It’s easy to go a little overboard as a writer when describing your characters. You’re in love with them, after all, and why shouldn’t your reader be equally besotted with everything from your protagonist’s electric blue eyes to their unlaced combat boots? As with most things, when it comes to character description sometimes less is more. And when it comes to adding those details, the description itself is often less important than the when, why, and how it’s incorporated into the story.
Here are five things to consider when you’re tackling your character descriptions:
1. Describe the things that really matter.
You can certainly let your readers know what a character’s hair and eye color is, but by way of physical description, those are unlikely to be very important details, even though they tend to be some of the most frequently written about. Things like body language, habitual gestures, style of dress, and pattern of speech will tell your readers a lot more about who a character is, where they come from, how they feel, how they relate to their world, and what makes them different from your other characters. Often the best details are the ones that your character has chosen for themselves: the brown eyes they were likely born with (unless it’s a cyberpunk future with custom-fitted bionic eyes, in which case go nuts!), their style choices and way of moving are much more personal. And, as an added bonus, you can work in those other more matter-of-fact details — like, let’s say, height — right alongside the more meaningful ones. For example:
Baz had a special talent for origami, which in his case mostly meant folding and folding himself until his body was much smaller than it had started out. He was taller than most of their teachers, definitely taller than every other kid in school, but every time he stood up he also creased himself at the spine, the shoulders, the neck, tucked every part of his body in along crisp and well-defined lines, until he was paper-thin and practically invisible.
He was also really good at actual origami, though. He left a flawlessly folded paper tiger on his desk one day after math class; Pavi kept it carefully tucked between the pages of her biology textbook.
So we’ve just told the reader that Baz is tall, which on its own might be kind of irrelevant information (unless for plot reasons we’re going to desperately need a character who can reach the stuff on the top shelf), except that we’ve also shared exactly how he carries himself with all that height, which says a lot about who he is and how he feels about life. If he starts out this way and winds up standing straight and tall at the end of your story, that alone will speak to the character development you’ve done that makes him more confident and sure of himself.
2. Perception and point of view will help you dig deeper.
Changes in point of view, and the characters’ own dialogue, can give you some great opportunities to give physical description and show relationships at the same time. A person is much more likely to be noting physical characteristics of others than they are to be examining themselves the same way, which is just one great way to avoid the now horribly over-done “character describes themselves while looking in the mirror” trick. Your characters are also very likely to think much differently of themselves and their own appearance than they do of other people’s, and characters will have differing opinions and perceptions of each other, too. You can use these contrasts to show not just different aspects of your characters, but the complexities of the relationships between them.
For example, if Maria has a massive crush on Andrew, she’s likely to think of his appearance in glowing, effusive terms, and she’ll place emphasis on the qualities in him that she finds personally attractive.
Andrew was perfect. That was just irrefutable scientific fact. His smiles were wide and genuine, and having one of them directed at her felt like standing in the warmth of the sun. During meetings, she’d watch him sketch doodles on his notepad and imagine what those broad hands might feel like on her body.
Wow, Maria, tone it down. Or don’t, I’m not gonna judge your life and choices, and frankly I have been there. Here’s a differing perspective of the same traits, where Maria and Andrew are rivals and she absolutely hates him:
Andrew was a massive tool. That was just irrefutable scientific fact. The only smiles he seemed capable of were cocky smirks and slimy leers. During meetings, he’d sketch doodles on his notepad instead of paying any kind of actual attention. She didn’t know what exactly he was drawing, but she was privately sure they were the kind of juvenile depictions of dicks that teenage boys liked to scratch into their desks in middle school.
And the great thing is, these two versions of character description can both be used in the same story, for the same relationship. The couple hating each other and eventually falling in love is a tried and true romantic trope. Maybe they start off locking horns (or Maria just hates him and he’s completely oblivious of the whole thing), but later it turns out what Andrew is sketching on his notepad are beautiful, daydream-y renditions of Maria’s face. Or her image of him starts off all roses and sunshine, but she learns later that he’s a seriously awful person, and it colors her every perception of him, making her hate the same qualities she used to want to write sonnets about.
The difference between Maria’s spoken descriptions and other descriptions of Andrew in the text — whether another point of view, the narrator, or Maria’s own private thoughts — can also reveal a lot about her feelings toward Andrew, as well as just generally giving the reader a lot of description of what Andrew actually looks like, from more of an outsider’s perspective.
Maria scowled into her coffee. “He has the most objectively awful face of all time.”
“I don’t think you actually know what ‘objectively’ means,” Leif said, with a frankly unnecessary amount of judgment in his tone. “If I hadn’t already had my obligatory sexuality crisis, I’d have had it today just from looking at him. He’s the guy you’ve been complaining about for the last two months? Do you understand how human standards of beauty work? Because I think you might be living in that one episode of The Twilight Zone with that supermodel and the melty-face guys.”
“That was an amazing episode, but you’re definitely objectively wrong,” Maria said. “Andrew is the worst. He’s smarmy and he unironically wears jackets with those leather patches on the elbows.”
“Andrew is wildly, insanely attractive. He’s got that whole, ‘I enjoy spending my free time at the gym but only in a perfectly normal and well-adjusted way, when I’m not too busy being sensitive and discussing feminist theory with my book club’ vibe. And God bless casual Fridays because his abs through that t-shirt were just—”
“Probably some kind of prosthetic he wears under his shirt, come on.”
“That… is not a thing,” Leif said. “Right? Tell me that’s not a thing.”
“I think he probably wears colored contacts,” Maria said, steamrolling over the question because she was pretty sure cosmetic ab prosthetics weren’t actually a thing. If she thought about it anymore she was going to have to pull out her phone and Google it. “Nobody’s eyes are that… I mean what even are they? Hazel? They’re like blue, but with, I don’t know, green and brown and these kind of little flecks like gold or something. That color can’t possibly be real.”
Leif blinked, like he was trying to make the world come into focus, and Maria was glad he did because clearly there was something wrong with his vision if he thought Andrew of all people was in any way attractive or desirable, or hot like the surface of the sun, or probably amazing in bed.
You can also share a lot of information by showing how others react to them. If grandma asks your character to get something down for them from a high shelf, that’s a good indication that they’re tall. If somebody makes disparaging remarks about their appearance, race, hair, etc., that tells the reader about what those features look like. If strangers cross the street to avoid them, that tells us something about them, too… and gives you an opportunity to contrast how the character feels about their own appearance against how others perceive them.
3. Consider the timing.
We’ve all heard the advice that writers should avoid “info-dumping,” wherein paragraphs and pages of description and tell-not-showing are dropped on the reader’s head like a particularly unsubtle bludgeon. So it probably goes without saying that mixing your descriptions in with the story’s dialogue and action is the way to go, and I wholeheartedly endorse that advice. Just picture yourself scattering beautiful and insightful character details like this guy:
Less often discussed, though, is the importance of timing even your shorter moments of description. Here are a few bad times to worry too much about describing your characters:
In the beginning
One of the more common ways to get a story off to an agonizingly slow start is spending time on establishing a character’s physical description right away. The most important things to include, particularly in your first chapter (or in the case of short story, first few paragraphs), are those things that will pull your reader further into the story, and that’s not necessarily what your character looks like. Your readers need to be invested or curious enough to want to know what happens to that person, so give them a chance to step inside the story before you hit them with too much description.
The first time characters lay eyes on each other can be a great time to establish appearance through someone else’s eyes, but don’t linger too long. It’s impossible to know very much about a person from the first glimpse of them, nor is a character likely to spend too much time deeply analyzing someone else’s appearance in these circumstances: there’s probably actual social interaction shortly to follow, whether it’s an introduction or a fist-fight, and that interaction is going to be a lot more important to your reader than a deep analysis of the shape of somebody’s jawline.
Think of each few lines of descriptive text taking up 30 seconds of real time in your narrative. If you’ve got several pages of descriptive text of what a character looks like, and then a few more lengthy paragraphs of how character A feels about how character B looks, and then character A’s profound contemplation about how their own appearance compares… in story time, you’ve left your characters just staring at each other for a few minutes. It’s a little awkward.
In the middle of the action
If your story’s careening along at a breakneck pace and you’re in the midst of some tension and action — a car chase, a murder, the moment before a passionate kiss, a showdown with a gaggle of samurai — that’s probably not the time to throw down much description of anything except the aforementioned action. Unless you’re using it as a device to slow down and linger over that action, it’s unlikely to be the time to describe.
4. Don’t drop important description too far into your story.
So we’re not going to pile all our description onto the reader at once, or too early on, but there’s also a danger in waiting far too long to put all your descriptive cards on the table. (This is no problem, right? You just have to do all this not too early and not too late and not all at once. Totally manageable.) Your readers will eventually develop their mental picture of your character, and you don’t want too much of that to happen without you, unless you’re planning to be sparing in your details specifically to let them picture the finer points themselves. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a description that’s short on specifics; writing by its very nature leaves a lot of spaces for reader interpretation, and that’s part of what makes the experience of reading both rewarding and sort of collaborative.
With the details you do plan to share, just don’t wait until your reader has already developed their own idea of what your character looks like, so that you might end up contradicting a mental image they’ve been carrying through your entire book. Having your mental picture of a character rearranged very late in the game, particularly when it’s something also important to your story, can be incredibly jarring and may confuse and irritate your readers. If you’ve gotten to chapter eight without any hint that your character is a massive, powerful man on the level of Andre the Giant, your readers are going to have some mental adjustment to do when the rest of your characters make an escape into the ductwork and he isn’t able to follow because you’ve suddenly revealed he’s three times bigger than your readers were imagining.
5. Acknowledge that your readers are going to have biases, and factor that into what you describe and how.
Everybody has biases: it’s a function of societal norms and majority rules and all sorts of other things that are kind of unavoidable. Your readers have biases. You have biases. With most audiences, certain characteristics are assumed to be the default until stated otherwise. Straightness and whiteness are two of the bigger ones; unless you actually say in the text that the character’s traits are different from those, they will be assumed to be straight and white by a majority of a western readership. (And no, claiming years later that Dumbledore was gay all along, without truly even alluding to it in the actual text, doesn’t get you any representation points, JK Rowling.) People will in fact assume so hard that they’ll often ignore evidence to the contrary. For example: people freaking out over Rue being played by a black actress in The Hunger Games. It shouldn’t have been a surprise considering the book describes the character as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” but it still touched off a shitstorm of racism with readers who had not only disregarded the description but in fact pictured a “little blonde innocent girl,” because that’s apparently the only kind of child whose death they’re able to find tragic. (Yiiiiiikes.)
What you actually do about these sorts of biases will depend on who exactly your audience is, and what sort of characters you’re portraying, but make sure you’re specific about the details that make your character different from what your audience is likely to assume. (And be prepared, as in the example of Rue above, for people to ignore that anyway.)
Beautifully descriptive, subtle references that you’d definitely pick up yourself aren’t always going to cut it, and there are times when you’re going to need to be downright blunt, so that you’re not just hinting at anything, you’re definitively stating it. Possibly more than once. Remember that bit about people ignoring the description you gave them that doesn’t fit neatly into their own political and social worldview? Your “peppering” of description might have to go from the culinary type of peppering to the peppering of a shotgun blast.
That doesn’t mean you spend a few paragraphs lingering over a character’s chocolate-caramel-frappuccino complexion or overwhelmingly nut-shaped almond eyes while not at all describing the overwhelming paleness of your white characters. It means you unequivocally establish those traits that are important, and work to not allow your readers to assume things like skin color or disability status. (Part of that is simply not writing all of your characters to that default, anyway. Diversity isn’t a politically correct concept: it’s a depiction of a realistic world.) Acknowledge that those assumptions are going to happen, and then prevent or upend them.
And it’s not just readers of the racial majority who will be impacted by ideas like default whiteness. It’s pervasive in all sorts of cultures, in all sorts of minority spaces, and overwhelmingly in Western culture – and cultures impacted by European colonialism, which is pretty much all of them – in general. The world is flooded with western media that tends toward a certain default type of character. Members of minorities may always be looking for themselves in the media they consume, but we also know we’re usually going to be disappointed by a media landscape that is overwhelmingly stacked against us. So if you’re offering representation (and you should be): offer it whole. Don’t hint at it or edge around it. Put it on the page.
There are definitely times when any truly significant characteristic like the ones we’re discussing here can be revealed late for impact and effect (as in the aforementioned “Eye of the Beholder” episode of The Twilight Zone, and EC Comics’ somewhat infamous Judgment Day). But when that reveal isn’t the primary theme of the story, or withholding it until late in the story serves no particular purpose and doesn’t subvert tropes or flip assumptions, it might just be a bad idea.
It should be noted however that while physical characteristics may be important to establish early on unless there’s a reason to hold them back, things like sexuality that aren’t necessarily visible traits can work wonderfully as something that is revealed organically later in the story (as in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle), or can make a perfect last-minute reveal that subverts a trope and destroys the audience’s assumptions (as at the end of the delightful animated film ParaNorman).
And while you’re thinking about audience bias, it’s a good idea to consider your own. We all have them, and it’s important to know what pitfalls we can fall into as authors, or ways that we can unintentionally harm some of our readers with the things that we write or the way we write them. For instance, when JK Rowling was writing the Harry Potter series, her description of Hermione as “very brown” was apparently just her way of describing an intensely tanned white kid, but for a lot of people of color who’d read previous descriptions of Hermione’s features (in the author’s own words in a later tweet, “brown eyes, frizzy hair, and very clever”) and imagined a black character, those descriptions would read very differently. A simple awareness of this, and considering the story from that point of view, might have led Rowling to be more precise in her descriptions… or dare I say, to entertain the possibility of just outright describing the character as black, which would have certainly enriched the story on a number of levels.
So that’s it for these five character description tips. What sorts of descriptions really catch your notice, as a reader… in a good way or a bad way?