How to Write a Descriptive Essay about a Person
There is something about the personal essays - sometimes they are referred to as “character sketches.” But it is difficult to learn how to write a descriptive essay about a person, because we really do not read them often. We get “pictures” in our heads about characters in a piece of fiction over many pages of writing; and most non-fiction does not entail character sketches. So, when you are assigned this type of essay, you may be at a loss as to how to construct it or even what to say. We have explored a lot of information about this kind of paper and have made a whole article about it in order to help you out. Here are some pretty basic tips and strategies to use as you develop your piece.
Select a Person You Know Well
You cannot write a character sketch about anyone you do not know intimately. This person can be a member of your family, a close friend, or even a main character in a novel or movie if you loved it so much you read or saw it many times.
You can select a totally fictitious person, of course, but it is probably wise to make the person at least a combination of people you know, so that your description “sounds” authentic to a reader. Most fiction writers admit that their major characters are a bit autobiographical or combinations of people they know, because they are just more believable. Also it will help you to get more ideas about what to write and you won’t get lost. If you want you may even have some sort of an interview with the person you are writing about in order to know more about them. Thus you will present them in a way more realistic and truthful way.
Show, Don’t Tell
A descriptive essay about a person is a failure, if all you do is describe that individual physically and then tell the reader that s/he has three or four personality traits. Physical descriptions should be revealed indirectly, and those three or four personality traits must be shown be specific words, actions, and behaviors.
Go back and read your favorite short story or novel. How does the author reveal everything about that main character? Chances are s/he does not spend paragraphs of prose describing what that character looks like. Bits and pieces are revealed along the way, and often the details are left up to the reader to fil in. How do you know what the character’s personality is like? You get that over time, as that character speaks and takes action throughout the work.
Consider these two methods of providing a physical description:
Carol has long curly brown hair, brown eyes, and stands about 5’ 4” tall. She is slender, and her long legs give a graceful appearance as she walks. (Very boring.)
Carol has a completely contagious laugh. When she laughs her entire body is involved. Those long brown curls fly about her face and shoulders, and all 5’ 4” of her is somehow involved. And when she is angry, watch out. Those piercing brown eyes are throwing daggers of light, and those long legs are poised in a true fighting stance, like she is ready to go 16 rounds.
Same person – two different writers. See the difference? When you don’t have an entire novel to gradually provide a physical description, you have to get creative with the way in which you do it. There are a lot of tips and pieces of advice from professional writers on the web that can help you to improve your skills in writing character’s description. Also a lot of writers like Chuck Palahniuk, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and others have written whole books about the art of writing so consider reading them too.
Describing Personality Traits
Part of learning how to write a descriptive essay about a person mastering this art of showing not telling as you reveal his/her personality traits. Words and behaviors must be used. Let’s take a look at Carol again. Suppose you have decided that she really has extremes in emotions when she is happy or sad – there doesn’t seem to be much “in between” with her. So, that is one of the traits that you want to address in your description. You can take what was written above and expand it a bit, still keeping the physical descriptors but now giving specific examples of these extremes. You should reveal them in real-life situations. Incorporate them in a realistic way. Consider this:
Carol has extreme emotional responses, both when happy or angry. When she found out she was accepted to her first choice for college, she threw her head back, long brown curls flying, raised those slender arms toward the sky and immediately broke into dance moves that I had never seen before, as she sang “Don’t Stop Believin’” and threw those long legs all over the room. And one day, when someone stole a parking space she had been waiting for, I watched her follow that man all the way into the store, shaking her finger and calling him a rude guy and several other terms I won’t mention here.
You have now “proved” to the reader that Carol has extreme emotional responses and done so in an engaging way. It’s important to give such descriptions if you want to keep your writing interesting and not to be boring. It also helps you to carve your own style and to improve writing skills at all.
When You Write Your Essay
As you search for descriptive essay ideas that will make your character “live” on your paper, you can look online for examples of character sketch or personal description essays – you will find plenty to review that will help you see how to formulate your own “picture” of your character. It’s very useful to read other essays if you want to learn how to write good papers. It may also give you plenty of new ideas or to inspire you to write a descriptive essay.
Generally, in a character sketch essay, you should identify three personality traits that you will present, each in a different paragraph. It’s not advised to describe whole personality as it will become a novel. Instead consider using this scheme. Your introduction will obviously introduce your person, and the traits that you will be covering. Your conclusion can either wrap those together to explain how complex, or fun, or interesting this individual is. A conclusion for Carol might be something like this:
Living with my sister Carol has been an adventure, to be sure. And I hope that adventure continues for years to come, even after we are grown and have our own separate lives.
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Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University