Learn from the Masters: Writing Good Character Descriptions

Justin Oaksford: Perdido Street Station Establishing Shot
Perdido Street Station Establishing Shot by Justin Oaksford

I am currently reading Perdido Street Station by China Miéville for my master’s thesis. Yes, the progressive is deliberate – I’m still only half-way through. It is a long novel, but so far I’m really into it. (It’s also not an easy read, so I’m taking my time.) At one point, I came across what is probably one of the best character introductions or descriptions I have ever seen – and I wondered whether I could learn something from that in terms of my own fiction writing.

A character description does not need to be long or thorough – especially not for minor characters. In fact, I believe they’re most effective when they’re extremely concise and to the point. That might seem like it creates only one-dimensional personae, but there’s no reason why a short, snazzy description can’t evolve into a proper rounded character later on. But, as elsewhere in life, first impressions tend to stick with you, so what an author chooses to tell you first about a character is quite meaningful, and how he tells you even more so. (Warning: English Major Nerdiness follows.)

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