Writing Tips: Why You Should Use Ugly Character Descriptions

I recently read the lines, “she bit her cinnamon raisin toast with her large front teeth” from The Magicians by Lev Grossman. How visual! How simple! And yet I could picture the scene as both repulsive and annoying.

This got me thinking. What if more people used ugly, aggressive adjectives in their writing? Is there a reason why we should?

To Get People’s Attention

Dictionary focusing on the word focus

So often I find myself skimming pages in books if the writing is generic. It’s easy to write familiar adjectives. Here are just a few that I came up with.

Her face was red with anger.

He eyed her suspiciously.

The small girl was crying as she held her melted ice cream.

Or imagine that Lev Grossman had actually written, “She ate her toast.”

That wouldn’t have gotten my attention. I would have barely noticed it at all. Sometimes we want details to fade into the background. Other times, we want to create stand-out descriptions that make people think.

If you want people to actually digest what you’re writing, to be engaged with what you’re writing, surprise them. SURPRISE THEM!Give them the opposite of what the expect.

This isn’t to say you have to make characters do what they wouldn’t do. You’re only using more vibrant words to describe what’s happening.

To Describe Personality Better

Image by Houcine Ncib

In Lev Grossman’s simple example, you learn a lot more about the mother than if he had written “she ate her toast.” What are some things we learn?

  • She likes cinnamon raisin toast
  • She has big front teeth
  • She might look like a beaver?
  • The main character finds her eating repulsive
  • The main characters thinks her teeth are too big

Some of these might be a stretch, but they’re also what came to my mind when I was reading. Writing stronger, braver descriptions gives your reader more to think about beyond what you’ve written on the page. They start asking questions. They start wondering about relationships and the reliability of the narrator. All of this is unconscious for the most part, unless you have really curious readers. But pushing the interest of characters pushes the story to the next level.

To Ground Your Writing In the Real World

Person holding nature
Image by Ravi Roshan

I love creating beautiful, nearly perfect characters. It’s just so alluring and captivating. And in YA, it’s almost a must. But after a while, it becomes a little creepy or bland. It also makes these characters so far removed from our world that it becomes hard to relate or empathize with them. A subtle trick that can help is writing descriptions that make the characters’ flaws show.

Nervous ticks, anxious movements, clumsy actions. These all help to ground your characters as real people. Even if they are darn near perfect, or at least perceived as perfect, readers should still see through the cracks once in a while.

For example:

a) He placed the breakfast plate in front of her and grinned with perfect teeth. —>

As he placed the breakfast plate in front of her, his hands trembled. His easy smile of white teeth contrasted against the wild panic in his eyes.

b) She brushed her hair behind her ear and smiled. — >

She brushed her hair behind her ear but several strands stuck up in an odd angle.

It’s endearing when characters you’ve fallen in love with do quirky or embarrassing things. It also gives your other characters something to react to. Will they ask why he’s so nervous? Will they tell her that her hair is sticking up?

To Make Your Writing Stronger

Image by Daniel Schludi

Challenge yourself to be creative, especially in otherwise dull moments in your writing. Eating toast doesn’t have to be like riding a roller coaster, but maybe it feels like that to one of your characters.

Let’s look at those examples from above again.

Her face was red with anger. — >

Her cheeks puffed out while flames of purple blush spread across her skin.

He eyed her suspiciously. — >

He cocked his head as his eyes scanned her like she was a rotting piece of meat.

The small girl was crying as she held her melted ice cream. — >

The smallest girl in the room choked on her hysteric laughter when the ice cream melted over her hands.

Are you more interested? Do you want to know their stories more?

The goal for every writer is to keep their readers reading their work. Let’s push ourselves to create more dynamic — even scary or ugly —descriptions. Life is weird and quirky. Our writing can be too.

I would love to see your own examples of the sentences above. Comment with your creative ideas!

Bonus: If You Liked this Article, Check Out…

Writing Tips: 3 Reasons You Should End Your Book Series

%d bloggers like this: