Description is the heart of all writing. To be able to describe a scene, a character, a setting so believably & vividly that your reader gets a clear mental image is something that sounds easy, yet can be difficult to pull off. Yet there is one simple trick to making your descriptions pop:
“KISS” — aka “Keep It Short & Simple.” (aka “Keep It Simple, Stupid”)
We humans are odd creatures. The more details you give us, the less likely we are to remember: like studying for a history final & trying to cram a whole textbook of information into your brain in one night. It won’t work. You overload the brain circuitry & fry our memory bank.
Descriptions are the same. The more adjectives you pile on, the more you describe something, the wearier the reader gets. Our eyes glaze over a wall of purple prose. Mounds of adjectives and adverbs pile up until we’re buried & gagging on the overload. You see this a lot with Mary Sue characters:
“She slowly but confidently raises her slim, tender, yet dexterous left hand that has a ring on her index finger to hide a small birthmark, shifting her weight to her front stiletto-adorned foot and causing her long, flowing aquamarine hair done with two front tails to ripple and her supple yet firm right breast to shift ever so slightly, rubbing against her slightly loose but supportive black lace bra and causing her heart-shaped face to gain a slight bit of blush underneath her sparkling emerald eyes.” (from the TVTropes entry, “Common Mary Sue Traits”)
Yeah. By now we’re all gagging. This isn’t a description. It’s fetishization. And bluntly, again, with Original Characters in fanfic, the reader simply does not care.
Keep it simple. I can’t stress this enough. Limit your descriptions, especially those of your characters. No one notices this level of detail; no one cares. Humans first see the broad, general strokes, not minute details. One way to fix this is to limit your character descriptions to three words. If someone glances at your character as they pass on the street, what’s the first three things they’ll notice? I do this with my characters in The Severed Earth: Dylan is “shaggy, rubbery, & golden”, Ian is “bald, lean & quiet.” You can also stick to a single, vivid image — for example, one of my minor characters, Karma’s studio engineer, is a “fuzzy cotton swab of a man”.
Above all, avoid the “(adjective) yet/but (adjective)” style. That’s purple prose, and it just comes off as silly and over-bearing, not to mention a huge red-flag of bad writing and a Mary Sue. On top of that, descriptions that use that style are often using two adjectives that conflict with each other: in the example above, it’s not possible for anything to be “loose but supportive”, nor “slowly but confidently” (slowness implies hesitation, not confidence), nor “supple yet firm” (firm is NOT supple).
If you have a pair of characters that typically work together, try contrasting them. Play the descriptions off each other. I do this when first introducing Joshua Thomas and his working partner (my Mary-Sue-bait) Kris Mountainhawk in “Voodoo Doll”:
Joshua Thomas was lean and muscular, his skin the color of antique walnut; he’d changed the beads in his short dreads to glittery Mardi-Gras-style harlequins. He stood out in all the ways Kris didn’t, and she preferred it that way: her faded t-shirt and jeans to his tie-dyed dashiki and close-fitting teal Levis, her blonde to his black, his flamboyance to her background shadow. Both of them, everyday, regular, normal.
And again, when Frank & Joe Hardy are introduced in the tale:
Only a year separated them, but Frank acted much older; he took the responsibilities of “eldest” seriously, even to his clean-cut, prep-school-jock looks, as opposed to Joe’s looser, long-haired, shaggy casual.
This brings up the next point: Canon Characters Rarely Need Description in Fanfic.
In fanfic, with Canon Characters, the description rules change. First — most (if not all) of your readers are going to be familiar with the main characters of a ‘verse, and most of the secondary characters. You don’t need initial descriptions of them; everyone knows what they look like. The only time descriptions are needed is if you’re dealing with a ‘verse like the Hardy Boys or Doctor Who, where there’s several different versions of the main characters or several different continuities, with the descriptions varying in each. Doctor Who has ten different Doctors; description is needed to establish which version of the Doctor you’re using. The Hardys have several different continuities, and the descriptions vary between them.
But those are exceptions. For the most part, you can skip the descriptions of canon characters, or keep them bare-bones simple (as I state above). Seriously, folks, in the Hardy Boys example, we don’t need to be told thirty-bajillion times that Joe has “blue eyes just like his mother” (well, in the book continuities, anyway) or that Harry Potter has “his mother’s eyes”. We know this already. If you don’t have something new & unique to add to a Canon Character’s description, skip it and get on with the story!
So, to sum up:
1. Keep it short & simple. Three words, or one image.
2. Compare & contrast for character pairs.
3. Avoid overbearing purple prose.
4. Limit descriptions of Canon Characters; use only if needed to establish a specific continuity.
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