I don't know about you, but I feel as though I've been doused with a dose of something between annoying and ridiculous when I read a sentence like the title of this post. And let's face it, when a character, "runs her fingers through her long, blonde hair," the reader feels as though they've been transported into the book trailer for a second-rate romance novel.
Not that there's anything wrong with well written romance novels.
Some of my friends write romance. It's a huge industry. Women all over the world read romances religiously, so don't write a flaming rant in the comments section about how I'm demeaning the genre because I'm not.
What I am trying to do is break novice writers of the habit of describing a character's physical traits using second-rate techniques.
When I write short stories, I often don't describe my characters' physical traits. As a matter of fact, I purposely leave out details such as skin colour, eye colour, hair colour (okay, pretty much all of the colours) from the equation. But that's my preference. My writing style hovers closer to the minimalist side of writing than the purple prose side, right or wrong.
Maybe that's why my ratio of rejection-to-acceptance is pretty high. But I can live with the ratio, because that's how I roll.
Ways to Include Character Attributes
Let's use the example from the title of the post.
She ran her fingers through her long, blonde hair.
Rather than telling the reader, directly, have another character in the scene do the talking. For example:
Her hair was the colour of sunlight. The way she kept it tied up in that pony tail, all I could think about was pulling it free, running my fingers through it, and taking a whiff.
Wait, that's fine for the protagonist to daydream about, but what if I'm writing from a tight point of view (POV)? How can I include what another character is thinking without breaking POV?
Avoiding jumping heads is often important. (If you're unsure about all of this POV-business, read the detailed explanations in my posts POV1 and POV2)
When you can't use internal dialogue, use the full-blown version. For example:
"I like your hair," said Jeff. His face turned a bright shade of red.
"Thanks," said Stephanie. "I get so many negative comments about it."
"Like what?" he said.
"You know, 'Dumb blonde,' or 'What a blonde moment,' that sort of thing."
"Right. Sorry. I mean, not sorry that your hair is blonde, but that you get teased, because it's a nice colour."
In this example, although it takes a while for us to learn that Stephanie's hair is blonde, we also learn about Jeff, specifically that he likes her, and he struggles with embarrassment when he talks to her.
The hardest POV + Description combination is trying to illustrate a character's attributes when the story is told in first person POV, because the main character is rarely going to talk about how they look to themselves. Then again, from personal experience, when I'm obsessing over how I look before an important event, I might stand in front of a mirror and ridicule the parts of my appearance that are not cooperating -- like a cowlick, or uncooperative mascara, or those last few inches I can't seem to burn away from my butt. (I'm sure guys worry about similar issues.)
So in some situations, if your first person POV character is about to go to a job interview, or on a first date then they might take a moment in-front-of-a-mirror. Keep in mind that mirror scenes can be terrible or trite, so be very careful with mirrors.
The last tool you can use is straight description, but use it sparingly. Too much and your reader will feel like they're reading catalogue descriptions for mail order brides or sperm donors, not your compelling and insightful prose. For example:
Stephanie wore her blonde hair long, to emphasize her curls when the need arose, or to straighten them when they required taming. Like every starlet in Hollywood, she had come to the conclusion that long hair can be a magnet for attention, and she definitely craved attention. Even if attention did not always entirely present itself.
Here I've given one physical trait, but also included details about how the character reacts to the trait. Ultimately, the reader finds it easier to picture the character's physical attributes while being interested in the feelings and adventures of the character.
Most readers want to know how to imagine your characters. So give them a few nibbles. Squeeze the details in the most natural and unobtrusive way possible.
A good way to determine whether the text is working or feels ridiculous is to read the section out loud, either to yourself or to someone else. If they roll their eyes or groan in frustration then you know you've got some editing to do.
Do it now
Grab a book that you've read and thoroughly enjoyed and then skim it for the parts when the characters' features are described. Jot down what worked and what might have felt a bit over-the-top to you.
Write a paragraph that describes your personal characteristics in an entertaining way. Massage the prose until you feel as though it's as natural and entertaining as possible.