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I've been asked to write a story as an assignment. It should have as the main male character an unusually smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful guy who is somewhat reserved and mysterious. The point is that I cannot figure out how to draw a good, lively and convincing description without being stereotypical or boring. I guess that this kind of character is quite common: can you suggest me some examples of good descriptions that can be found online so that I get an idea about how to proceed? Thank you.

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Isn't this exactly the point of your assignment? To learn how to create such a character on your own, without copying someone else's work? – Lauren Ipsum Jun 20 '14 at 18:32
Lauren, I agree, but this is a borderline situation. If people vote-to-close, it'll show the community agrees with you. – Neil Fein Jun 20 '14 at 19:17
@LaurenIpsum you're right, but I don't want to copy "someone else's work": I just want to learn how to do my work more effectively by reading some examples that you professional writers find good enough to reccomend – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 20:05
You don't need an example of the exact same character you are supposed to create on your own. That would be cheating (and we don't want to help you with that) and you would not learn anything (which we want to help you with). What you might want to do is pick up any book, read the character descriptions, define for yourself what kind of character that description makes him, and then observe how this was done. Then you try that with your character. Failing is part of the learning process, and if you are afraid to fail, you'll never learn anything of value. – what Jun 21 '14 at 12:46
You might also be interested in watching some of the older renditions of Sherlock (e.g. not Elementary or the movie with Robert Downey Jr.), or the more recent BBC adaptation. – drusepth Jul 22 '14 at 14:22

Smart, clever, insightful, thoughtful, reserved, and mysterious are all abstract qualities. They are summaries. And the summaries lack all of the juicy details that lead people to attribute those qualities.

Instead of describing such abstract characteristics, demonstrate them. Show the character doing clever things, or mysterious things. Let the reader reach the conclusions.

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That could be an idea. Thanks @Dale. – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 20:06

You might benefit from some ideas:

1. Avoid the info dump (a long description scene)
2. Add your description in showing/active sentences
3. Use character contrasting (contrast one character to another)

I explain more here: How to describe your point of view character in a first person novel?

If you want your character to be:

unusually smart clever, insightful and thoughtful guy who is somewhat reserved and mysterious

then Let your character develop as you write. You can do some pre-work. For each description in your list, ask this question

What is your character doing or going to do that is (smart)?

Keep these tag lines around and as you write, just make the character act these ways. I don't know what your character will do. So here is an axample from my book:

My character is also smart. I don't actually ever say he is smart. I do say he is a Jeek, half jock half geek. He plays chess. He is watches the some college videos on chemistry just before his high school senior senior year starts to help prepare himself for AP chemistry. He talks about getting a scholarship either with sports or grades.

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What I would focus on is the character's backstory. You're correct that the combination of traits that you describe could be pretty common, but what is unique is the why behind it. What happened in the character's past that has caused him to be so reserved? What sorts of influences did he have that nurtured his cleverness and insight? Different answers to those sorts of questions will yield vastly different characters, even though those core traits are still present.

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Hi @Roger. Thank you for your answer. I will surely focus on your suggestion. However, I still need to give a first "basic description" of the character, and I would like to offer something more elaborated that "he is an unusually smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful guy who also happens to be inscrutable". I just want to be somewhat more lively in this first stage of description. What can I do? – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 17:41
Also, I forgot to mention an important thing which is also causing trouble: the first part of the story should (according to the requirements I've received form my teacher) be presented from the perspective of two characters (our guy and another student) and each one should describe himself (not the other one or no-one!). Here comes the question: how do I make the guy describe himself in a lively way, but without sounding self-righteous or arrogant (which I think he should not be, according to his attributes)? – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 17:57
Why should he necessarily be lively when describing himself, if he's meant to be reserved? "So, ever since I scored 2250 on my SATs, everyone's going on about how smart I am. I don't know if that's true; I just see how things go together. Things that other people struggle with tend to seem, I don't know, obvious to me. If you want to call that smart, that's your thing." So, in a few sentences, we establish that he's intelligent and has a gift for insight, but is at the same time introspective about it and too reserved to be boastful. – Roger Jun 20 '14 at 18:08
The point is to demonstrate those traits to the reader rather than just say that he has them. It's sort of like how if you have to tell people that you're cool, you're not cool. :) – Roger Jun 20 '14 at 18:11
Well. That is a good idea. Personally, I like that mixture of laziness and "devil-may-care attitude" in your example (maybe because I'm that way), although it could seem somewhat too blunt. Anyway, in general I like this way of presenting abstract qualities with facts to back them up. Thanks. :) – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 20:11

To add to @roger's answer, another thing that can make a character unique is giving them an atypical profession or hobby. Since these things will influence what the character will do everyday they are a part of who he is. A good example is Walter Mitty, a typical shy guy but works in negative assents for Life magazine. Interesting enough his job also defines a fresh context for a story that has been told a thousand times.

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Thank you @aperl. However, in the story I've in mind, the guy is a college student (the whole thing is set in college, actually) about 21-2 years old. – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 17:44
@user9933 In that case he could be part of a club or team. But if that doesn't fit with in the scope of the story I understand. Nevertheless thinking about such things might open up possibilities about why he might make certain decisions. We as people make decisions based on of our experience and our environment. – aperl Jun 20 '14 at 18:49
you're right. Thank you :) – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 20:05

So you've got a few adjectives for the character, to start off with. Some people are a fan of the figure-your-character-out-as-you-write approach, and some prefer outlining the character first. Since this is an assignment, and you don't want the character who spontaneously appeared as you wrote to differ from the one described in the assignment, I'd have to recommend the latter approach.

What makes a "good" or "lively" character:

  • Details! What are his quirks? Does he wrinkle his nose when something disgusts him, or wipe his right hand on his pants?
  • What does the world look from his point of view? What's his job? Does he like it? Any best friends? How'd he grow up? Since he's smart, insightful, and thoughtful, how did this shape his philosophy? You need to know to write him well, and we as readers find difficulty relating to him unless we can get inside his head a little. This will also be crucial for your self-description.
  • Give him flaws. Up until now he seems a little Gary-Stu-ish. He's smart, thoughtful, insightful, clever--he's most likely gone far in whatever he's done. Reserved and mysterious? Even better, the girls are swarming and we're all jealous of him and wondering what he's up to. Now balance that out. Is he arrogant because of this? Or is he eager to make people like him and bends over backwards for them? Or does he not have this success at all and is angry at the world for not giving him what he thinks he ought to get? This and the point above will most likely determine how he reacts to others.
  • Last but not least: We don't see his biography, we see him in action. Specific to your situation it seems like you're forced to give a little biography, but my general advice would be not to make it too long, and intersperse the rest of your biography in with the action, if you need to add it at all.

You've got a character, you know how he thinks, now it's time to throw him in a situation. Roll dice if you have to: 1 for getting mugged, 2 for being fired, 3 for meeting with an ex, so forth and so on. And build the situation such so that you can show most of his character traits in the situation. Think about what he might do to show the qualities you want to highlight.

For instance getting mugged: Your main character stops/talks down the attacker, maybe makes some comment about the mugger's motivation that obviously hits the nail on the head (because he's smart and insightful) , and lets him get away with a "dummy wallet" with only a few dollars (clever, well-prepared) and continues on his way. This scene is observed by an acquaintance who is following the main character and wondering what he's doing in that part of town at night, without having told anyone (mysterious and reserved) .

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As others here have mentioned, you want to show, not tell--have your smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful guy do smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful things, rather than just dictating a description.

That said, if you can't think of smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful things for your character to do, here's a way to cheat: think of some people you actually know who are smart, clever, insightful or thoughtful, and model your character after them. This is an easy and effective way to add detail and realism to your characters. The adage "good artists borrow, great artists steal" applies to real-life experiences as well as other artists!

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As others have said, show, don't tell. Because that advice is rather vague, however, allow me to explain. The way I understand 'show, don't tell' is 'let the reader form his own conclusions. Just make sure they are the ones he is supposed to form.' For example, you don't need to say that someone rolled their eyes in exasperation. The fact that they rolled their eyes alone will usually make the reader deduce that they did it in exasperation. The same thing can go for characters. If they are smart, clever, insightful, and show it, you won't need to tell the reader that. He'll already know it.

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protected by Neil Fein Jul 1 '14 at 4:44

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