Make a list. Get every problem, barrier, and obstacle down on paper.

Step 2. Replace Simplistic Labels With Compassionate Truth

Do you have your list of problems, barriers, and obstacles? You next step is to question them. Every one.

  • First, is the label/obstacle/barrier actually true? Is it possible you’ve accepted a label that exaggerates the situation?
  • Second, is the problem caused by this label/obstacle/barrier really insurmountable?

Labels tend to judge, globalize, and oversimplify. As a result, they often rule out any possibility of change. You need to replace the labels with a more realistic understanding of your situation.

Here’s what this process might look like inside my brain (enter at your own risk…):

The Label, Obstacle, or Problem

I’m so unproductive! I’ve gotten nothing done all week.

The Challenge

Seriously? What about that midnight brainstorming session on the new novel?Well, okay, I did come up with some cool ideas. But I should have gotten a lot more accomplished!Let’s take a look at this past week before labeling you “unproductive.” Your kiddo was home sick Tuesday, which took out most of that day’s writing time. You also spent several unplanned hours troubleshooting problems with your website. You got a lot done, just not the things you wanted to get done.

Tip: Telling yourself the truth isn’t the same as positive thinking. Make sure that you don’t replace an oversimplified negative label with an oversimplified positive one!

Step 3. Start Searching for Solutions

Once you’ve identified the truth in your situation–the actual problem–you can start brainstorming solutions. Continuing the inner dialogue I began above…

Brainstorming Solutions

 Okay, I really didn’t get as much accomplished as I wanted to–not because I was lazy, but because I chose to spend my time on other important things. The real problem is that I feel like I’m letting my creative writing come after everything else. What would make me feel more connected to my creative project? Maybe I could take half an hour to myself on those days when my schedule is upended, to make sure I’m still thinking about the story. I can usually spare an hour even when I’m crazy busy…the trick is to make sure that I do it BEFORE nonessentials.

What things are nonessentials? Hmm…let me think about what I might cut out of my routine on this kind of day….

It’s hard to change the habit of assigning judgmental and critical labels to ourselves when we don’t measure up…but in the words of  psychologist Randy Paterson, we have a trump card in the attempt to change our thinking:

Our typical negative thoughts have a trump card: We have rehearsed them so long they have become instinctive. The truth has a trump card of its own: Reality will confirm it over time.”
–Randy Paterson

 

Check the Label–and Avoid These Common Creativity Zappers!

Check the label! 

You probably do this without a second thought when you’re shopping. You check to see that foods contain healthy ingredients, to make sure cleaning products are nontoxic. Maybe you check labels to see where something was made, or whether it contains the kind of wool that makes Aunt Ethel itchy.

But how often do you notice the labels YOU put on things? Specifically, the labels you apply–probably without thinking–to yourself, your writing, your needs and desires?

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We humans are hard-wired to name things, to give them labels. Unfortunately, our brains are also hard-wired to pay more attention to negative information–which means that those negative labels are often on the tip of our mental tongues.

Have trouble getting started on that next chapter? Your inner critic slaps on labels like lazy or  not very creative. Skip writing for a few days or weeks? That inner critic labels you “not serious about writing.” 

What labels do you apply to yourself or your writing? They might be getting in your way!

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There are three common types of labels that can block creativity, reinforce self-doubts, and even paralyze our ability to imagine. 

Name-Calling Labels

My writing coach once asked me if I would talk to a friend the way I talked to myself. This question is a good way to gauge whether you’re engaging in some unhelpful name-calling, putting down your muse, yourself, or your work. Labels like lazy, stupid, slow, scattered, and blocked don’t spur your creative side; they shut it down.

If you wouldn’t use a label to describe a good friend, don’t apply it to yourself or your writing, either!

Common “Name-Calling Labels”

For Themselves…

For Their Writing…

Slow
Uncreative
Not good enough
Not a “real” writer
Undisciplined
Lazy
Unfocused
Blocked

Unpolished
Unoriginal
Unprofessional
Bad
Boring
Crappy
Beginner
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Excuse-Making Labels

Labels don’t have to be obviously negative to get in your way. All they have to do is turn your attention away from solving a problem. Common excuse-making labels include too busy and too stressed. 

Excuse-making labels often begin with the words “I can’t write/create/brainstorm right now because…”

Excuse-making labels often focus on placing blame for the problem on someone or something outside of yourself.

Are you “too busy” to write? Maybe. I often am! But if you accept “too busy” as a label, it’s easy to let it define you. It’s easy to forget that we usually have some control over how busy or stressed or overwhelmed we are.

Grandiose Labels

You might be surprised to hear that seemingly good labels can be just as harmful as obviously negative labels. Think about it, though: what happens when you tell yourself that your latest book/story/essay concept is

The Best Idea Ever!

Does the thought help your words to flow effortlessly from your pen? If so, more power to you!

For the rest of us, though, labels like greatest and best and breakout create an enormous amount of pressure. Suddenly you face a daunting standard when you sit down to write. If the idea is so great, your writing better measure up to it!

Grandiose labels create stress, and stress is the enemy of creativity.

Chuck those labels–good and bad! Just focus on doing the work.

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So what labels sneak into your writing process?

The good news? Once you’re on the lookout for them, harmful labels are pretty easy to spot. Once spotted, you can replace them with labels that reinforce your creative journey rather than hinder it. I’d love to hear what labels you’ve had to eliminate from your vocabulary as a writer! Please share your examples and insights in the comments.

I also hope you’ll come back on Thursday, when we’ll dig deeper into how to replace those negative labels with a problem-solving mindset!