Stick figure on the moon in a space suit planting a flag.Cartoon drawing of a school kid in a blue shirt and sneakers. Pictures of cats on shirt and backpack. He is standing in a school room in front of a desk and chalkboard.

How stick figures can help you write better descriptions

From “stick figure” to “thick figure”

Sometimes it’s hard to write better character descriptions. Have you ever felt frustrated when you get a paper back, and it says in red ink, “include more description” or “show, don’t tell?” Here’s an activity that’ll help write better character descriptions and show instead of tell. And it uses simple stick figure drawings (so don’t tell me, “I can’t draw!” Because I know you can draw stick figures!).

 

Start with a simple stick figure drawing

Get out your paper and draw a stick figure. Draw lightly. We’re going to change some things in a minute.

 

If you are like most of my students, you have drawn a simple stick figure standing in the center of the page. No interesting pose, no facial details. We don’t even know this stick figure’s gender! Give yourself bonus points if you drew your stick figure in an interesting pose or with some facial details. You’re ahead of the game!

 

Okay, now that you’ve got your stick figure on the paper, I want you to connect this plain stick figure to your writing. We often write our character descriptions just like this plain stick figure. We write something like this:

The bad guys attacked the house.

Here, at least, the writer included a setting with the characters, but the “bad guys” mentioned in this sentence might as well be genderless stick figures on a blank page.

 

The writer knows that their sentence is not descriptive enough, so he/she adds:

The bad guys are big and tough.

 

But big and tough are adjectives, and you know (if you’ve read the series on showing instead of telling) that adjectives don’t show us these bad guys. How big are they? How tough? Do they all have the same level of “bigness” and “toughness”? What do they look like?

 

So let’s help this writer get a little more detailed, okay? We’re going to use our stick figure to help us write better character descriptions, and then we’ll come back to these “big and tough” bad guys to see if we can thicken them up with details.

 

Add facial details to your stick figure

Let’s start drawing in some facial details. Go crazy!

 

If you need some inspiration, use this list of questions to help you think through what to draw:

  • What gender is this person?
  • Are they human, alien, some fantastical creature?
  • What’s the shape of their face?
  • Is their face fat or skinny or somewhere in between?
  • How old are they?
  • What color and shape are their eyes?
  • What shape are their ears?
  • What shape is their nose? And how big is it?
  • What’s their hairstyle like? Need help with this one, do a Google search for different hairstyles.
  • Do they have any distinguishing features like thick eyebrows, a uni-brow, scars, facial hair, glasses, jewelry, etc.?
  • Are they wearing a hat?
  • How do they feel? What’s their facial expression?

Keep thinking of specific details you can add to this character. Don’t worry about your drawing ability. The important thing is that you know what you are drawing and that you’re filling in as many details as you can.

Add body details to your stick figure

Now, go through the same process with the rest of the body. Think about different variations and specific details.

Here’s another list to help you out:

  • What’s this person’s style of clothing? What do they do for a living? What kind of uniform would they wear?
  • Are they holding anything in their hands?
  • What are they doing? Put them in an interesting pose.

 

If you need some more help, think about differences in people you know. How do you tell them apart? Clothing style, body size, posture, mannerisms? Use your observations skills to help you out.

Give your stick figure some dialogue

What would this character be saying right now?

 

Add a word balloon above the character’s head and write a sentence or two this character might say.

 

Use this list to help you think through your choices:

  • Think about how their voice sounds. Is it deep and gravely, cute and squeaky, creepy and soft?
  • Are they an introvert or extrovert? Do they like talking, or are they a man/woman of few words? Maybe they are just saying one word. Maybe they are monologuing.
  • What kinds of words do they use? Simple, single syllable words or complex words?

Add setting details around your stick figure

Now it’s time to add in the setting details. Think about where your character is right now. Maybe they are at work or at home. Maybe they are in a place completely out of the ordinary (on the back of a flying mushroom, perhaps?).

 

Draw as many background details into this drawing as you can think of.

 

Again, don’t worry about your drawing ability. Just do your best.

 

Now you’re done with the drawing. I’ve listed some finished examples below. Email me yours, and I might add it to the list.

 

Finished Examples:

View finished thick figure drawings here.

Putting it all together

Let’s return to discussing writing. Learning to write better character descriptions has a lot in common with drawing good characters. Think through the same kinds of questions we used with our “stick figure” to “thick figure” exercise.

 

Here are some things to consider when trying to write better descriptions:

  • What does the character’s face look like? How is it different from others in my story?
  • How is my character standing? What actions are they taking?
  • What are they wearing? How is their body type different from others in my story?
  • How do they talk? What sets their speech patterns apart from others?
  • Where are they in this moment in my story? What does that say about their character?

 

Let’s go back to our boring bad guys example:

The bad guys attacked the house. The bad guys are big and tough.

 

What if we added just a few more descriptive elements here?

Six men and a boy all dressed in purple rags and red bow ties, carrying bean bags, garden hose whips, and drumsticks,  sauntered across the dry, brown lawn and formed a staggered battle line three yards from the front porch.

 

Notice, we now have a specific number of bad guys. We know their ages (roughly). We know what they’re wearing, carrying, and how they’re walking, and we know where they are standing in relation to the house.

 

“Stick figure” or “thick figure”?

 

Try it out!

Change this boring character description into an exciting one:

The alien was hairy and smelly. He went into the spaceship.