Novels are made up of three main elements: plot, character, and action. The plot or storyline of a work is shown through the action taken by the characters. Try to imagine Harry Potter without the wizards, or Lord of the Flies without the school kids. Nothing would happen. Characters are important – and unless you’re working on some kind of abstract, post-modernist masterpiece, your novel is going to have lots of ’em.
So write them right.
In this guide to visual character description I’ll be covering everything from shopping lists to stereotypes to help you create characters who are striking and memorable. The days of 2D stick figures are long gone. Don’t flood your story with chunks of heavy description and endless empty details – instead, fuse looks with personality to make one sentence do the job of ten. Use fewer words, but make every word count.
Your characters and readers will thank you for it.
[NB. If you’re prone to feelings of ‘TL;DR’, skip to the end for a bullet point summary. You lazy lot…]
No Shopping Lists
I mentioned this in my very first post, 15 Ways to Improve Your Writing: instead of listing the individual elements of a character’s look all at once, thread them into the narrative – or even better, focus on one or two details to imply the whole. Make the description fun for your reader. It’s the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’: even if you are telling the reader something, make it sounds fabulous.
- 1 – Sally wore a fur coat over a tight red dress, gloves, and matching heels, and her blonde hair was coiffured into a volumised bun.
- 2 – “Fancy seeing you here, Ralph,” Sally said, wiggling out of her fur coat. She sashayed into the ballroom and plucked a champagne flute from a passing waiter’s tray. Planting a scarlet kiss on Ralph’s cheek, she lingered for a moment to cloak him in the sweet tang of hairspray and perfume. “Darling, it’s been an absolute age.”
Example 1 gives us more concrete information about Sally, but Example 2 gives us an impression of her. Instead of telling you what she’s wearing, I’ve shown you by weaving that information into her actions. I’ve implied it. The clothes aren’t the star of the show: she is.
Describe Without Describing
As I’ve shown with my Sally example above, you don’t need to spell things out for your reader to understand them. Often the best description is covert, undercover. It’s not about packing in the information, but creating an impression. However intricately you describe your protagonist’s face, the reader will still imagine their own version of the character – and nothing will make them forget it. So don’t try to implant a carbon copy of your characters into your reader’s brain.
Instead, let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves.
Limiting your description – or rather, being concise and powerful with it – will help trim your word count and improve your writing by bringing it to life in your reader’s mind rather than simply on the page. Here’s how.
- Use Stereotypes to Your Advantage. Stereotypes are often dangerous and troublesome – but they can be useful, too. If Clint climbs heavily off his Harley, I’m immediately thinking ‘beefy motorcycle gang member’. Lisa panting and grabbing her sports bottle says ‘athlete or fitness fan’. When Tim fumbles with his stethoscope, I’m imagining ‘junior doctor’. Always, always remember to show, not tell – find a way to express ‘junior doctor’ without saying the words.
- Choose the Right Names. Tarquin probably doesn’t run an East London market stall, and I’m fairly sure Gaz isn’t a member of the aristocracy. Obviously foreign (well, not traditionally UK) names such as Dmitri and Clémence will help convey accent or heritage, and unusual names will plonk the reader straight into the realms of science fiction and fantasy. A good name can do half the work for you.
- Hide Description in Action. Instead of writing a shopping-list of clothing or physical features, pepper the dialogue tags and moments of action with description. Never dump it all at once. If your character crosses their arms, have them cross them over their jumper, or dinner jacket, or summer dress. If they get a call, they get their phone out of their red handbag, gym bag, or the pocket of their jeans. If they say something, make them do something as they say it: ‘“Like, get real,” Rebecca said, pulling a stray permed hair from her shoulder pad.’ Dialogue tags are great places to sneak in information.
- Experiment with Verbs, Nouns, and Adjectives. When Alan walks he might shuffle, stumble, march, stomp, skip, or – like the seductive Sally from earlier – sashay. Verbs – doing words – can change how we perceive a character, and can show emotions like anger or joy without the writer having to mention it directly. Similarly, adjectives – descriptive words – can add another element to your writing. Are Alan’s shoes scuffed, polished, holey, squeaky, soggy, tight, stretched, gaping, or sparkly? And what about the shoes themselves – are they boots, sandals, brogues, flip-flops, lace-ups, or trainers? An Alan marching in polished brogues is a world away from an Alan shuffling in holey trainers, isn’t he?
Exploit the reader’s imagination. Give them a hint of description, a taste of it, and let them conjure up the rest of the character for themselves.
And please, never, ever describe your characters by saying: ‘He looked like Brad Pitt in the movie ‘World War Z’.‘ Seriously, leave the celebrities out of this. You can do better.
Forget Hair and Eye Colour
Too many writers fall into the trap of describing their characters’ looks through the overused couplet of hair and eye colour.
- Frank’s brown hair perfectly matched his eyes.
- Kate had dark-blonde hair and green eyes.
- Geoffrey’s grey eyes sparkled beneath his sweep of ginger hair.
When did we get it into our heads that hair and eye colour make a person? I rarely notice people’s eye colour unless it’s particularly striking, and I certainly don’t remember it afterwards. I’m too busy thinking about their bushy eyebrows, sharp chin, or Roman nose. I’m thinking of their personality, whether they were funny, or charming, or irritable. I’m thinking of my overall impression – not two distinct, and often forgettable, traits.
What do my above examples tell us about Frank, Kate, and Geoffrey’s personalities? Nothing.
Character description should do something, it should pack a punch. So what if Frank’s got brown hair and eyes? What does that tell me about him? WHY does it matter? Let’s look at another example:
- She had short blonde hair and blue eyes.
That could be Miley Cyrus or Princess Diana.
Be specific. Empty words are wasted words – and readers and agents won’t like them. If you’re mentioning hair or eyes, make it striking, make it give an impression of the character.
- Frank’s neon-green mohawk drooped in the rain.
- Kate smoothed down her tight chignon, not a single strand out of place.
- Geoffrey smirked, his hooded eyes smoldering like charcoal.
To be clear: it’s okay to mention your character’s hair and eye colour at some point in the novel – but don’t do it immediately after you introduce every new character in the book. If the first place you go is hair colour or style, it’d better be worth it. Reserve excessive hair and eye description for the Rapunzels and Nick Furys of your fictional world, okay?
Pick Unique Traits
It’s easy for readers to lose track of characters in a busy novel – even more so if they’re all described through their hairstyles. Is ‘brown-haired Eddie’ the old flame or the uncle? The firefighter or the vet? The charming ladies’ man or the bumbling nerd? Somehow, as quickly as you can, you’ve got to re-introduce your character so the reader knows exactly who they are and what they’re like. But how?
You take a shortcut.
Assign every character you create a key physical feature – thick eyebrows, dirty fingernails, hooked nose, painted lips, clothing style, mannerism – and refer to that feature whenever you describe them. Use it as a signifier. Your reader will come to associate that feature with that character, saving you precious words – and the reader from boring chunks of description. You can add in other details around it, but the unique trait should take priority.
Let’s take the possible ‘brown-haired Eddie’s from above as an example of trait ideas:
- The old flame – designer stubble.
- The uncle – bushy eyebrows.
- The firefighter – heavy build/strength.
- The vet – hands.
- The charming ladies’ man – white teeth.
- The bumbling nerd – thick-rimmed glasses.
Focusing on one particular aspect of a character’s look has three advantages: 1) You make them instantly recognisable to the reader; 2) You save words; 3) The character’s personality is entwined in that one feature. Think about my previous example of Alan and his shoes: what do the combinations of verbs, nouns, and adjectives tell us about him?
If you can use one feature to convey overall looks and personality in a sentence, you’ll earn yourself a massive amount of brownie points from the reader. (And if you do it really well, someone might actually gift you some brownies. Real brownies! Come on, don’t blow your chances.)
Show Personality and Emotion Through Appearance
As I discussed extensively in my post on showing rather than telling, the reader should grasp your character’s personality type and emotions through their reaction, not through statements such as ‘she was annoyed’. Instead mouths should tut, eyes should roll, and arms should cross.
To kill two birds with one stone, use these reaction descriptions to tie down your character’s looks, too. Channel their thoughts and feelings through their main, unique trait. Here are some examples of what certain features can do:
- Hands – clench; become fists; caress; have bitten nails; claw; twiddle thumbs; interlock; scratch; wipe away tears; pat; stroke; hit; dig nails into palms.
- Eyebrows – raise; lower; knit; contract; wiggle; jump; frown; (state of mind:) plucked; bushy; pierced.
- Facial hair – droop; quiver; fiddled with; combed; tugged; smoothed; scratched; puffed; twitched.
- Cheeks – hollow; ashen; drained; plumped; flushed; burnt; blushed; rosy; stretched.
- Nose – sniffed; wrinkled; rubbed; wiped; dabbed; scratched; nudged; tapped.
Okay, so you might struggle to convey a character’s multi-faceted emotions through their nose, but do you see what I’m getting at? A man with an odd-shaped nose will be more memorable when he pops up every few chapters than the same man with ‘short, dark hair’. “Hey look, it’s nose guy again!” That’s the reaction you want – not “Who?”
Everything in Moderation
Yep, it’s my favourite phrase again – but it’s always relevant.
Don’t let this post scare you out of writing about hair or eyes ever again. It’s okay to do that. A character with large ears doesn’t need to be ‘the one with large ears’ all the time. They can have hair, you know – but, possibly, you’d describe it by saying, ‘She covered her ear with a handful of golden curls.’
Whatever you do, make sure it’s fun to read and adds something to your work. If you don’t need to mention a character’s hair, then don’t. The reader will fill in the gaps with their imagination.
The Key Points
- No Shopping Lists – Try not to dump a paragraph of description onto the page as soon as a new character arrives. Instead, pepper it through the character’s interactions, dialogue, and movements.
- Hint and Imply – Don’t state everything about a character’s outfit or appearance. Little clues help build a bigger, more realistic picture than all the words in the world.
- Show, Don’t Tell – Don’t tell me that a character is sexy, or clever, or dorky, or rebellious. Show me.
- Stereotypes – Borrow from well-known stereotypes to reinforce your characters in a hurry. Pom-poms and a snarl make a bitchy American cheerleader. You should write her with more depth than that, but it’s a role we can all recognise.
- Use Verbs, Nouns, and Adjectives – Make every word work for you. Never say ‘ran‘ if ‘scrambled‘ or ‘raced‘ or ‘jogged‘ fits your character better.
- Unique Traits – Avoid describing every new character’s hair and eye colour. Try to give each character a particular highlighted feature to make them more recognisable throughout the novel. An odd nose or a scar will grab the reader’s attention more than ‘dark hair’ or ‘bright blue eyes’ will.
- Don’t Waste Description – Save up excessive hair or eye description for characters whose hair and eyes are striking. Flowing beauty queen locks? Sure, that’s ‘her feature’. Mousy, shoulder-length cut? Maybe just mention it once or twice and focus on her paleness instead.
- Be Interesting – Above all, you must entertain your reader. Create unique, recognisable characters who say and do interesting things, who add to the story, who move the plot forward. Is it necessary that you detail a woman’s exact outfit, right down to the make of insoles she’s wearing? Didn’t think so. Include the best bits, the exciting bits, the bits that mean something. And try to have fun doing it.
Phew, all done. As a perfectionist prone to writer’s block, I’ve been working on this post for weeks now – and I’m quite happy to see the back of it! I hope it was helpful to someone out there, but do let me know if I’ve missed anything.
What are your descriptive tricks? How do you write your characters? Do you prefer to include lots of detail or keep things simple? Are you a fan of shopping lists? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!