Writing tips: make your fiction characters visible

Fiction characters need to be brought to life. But how? First, get the basics right – help readers to SEE your characters. Here are some tips on visual description and how to keep characters alive in the mind’s eye.

In many fiction drafts, the characters don’t come to life and remain blurry or even invisible to the mind’s eye, simply because there aren’t enough visual signposts.

If the characters are invisible, readers will struggle to see them, and struggle to connect with the story.

This is particularly important when readers first meet the characters, and start forming a relationship with them.

Using visual description to create a sense of the characters may seem basic advice. But can your readers really see your characters?

Invisible fiction characters are such a common issue, and yet so easy to solve with careful editing.

Here’s an example:

Lee strode across the street, swinging the heavy black bag.
Jo was waiting, tapping an impatient foot.

On the face of it, there are some clear visuals here: the black bag and the foot.

But the people they’re attached to are pretty well blanks. Why?

Lee and Jo are indeterminate names – they could be any age, gender, culture. They don’t suggest anything distinctive or memorable.

“Hi!” is a generic greeting used by people from all sorts of ages, backgrounds and cultures around the world. Again, it doesn’t offer any distinctive clues.

What’s more, we don’t even know who said it. Grammatically, it could attach to either Lee or Jo.

All we can see is a bit of a body, and an object someone is carrying.

That’s not much for the reader to go on, to create a vivid character in their mind’s eye.

The mystery of the blank fiction characters

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with the crucial face and body pieces missing.

Or a blank face shape, with no features filled in.

In the example above, readers can’t tell if the characters are male, female, young, old, tall, short… Not a clue!

We don’t have any sense of their relationship, status, or even who says “hi!”.

So the reader has no anchors or context to help them start to build a picture. They’re left completely unmoored.

You don’t have to give the reader loads of information in an opening sentence. But you do need to give them something, and soon.

Otherwise, they’re left with strange, blank-faced characters milling around, and they’ll quickly switch off.

Thankfully, visual description of characters is easy to solve.

  1. Use these 10 Tips for Making Your Fiction Characters Visible.
  2. Keep the image alive by with occasional touches of description.
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