Character description examples from major authors give us useful lessons in how to write characters. Here are 7 character sketches from famous novels that show how to create physical and emotional character description:
1. Describe characters’ personalities using appearance
Strong character descriptions work on multiple levels. When you describe how a character looks, think about how appearance illuminates personality.
In Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning novel The Blind Assassin, for example, Atwood’s narrator Iris opens the story remembering her sister Laura’s death. Atwood creates a clear sense of Laura’s troubled personality by describing her clothing:
‘I could picture the smooth oval of Laura’s face, her neatly pinned chignon, the dress she would have been wearing: a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours – less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in.’ (p. 4)
Atwood’s description is specific in detail and there are clues to Laura’s depressive nature (the ‘sober’ and ‘penitential’ colours) in Atwood’s description.
2. Flesh out character descriptions from multiple characters’ viewpoints
Multi-angled character description is effective because we start to see how each character in a story connects to and understands the others. It adds depth and complexity to characters and their relationships.
Here is Virginia Woolf, describing Mrs Ramsay’s husband’s friend, Charles Tansley, in To The Lighthouse:
‘[Mrs. Ramsay] looked at him. He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. He couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best – to be for ever walking up and down, up and down, with Mr. Ramsay, saying who had won this, who had won that …’ (p. 11)
Woolf combines concise, clear physical description (‘all humps and hollows’) with what the children see as lacking in Tansley. Physical description is supplemented with his shortcomings (being bad at sport and his mannerisms and way of pacing). Woolf enriches a general impression of Tansley with Andrew’s subjective view, sketching in additional detail via multiple perspectives.
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3. Use metaphor to describe characters and avoid abstractions where possible
In Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning The God of Small Things, Roy’s character Estha retreats inwards and stops talking in the wake of a traumatic event. Roy’s use of metaphor in this character description example is much more effective than if she were to say ‘Estha was sad’:
‘Once the quietness arrived, it stayed and spread in Estha. It reached out of his head and enfolded him in its swampy arms…sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull, hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue.’ (pp. 11-12)
By describing Estha’s silence as a parasitic, living creature, Roy conveys Estha’s psychological state while avoiding empty abstract terms.
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4. Make character introductions memorable
The Victorian author Charles Dickens is a master of characterization. When Dickens introduces a character, he typically gives the reader multiple details. Dickens includes physical appearance alongside tics and shortcomings, to make a character stay with us.
Here Dickens describes the boastful, self-important Mr. Bounderby in Hard Times:
‘He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him… A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.’ (p. 18)
Dickens’ character description is memorable for multiple reasons. Firstly, he constructs parallel sentences beginning, ‘A man…’ This element of repetition sticks in the memory. Secondly, Dickens moves from the vague detail of describing Bounderby’s profession to the particulars of his appearance and voice, back to the general (‘A man who was the Bully of humility’). This makes the character’s appearance, mannerisms and public persona vivid.
5. Describe characters using action
To avoid expository lumps in character description, show characters’ natures and backstories using action. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison does exactly this on the opening page of her novel, Jazz:
‘I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.” (p. 3)
Morrison’s opening character description is excellent because it tells us plenty about Violet’s past. It shows Violet’s grief using a very specific event (the funeral of her cheating lover’s murdered mistress). Morrison doesn’t say, ‘Violet was driven crazy by grief, even to the point of disfiguring a dead girl, when her lover cheated on her.’ Instead, she shows Violet acting out her grief on the very first page.
6. Show characters through what they say (and omit)
Describing characters in conversation is another way to make your characters come to life. A great advantage of dialogue is that you can juxtapose what characters say to each other with their hidden, unspoken feelings. J.D. Salinger does this in a scene between college couple Lane and Franny in his novella, Franny and Zooey:
‘He suddenly leaned forward, putting his arms on the table, as though to get this thing ironed out, by God, but Franny spoke up before he did. ‘I’m lousy today,’ she said. ‘I’m just way off today.’ She found herself looking at Lane as if he were a stranger, or a poster advertising a brand of linoleum, across the aisle of a subway car.’ (p. 19)
Salinger alternates the focal point of the narration in this dialogue between both characters (we see both characters’ desires and frustrations). Showing both what Zooey and Lane say to each other and what they keep private creates a believable sense of both having private inner worlds that their words can’t always adequately express.
7. Use comparison to highlight key differences between characters
Many aspiring authors struggle to make each character distinct. Each major character should have their own voice, appearance, world view and set of motivations.
One way to make characters distinctive is to compare them. George Eliot clearly differentiates the two sisters, the pious Dorothea and the more worldly, salt-of-the-earth character Celia in her classic novel Middlemarch:
‘The rural opinion about the new young ladies, even among the cottagers, was generally in favour of Celia, as being so amiable and innocent-looking, while Miss Brooke’s large eyes seemed, like her religion, too unusual and striking. Poor Dorothea! Compared with her, the innocent-looking Celia was knowing and worldly-wise.’ (p. 9)
Because Dorothea’s pious nature is crucial for Eliot’s plot, the foil of her ‘worldly-wise’ sister draws our attention to this important character trait more.
In conclusion, keep a journal of character descriptions copied from the novels you love. When you like or dislike a character, ask why. How does the author use their dress, words, and deeds to show their personality?
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