Strong character description is key to creating vivid and realistic characters. We may be tempted to reach first for obvious elements of physical description, such as eye and hair color. Yet strong imagery tells us more about a character’s personality, quirks, strengths and flaws. To avoid weak character description:
1. Make character description relevant to your scene
‘Shopping list’ character description is common in mediocre writing. This is where you introduce a character with a list of attributes they possess:
‘She had blue hair and brown eyes and drove a red hatchback and lived in a tiny apartment on 42nd Street.’
Although this type of character description isn’t necessarily terrible, it does make the author’s hand visible. It’s as though the author has a paper doll they’re clothing with description before our eyes. ‘Let’s give her this, and this, and that.’
Instead of this approach, linking descriptions to relevant actions or surrounds makes the author’s presence behind the description less immediately obvious.
‘Glancing in her car’s vanity mirror, she noticed dark roots showing again beneath the blue dye-job. You’re a hot mess, girl. ‘
Here the description is relevant to an action. The character could be checking her appearance because she’s heading somewhere and thinking about the impression she’ll make. Her reaction to her own appearance also suggests a little about her personality. She’s perhaps a bit self-critical and self-conscious.
Think of how you can introduce physical details about your characters as they become relevant to the story. For example, you could describe the same character as she enters a party, through the eyes of someone sitting across the room. Try write this description as an exercise. What do they assume about the girl, based on her appearance? And what does their impression tell us about the observer?
2. Avoid relying on single describing words
In Ben Blatt’s book Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, the author shares insights he gathered through big data analysis of books from popular fiction along with classics.
Blatt notes how often male characters in certain genres and book marketing categories (such as YA) ‘grin’.
Grinning or smiling isn’t problematic in itself. Yet character description starts to feel weak if it feels repetitive, like a ‘go-to’ action.
The verb ‘to grin’ comes from the Old English grennian meaning to ‘bare the teeth in pain or anger’, yet has become ‘to smile broadly’. It does still retain some of its more grotesque meaning, though, in that it also means ‘to grimace grotesquely so as to reveal the teeth’. The way, for example, you might describe a grinning skull and crossbones.
Perhaps this underlying tension in meaning is part of why ‘grin’ is such a popular male character descriptor. There’s also something boyish and spontaneous in its contemporary use.
Even so, think of ways you can vary character description. Instead of a character ‘grinning’ at every opportunity, you could show their approachable or easygoing nature by:
- Describing other elements of body language: When we like others, we may stand or sit closer, or even occasionally make friendly physical contact (a playful poke, nudge, etc.)
- Using varied describing words: Synonyms for ‘grin’ include smile, beam and smirk (the latter has more negative connotations of arrogance or scoffing at another, however). Use an online thesaurus to find alternative describing words
Remember: Variety and specificity are key ingredients of memorable character descriptions.
3. Describe more than characters’ faces
Often character description in amateur authors’ work starts and ends with a character’s face. Yet besides eyes, mouths, freckles and the like, there are so many other things we notice about people.
Movement is a key part of what distinguishes people. There’s a common movement exercise in drama education where students imagine walking with an imaginary magnetic pull leading their movement from different parts of the body. For example, walking as though you are being led by the forehead, versus walking as though your stomach is your centre of movement.
This exercise is a simple way to create striking differences between characters when acting. The same goes for writing – small details can create a world of difference. Practice describing:
- Movement: Is your character a fast or slow walker? Do they move gracefully, or knock over pot plants, drop cutlery, scrape their chair as they get up?
- Posture: Is your character upright or stooped? What might their posture say about your character’s age, personality, background, profession? For example, a former ballerina may walk very erect due to years of physical conditioning and greater body awareness that are part of being a professional dancer
- Taste: What sort of clothing does your character typically wear? Clothing can tell us about characters’ gender identities, whether they love (or try to hide) their bodies, what colours they love, whether they care about their appearance or not
Use the Character section of Now Novel’s dashboard to brainstorm details about your characters. Keep going until you have an outline off key character descriptions you can use.
4. Describe feelings as well as facts
Many character descriptions simply give us the ‘shopping list’ of character appearance facts. E.g. ‘She had narrow lips and a pale complexion.’ How you can make descriptions more characterful? One way is to include an emotional element when you describe appearances.
Let’s take an example. Instead of simply saying a man’s eyes are blue – which doesn’t tell us about his character or personality – you could say:
‘His blue eyes were blank, reptilian; gave nothing away, like the eyes of a professional gambler. She imagined he would not even flinch at a sudden explosion of gunfire.’
Here, the emotional response of a character to another’s eyes creates a sense of the other’s personality. The character’s eyes become a gateway to understanding their self-mastery, and they also suggest a total lack of fear.
When writing character description, create descriptions that don’t merely give facts. Instead, share details that show people’s qualities. What are they like? As an exercise, try this character description prompt:
A woman goes for a job interview but something about the interviewer’s eyes as they speak makes her change her mind about wanting to work at the company. Describe the moment the interviewee makes this realization.
5. Be specific
Specificity is key to writing great character descriptions. Compare ‘the girl with the brown hair’ to ‘the girl’s shock of brown hair was wild, a total rock-star tangle’. The latter simply is more exact. The combination of ‘shock’, ‘wild’ and ‘rock-star’ suggests a character who is messy yet cool.
Often, great descriptions develop, increasing in specificity over a paragraph or page. Consider this example, the opening to Damon Galgut’s novel The Good Doctor:
‘The first time I saw him I thought, he won’t last.’
Immediately, we see the arrival of a character at his rural hospital posting, via the hospital’s deputy’s eyes. We can guess that there is something specific about the new arrival, Laurence, that forms this impression. Galgut’s narrator Frank continues to become more specific:
‘I was sitting in the office in the late afternoon and he appeared suddenly in the doorway, carrying a suitcase in one hand and wearing plain clothes – jeans and a brown shirt – with his white coat on top.’
Specific details of dress here are simple. Yet Frank’s description subtly hints that Laurence is dressed wrong for the hospital environment (‘wearing plain clothes’), in context of the statement ‘I knew he wouldn’t last.’
Galgut continues to describe the newcomer so that we get a sense of his hesitance:
‘He came in, but he didn’t put down the bag. He held it close while he looked around at the pink walls, the empty chairs, the dusty desk in the corner, the frail plants wilting in their pots. I could see that he thought there’d been some kind of mistake.’
Through the growing description, we see that Laurence appears an ill-prepared, nervous man who ‘won’t last’. If the narrator had simply said ‘he had blue eyes and brown hair’, it wouldn’t be as rich or vivid.
6. Share character description through others’ points of view
The example of character description above gives a key lesson. Describing characters through each others’ eyes is effective. It enables you to tell readers key things not only about the character being described but the observing person, too.
For example, in Frank’s description of Laurence from The Good Doctor, we form an impression of Frank, too. Because he’s looking for signs whether or not the newcomer will ‘last’, we see a sense of pessimism or weariness in his personality. Whether or not Laurence is truly as fragile or tentative as Frank perceives him, we don’t yet know. we only have Frank’s word.
Thus Galgut sets up an interesting character dynamic where the description of Laurence filters through another’s own personality, desires and frustrations, as we discover the two will be sharing lodgings.
As an exercise, take a famous figure (it could be a controversial president, or a celebrity). Write a paragraph of description via a complete fan or supporter’s eyes. Then rewrite the paragraph changing the description’s POV to a character who loathes the person. How can negative traits and physical features in one person’s eyes be positive in another’s?
Being able to see different sides and how people see each other through rose-tinted glasses (or with negative bias) will help you create interesting multi-perspective descriptions. Description is often not simply objective fact but the values we assign to those facts.
7. Collect memorable character descriptions
If character descriptions are a known weak point in your writing, make a habit of writing down great character description you come across in your reading. Building your own dictionary of vivid characterizations will give you a book you can turn to for insight and technique.
Even better, read through a good character description (up to a paragraph long) a few times, then try to write it out from memory. Compare your version to the original. Notice every detail, from punctuation to the adjectives (describing words) the original used.
Consciously working on your descriptive powers this way will help you write and describe characters who come to life and linger after your reader finishes the story.
Need help writing believable characters? Get our guide How to Write Real Characters, and work through the practical character creation exercises in each chapter. Or join Now Novel and get constructive feedback from the community or a writing coach to develop your story’s cast.