Describing a Character by Using His Surroundings – Guest Post by Stephen Helmes

Describing a character in your story is usually an easy task. After all, you can see the character clearly in your mind. It’s as if this person is real and standing right in front of you. He might even speak to you, allowing you to hear the sound of his voice.

a bald man with gray hair around the sides, wikipedia

a bald man with gray hair around the sides, wikipedia

Let’s say, in this case, you are writing about an older man who simply goes by his last name of Madison. Madison is in his mid-sixties, bald as a melon on top but has managed to keep a thin layer of hair around the sides and back of his head. He smiles a lot. It’s a crooked smile that can be easily overlooked, the right side of his mouth rising slightly higher than the left, but it’s there. Madison has narrow brown eyes and a thick rounded nose that bends slightly down at the tip, much like the Mr. Magoo cartoon character.

Okay, now you have been introduced to Madison and you have a visual of what he looks like. But two questions to ask yourself are:

  1. How can I give this description in detail without saying his, he, or his name three hundred times within two paragraphs?
  2. Do you really know a person just by looking at them?

The answer to question A is very carefully. It’s easy to get caught up in giving a description and repeating the same basic words in almost every sentence. Okay, how do we describe him without doing this monotonous habit? Try separating the description with other important information about the story rather than just blurting out what the man looks like all at once. I will give an example in a moment.

The answer to question B is no, of course not. Looks are just identity quirks, masks that help us identify someone we may know from a distance. We cannot say that Madison truly loves his wife in the above description any more than we can say he is a nice man simply because he always wears a crooked smile.

There are several ways to give a full inside-out view of your main character, but one of my favorite ways is to mix his description in with his surroundings at the time. This way the reader is subliminally fed a little information about Madison, physical and mental, as well as get a visual of what’s going on around him. I am going to write five short paragraphs so you can see exactly what I mean.




supermarket, pixabay

supermarket, pixabay

Madison hated grocery shopping almost as bad as he hated Margaret’s cooking. He jokingly told her that it was her cooking that made him go bald on top, and eventually, the hair around the sides would go too. If it were up to him, they would eat out all the time. The food wouldn’t be burnt, and it wouldn’t be that much more expensive than eating at home with today’s prices, not to mention he wouldn’t have been forced out of bed at eight-thirty on a Saturday morning to go to the market.

It was a beautiful Saturday. The store was packed, but Margaret didn’t seem to notice. She strolled slowly down the aisle as if she had some sort of sonar device that told her when another shopper or their cart was near. Her eyes remained glued to the labels as she moved, yet she never, not once, bumped into anyone. Madison followed, leaning forward on the half-full cart, amazed at this phenomenon, as he slowly pushed. He recognized this sonar device as the same one she used when he snuck a beer from his secret cooler in his work building. The doctor had laid down the law, no more beer, but what the doctor didn’t see, and what Margaret didn’t know about would never hurt either of them. But somehow Margaret knew. If he so much as killed off one can while out in the privacy of his building, she would come up with some casual remark later that night, just to let him know that she knew or suspected. It wasn’t much, just a little taste to let him know that she wasn’t stupid, and if he thought he could pull something over on her like that without her knowing, he had another thing coming.

Another shopping cart bumped into his. The older woman didn’t apologize, nor did she acknowledge the accident at all. Madison smiled his slightly crooked smile, but she paid no attention as her eyes went from one canned item to the next.

A young couple came around the corner. Mumbling and giggling like a couple of kids, they had to be in their late twenties. Probably newlyweds. He was nudging at her backside with the buggy and she turned, holding a bottle of ketchup out at him. “If you run over my ankles with that thing you’ll look like a dowsed French fry!” The girl leaned over and poked her finger down on the tip of the young man’s nose and they kissed.

Madison felt the tip of his nose. My God! What happened to it? He remembered when he had a narrow nose like that young man, a nose that rode down the center of his face, but now it was like a lumpy round knob, drooping down over his upper lip. His lips tightened as he turned his narrow, brown eyes back to his wife of more than forty years. Where had it gone? The magic they used to feel when they were together, even doing a chore such as grocery shopping, was long gone and forgotten, by her anyway. He remembered when they used to laugh and carry on that way.




beautiful spring day in Central Park, flickr

beautiful spring day in Central Park, flickr

Okay, what have we learned from the four paragraphs above?

  1. We know the weather is beautiful outside, perhaps a mild spring morning that drew a lot of people out of their homes.
  2. We have a basic description of what Madison looks like, enough to make a mental image at least.
  3. We know that Madison has a sense of humor, though Margaret may not completely appreciate the remarks about her cooking making his hair fall out, but his sense of humor was definitely there.
  4. We know that Madison loves his wife, but is not completely happy with her. He feels that their marriage has turned stale over the years. He seems to miss when they were young. Margaret must have had more personality back then and not kept such a stiff upper lip as she does nowadays. He also feels bossed around by her at times.
  5. We know that Madison likes to sleep in on Saturdays and probably doesn’t like crowded places very much. He definitely hates shopping.
  6. We know that Madison has some sort of medical condition. The doctor had said, “no more beer.” There has to be a reason for that.


So, there you have it. And as the story moves forward, you can continue to feed the reader more information about the character at the same time as you are driving them through the story.

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