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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Stop Writing a Flat Ancestors!

If all you tell a reader about your ancestor is their name and vital facts, then you've written a boring family history. However, you could write something like this with very little effort.

Boorish Uncle Earl easily towers arrogantly over his peers as he examines them with deep-set sky blue eyes. His luxurious, apricot-colored hair resembles a wave of water that stops below his high starched collar. His tailor obviously enjoys creating a wardrobe for this slender, athletic gentleman who enjoys wearing the first state of fashion.

Can you picture this male relative?

If so, what actor or fictional character did you imagine from this description?

Be Inspired

Many authors will begin a story with a character description intertwined with the action of a scene. If you implement this technique into your story, you can write more compelling tales. As you describe what a relative looks like, you will draw readers into the story with your vivid and realistic word portraits.

But, how do you describe your ancestor in a non-boring way?

You don’t have to be a gifted writer to describe your ancestor well. You just have to develop the skill of borrowing.

“Writers constantly recycle and remix old ideas, “borrow” old topics, approach them from a different angle, and re-imagine existing concepts.”

In short, writing stories is rarely original.

Often, authors take inspiration from others to write their stories with their own twists. We can do the same as family historians.

Character Generators Inspire Writers

Since information leads to inspiration, I invite you to check out character generators to generate writing ideas.

You will explore these tools to develop a formula for writing a description, not necessarily searching for the perfect fit for a specific relative.

The title tells you exactly what you will view. This generator provides a quick outline of the details that describe a person. You will received very basic information in a repeatable format.

If this generator is too simplistic, try one of the following.

Upon entering this page, you will see a list of character descriptions. I like these because they describe both personality and physical appearance.

Using the site's filter, the description list will limit suggestions to the options you select.

This character generator allows you to filter by sex, type (realistic, exotic, anime, unique), and description (simple or detailed). If you choose the detailed description, you can customize the description of hairstyle, scars, tattoos, and more.

Again, the idea is not to grab the perfect character descript that fits your ancestor. Instead, you'll find one you like. Perhaps this one:

"This boorish lady has beady green eyes that are like two chunks of jade. Her thick, straight, waist-length hair is the color of dark chocolate, and is worn in an impractical style. She is short and has a graceful build. Her skin is light-colored. She has bushy eyebrows. Her wardrobe is plain, with a lot of black and green."

Then convert this sample to a template.

This [personality] lady has [character] [color] eyes that are like two [simile]. Her [thickness], [texture], [length] hair is the color of [comparison], and is worn in an [utility] style. She is [height] and has a [descriptive] build. Her skin is [tone]-colored. She has [descriptive] eyebrows. Her wardrobe is [descriptive], with a lot of [color] and [color].

When you break the paragraph down into a recipe, you can have unlimited possibilities to change the template into something that accurately reflects your ancestor.

After reviewing several character descriptions, you will have the right mindset and a few templates for how to describe your ancestor.

Inspiration from Literature

The best authors draw inspiration from literature of the past. You should do the same. Here are two character descriptions from popular novels.

“The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.”

from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“She’s the twelve-year-old… Up close, she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It’s impossible not to think of a bird.”

from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

While we need to avoid plagiarizing another author, we can learn from others when it comes to describing our ancestors.

Do you have an ancestor that reminds you of a little bird?

How about someone who is ageless?

Please share your favorite character descriptions from any book with me in the comments section.

Elements in an Ancestor Description

As you read character descriptions in novels or from the generators, you will notice a few key elements. These elements will help you describe your ancestor and include:

  • Gender

  • Age

  • Build including Height & weight

  • Skin: color & texture

  • Hair & Eye Color

  • Personality

  • Physical features: Shape of ears, nose, eyes, hairline,

  • Decorations: tattoos, piercings, scars

  • Wardrobe

  • Occupation

When you break down the mechanics of a physical description, you can see that you can do the same thing with an ancestor.

Author and YouTuber, Jenna Moreci shares an acronym for remembering what to include in a character description. It’s called FESHO. It stands for figure, eyes, skin, hair, and other.

  • Figure – describe the height, muscle build, and lack of muscle.

  • Eyes – describe the color, shape, size, or lack thereof.

  • Skin – describe the color, texture, wrinkles, freckles, and scars.

  • Hair – describe the color, length, texture, receding, cut, or styled

  • Other – describe the defining features such as tattoos, broken nose, angular chin, cleft chin, missing appendage OR define wardrobe OR define their actions

However you remember to describe your ancestor’s appearance (and personality when possible) is not as important as remembering to spice up your story with the details.

Example of an Ancestor Description

Let’s try to apply FESHO to the following photo. Sometimes you can describe all of the details. Sometimes you can’t. The point is to try.

Newlywed on Niagara Boat c. 1920
Evaline Townley Peak

Work through a FESHO character description for the photo above.

  • Figure- Petite.

  • Eye color - Color - unknown, evenly-spaced

  • Skin - smooth and young.

  • Hair - dark, pinned back

  • Other - Smiling brightly, on honeymoon vacation to Niagara Falls, elegantly dressed, aged 24.

Using these details, I have the beginning of a character description.

“The elegantly dressed, petite, twenty-four-year-old maiden with smooth, youthful light skin, and dark hair parted down the middle then pinned back prepared for a trip on a boat during her honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls.”

This ancestor description is a work in progress based on one photo. I could add more details if I had more pictures of my ancestor.

If you need more word-inspiration, try these blog posts:

What ancestor descriptions have you written?

Share a snippet in the comments section below.

Part of the fun of writing family histories is reading the work of others. We can do that on this channel. Let’s inspire and help each other.

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