In-World Description

Most people, when they try to describe a person for a story or game–or when someone within the story or game is trying to describe another person–tend to hit the same few qualities. They’ll do hair color (maybe length if they’re feeling ambitious), eye color, approximate height, weight (or body type), race if such is applicable. What is this, a comparison of drivers’ licenses?

Didn’t think so.

Most real people don’t look at the people around them that way, either, or at least not entirely. Different people fixate on different features, or find different ways of describing them; is there any reason why your NPCs would all use the same description?

One way to work around this tendency is to think about the distinguishing feature of the character being described. It could be clothing (”the young man with the long black coat and glasses”), possessions (”The guy with the staff-length curtain rod”), style (”looks like she just stepped out of a teahouse”), associated creature (”The lady with the ferret on her shoulder”). Perhaps it’s a physical feature–tattoos, a shaved head, a particularly noticeable birthmark or scar, a certain way of walking. Maybe it’s something the describing individual picked up from interaction with the person described: a chip on the shoulder, a drinking habit, excessive nerves, a certain arrogance, a particularly large or small vocabulary.

You may also want to think about what the character doing the describing would be likely to look for. Someone who lives by the sword is more likely to notice things that would indicate how well-trained the other person is or what weapons they might use (like how they move, or where their hands tend to rest when not in use). A person more concerned with social status would tend to guide to the cost of the other person’s clothing and whether it’s currently in fashion, or what sort of slang and group-speak they use, while a crafter might concentrate on the workmanship of the person’s possessions.

Dominant sense can also make a difference. The hearing-dominant will most likely notice vocal timbre and general tone. Olfactory-dominant individuals might pick up on someone’s scent–and will probably let you know about it if the person hasn’t bathed in a while. The touch-dominant might tell you about hair or clothing texture, and the particularly impulsive among them may add what happened when they tried or asked to touch it (if nothing else, it would certainly explain the bandages on their hands).

Using tricks like these can tell your audience more aobut the people they’re looking for and the ones they’re questioning. It will help you as well, giving you a better idea what the characters you’re describing are like, and occasionally letting you throw a false trail as the group encounters a description they wouldn’t’ve thought of on their own. Try it; it’ll be fun!

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