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11+ English Creative Writing: Describing People

Eleven-Plus Preparation Specialists

When telling a story, or describing a scene, you need to be able to describe people as well as place. Here, we’ll look at a few famous examples from literature and think about what we can learn from each.

The Master and Margarita

And then the hot air congealed in front of him, and out of it materialised a transparent man of most bizarre appearance. A small head with a jockey cap, a skimpy little checked jacket that was made out of air … The man was seven feet tall, but very narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin, and his face, please note, had a jeering look about it.

This description is brilliant because it involves the reader, and illustrates clearly just how strange this apparition is. Note the word ‘apparition’ – this is someone who has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. This is made clear from the hot air having ‘congealed’ in front of him, and the fact that he has ‘materialised.’ It is explicitly stated that his appearance is bizarre – but this is a lure for the reader to read on, rather than simply stated and left as that. We are then told that he has a small head, that his jacket was made out of air, and that he was seven feet tall but very thin. We are reminded to ‘please note’ that his face had a ‘jeering look about it.’ Throughout, we feel as if the narrator is really doing their utmost to convey to us how strange this site was, and as such we are fully transported by their description.

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The Great Gatsby

He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour.

A very different description, but one that is just as well-constructed. Here, the entire description focuses on the character’s smile, and through that smile it tells us all we need to know about the character. He can understand you, he can reassure you somehow, he is rare, almost unique, and has an ability to turn his whole being toward you in a way that has a profound effect on you. It is immediately apparent that this is someone who is not just charming, but dangerously able to seduce or affect people. We can learn from this the value of zooming-in on a particular aspect of a character. You might choose the look in their eyes, for example.

The Lord of the Flies

Inside the floating cloak he was tall, thin, and bony; and his hair was red beneath the black cap. His face was crumpled and freckled, and ugly without silliness.

This is a far simpler description that shows you just how much can be done with few words. There is no attempt at figurative imagery here, just literal imagery. We are, nonetheless, entirely able to picture this boy. He is clearly rather delicate in build, with red hair, and ‘ugly without silliness’ makes his face seem rather bland, without the jovial aspect that we might otherwise consider when told that someone had a ‘crumpled and freckled’ face. From this you can learn that your descriptions can be simple, and still paint a great picture. However, we don’t know too much about this boy’s character – just what he looks like. You’d therefore need to add more to flesh out his character.

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Brave New World

He had a long chin and big rather prominent teeth, just covered, when he was not talking, by his full, floridly curved lips. Old, young? Thirty? Fifty? Fifty-five? It was hard to say.

Once again, a simple description that shows how much can be done with not too many words. What’s interesting about this one is that the narrator asks questions – is he old or young? Thirty? Fifty? We don’t know, and the narrator’s bafflement therefore becomes our own. This is a great advert for using questions in your own writing. Also, note the simple alliteration of ‘full, floridly’ which adds to his lips being the focus of the description.
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