The Writer's Bane: Describing a Character's Physical Appearance

I'm going to be totally honest here. There is little I detest more than trying to describe how my character looks. The reasons are numerous. I think it sounds boring. It slows the story. It reads like a list or sounds cliched, etc, blargh de blargh.

I write in first person, to boot, making it even more difficult to create natural-sounding character description without using the dreaded MIRROR technique. After all, every time a writer uses a mirror to describe their character's physique, somewhere in the world a zombie dies. Think about that. Right now, Zombies are dying. I can't add to this terrible crime. Can you?

But then I read Word Painting and realized I was looking at it all wrong. Physical description doesn't need to be a dry, tasteless blob of facts to help the writer see our character. It can be seasoned and textured, and doled out bite by savory bite.

Let's Get Physical--The Problems


When introducing a character, there are a few basics most stick to: sex, hair, eyes, build. Which is fine to start, depending how you go about it. A description like Melvin the bellhop had brown hair, green eyes and was a bit on the skinny side can be summed up in one word: BLAND. This is the 'just the facts' approach, and can often read like a list.

Another common mistake is the 'throw in some adjectives' approach: Melvin the attentive bellhop from our luxury hotel, had gleamimg, oiled brown hair, haunting green eyes and a crisp uniform that fit his lean frame perfectly.

Oh dear. Can you hear the zombies screaming, Clarrise? The issue with relying solely on modifiers to liven up the physical description is that they often end up hitting on cliches or sounding overwritten.

Let's Get Physical--The Solutions

1) Choose description that is apt and characterizes rather than conveys information.

The bellhop's well-oiled brown hair suggested an abundance of cowlicks needing to be tamed.

This here not only paints a picture, it tells us something about Melvin. He takes pride in how he looks, and will go to lengths to appear professional.

2) Select a few attributes that stand out and work together to create a full picture.

The bellhop approached us with steps as crisp as his starched maroon uniform. His gold name tag, exactly level with his lapel, announced his name: Melvin. He smiled as he took our bags, and then with a cock of his eyebrow, enquired if we were ready to go up to our room.

Again, the crisp steps and starched uniform provide an apt comparison. His smile softens the starchiness, and his cocked eyebrow, along with him asking, not telling the hotel guests to come with him, provides the image of a smooth professional who knows how to make customers feel catered too. You'll notice no hair, no eyes, no build is described. Can you see Melvin anyway?

3) Actions speak louder than words

Which is easier to describe--a character in motion with a goal in mind, or one standing still? The answer is obvious. This ties back to the show-don't-tell line of thought. A character is defined by what he does, and through those actions, the reader can begin to understand what it is that he wants, needs and feels. By showing a character interacting with the setting, we understand more about who he is and can 'see' him better.

A Melvin scanning the lobby for debris, returning empty glasses to the bar and offering help to a flustered businessman wrestling with his oversized laptop case will be seen differently than a Melvin standing near the elevator, eyes straight ahead, waiting for his name to be called to the front desk for assistance.

4) Create a realistic, personal environment

Good character description does not rest on the character alone, but also through the places they spend their time and the objects they surround themselves with. Know the setting well and spend time world building it, because characters don't exists in white boxes of nothingness. Think of your bedroom or bathroom, and the personal touches that make it different from a friend's bedroom or bathroom. The things your character touches, the things they view as important...these are also items that will help build a concrete picture of your character.

5) Remember to use more than SIGHT to describe

Sight is only one way to get an image across. The other senses like smells, sounds or touching can also reveal a lot about a character and create intimacy ties between the character and the reader through recognition. Use them to characterize! Our pal Melvin would probably steer clear of heavy scents, careful to always consider both his guests sensitivity to strong colognes and to maintain his background role. Yet I could imagine standing next to him in the elevator and catching a whiff of clean soap, or perhaps a touch of aloe from his hair gel.

6) Description is best in manageable pieces.

A certain amount of detail is needed to intro a character, but really all that is needed is a line our two. Further characterization, tics and mannerisms will be revealed as you show them in action, so don't hamper the scene with clumps of physical description. Drop tidbits here and there, and remember to allude to important details more than once. If we described Melvin as pale skinned and it's a defining detail because he's really a vampire, mention it again in a different way down the road. Does a patron note the whiteness of his arm against his dark uniform as his sleeve rides up? Does his face appear to fade somewhat as he stands in front of the pearl-toned wallpaper? A reminder will reinforce the image we need then to see.

Do you have any tips and tricks that help you describe your characters?
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45 comments:

Paul C said...

You break down the skills very well. Another way to diversify description of a character is to allow other characters to make observations. Nothing like having multiple perspectives.

Reena Jacobs said...

Excellent pointers. I think it shows the difference between telling and showing. Sometimes just eliminating those pesky "had" and "was" words forces a author to write beyond the basic bland stuff and bring the character to life.

Angela said...

Paul, I'm glad you mentioned this--I was hoping someone would, because it's especially helpful through first person POVs.

Reena, absolutely strengthening the writing to make it more active achieves a stronger, clearer image.

Abby Annis said...

Awesome post, Angela! I ordered Painted Words a few days ago, after seeing your comment about it on Twitter.

Character description is probably my least favorite thing to write. I try to apply these techniques, but it can be tricky getting it right. Thanks so much for the great advice. :)

Martha Flynn said...

I'd add: resist the urge to physically describe every character. We don't need the make and model of every single person on page as much as how the MC perceives them.

Catherine Kariaxi said...

I absolutely agree with all of this<:

Personally speaking when I read something I don't need an immediately description of each character, unless it is necessary for a focal point. And even then it depends on your writing style...? I think?

Um. I guess I was thinking about a book like Mill on the Floss where the author mainly emphasized the protagonist's large dark eyes. At different spots she dropped in a subtle description of the protagonist's hair or her tall figure.

Compare that to Pride and Prejudice where we were only told that Elizabeth had a fine figure and fine eyes. Darcy made much of her eyes and their brightness and beauty, but we (the audience) are never outright told what color they were or much really.

Compare that to the "Mediator" books by Meg Cabot. I could be absolutely wrong here and just failed to notice, but at no point were we given much of a description of Suze. She was very tall. I think she had dark hair too, at least that rings a bell. But otherwise, it was not deemed important to focus on. Particularly in first person. We did, however, know what clothes she wore.

For myself - the project I'm working on right now has a good deal of description in the first chapter, but it somewhat is pertinent, because nationality plays a tiny part in the plot. I slip in a few good and BAD traits for this nationality, because they are a huge deal to the teenage protagonist. :)

Normally though, I don't really describe too much. Most of my protagonists are darker (dark hair, eyes, olive or darker skin). <- I drop in tiny descriptions throughout to emphasize, because I'm tired of the blondies getting the spotlight. Seriously. The majority of the world peoples are darker and want heroes and heroines who look like them. :P

Anna said...

"After all, every time a writer uses a mirror to describe their character's physique, somewhere in the world a zombie dies."

Ha! That made me laugh a lot. You make some excellent points on description. I'm usually all right with describing other characters in a story, but describing the main character, especially when the story is in first person, can be tricky. Thanks for the tips!

Abby Annis said...

Just wanted to add that character description can deepen characterization. Not just of the character being described, but of the character giving the description. I always try to add that filter to anything my MC describes, especially since I write in first person. Just my thoughts. :)

Susan said...

THANK YOU! I hate writing character description.

Angela said...

Martha, AMEN! I couldn't agree more. I find as a reader, when I come across too much description every time a new character comes along, I skim.

Abby, I hope you enjoy it. I found it was a touch hard to get into as it's both literary & poetry focused, but I'm glad I kept at it as I found some great info on both this topic and how to use different structures to create an effect, like metaphors, similes, alliteration, etc and now I understand them much better. Let me know how it goes once you read it!

Catherine, I couldn't agree more. It is the writer's style to describe or not, and often it is what a character does that brings about the image of who they are. Rarely is lots of detail needed to paint a picture. Those are great examples of the different styles that worked in each situation--thanks for sharing them! (And I agree with the blond/brunette thing, too!)

Anna, I'm glad I made you laugh on a Monday. That's awesome, and I'm glad these ideas help a bit. :)

Abby (again, ha!), you are bang on. The way characters see the world, others and themselves says VOLUMES. All of us are different, and if we were exposed to the same situation or person, all of us would interpret it differently. Some negatively, some positively, some empathetic, some dismissive. It's human nature.

Guys, I'm so glad this post has generated such excellent discussion! Keep it coming. :)

Conda V. Douglas said...

Oh, very useful--and how many times have I read a "adjective list" for a character? Too many.

Kirsten Lesko said...

Great tips in here - and some in the comments as well.

I'm not a fan of describing physical appearance either. I generally sneak it in by making it relevant to the action. Or, I try to make it funny whenever possible.

Kelly said...

Excellent. Excellent. Excellent.

I am going straight to my ms after reading this.

kathrynjankowski said...

Lloyd Alexander, to my mind, mastered the art of vividly describing characters in just a few sentences (sometimes less) and then letting their actions do the rest.
;-)

Laura Pauling said...

Funny thing is that it doesn't bother me at all when there is no physical description of a character as long as their we see who the character is through showing and dialogue.

Raven Corinn Carluk said...

In my first novel, I have my character give a rough description of herself while walking unescorted at night. She's not the normal paranormal heroine, in that she's actually built like an Amazon. So while she's musing about it not normally being safe for a woman to walk alone, she counters that no one's going to mess with a five foot ten woman in biker boots, with broad shoulders and leather jacket. I write in first person, so I found it an easy way to get a rough sketch of her in place. The rest of her description comes through in bits and pieces as she interacts with her envrionment and other characters.

I'm certainly in the camp that you only need as much physical description as is needed. Walk on characters don't really need any, and secondaries can do with just a rough sketch. Main characters should have several.details, but those, I agree, should be doled out and measured.

Matthew Rush said...

Great advice. Describing characters in too much detail also denies the reader the opportunity to imagine them as they wish.

Erica Chapman said...

Great post! I completely agree, a list of characteristics is just plain bo-ring. You've done a great job here of highlighting the good stuff. Thanks for sharing ;o)

Bish Denham said...

Excellent post! I think character description can be ladled out in small doses. We can learn a girl is tall and angular in one scene; has hair the color of dried grass in another; snaps her gum and stares at her scuffed shoes in still another...an with each bit of information we see/feel/understand the character a little better.

KM said...

Great list here! I definitely struggle with this, too. If I'm in 1st person and I want the reader to know what the MC looks like, I usually have someone mention a physical trait in dialogue.

I've definitely been guilty of the adjective thing. Oops. lol

Cher Green said...

Great post! I think you broke everything down great. I'll remember these pointers next time I'm describing a character.

Cher Green

Lisa Green said...

What a great post! I'm not sure about the whole killing zombies thing though. They tend to be brainless anyhow, so we might actually be doing them a service.

Jana Hutcheson said...

Great post! Thanks for the insight!

Karen Lange said...

Great stuff! I should probably bookmark this. Thanks for sharing:)

JayceeKaycee said...

Fantastic post. I'm bookmarking this one and referring to it often.

The Daring Novelist said...

When I describe someone, I tend to do two things - one is that I describe body language more than physicality. (Describe the effect, in other words.)

The other thing I think many writers overlook: I consider the observer. Often my description tells more about the point of view character than about the person being observed.

Angela said...

Susan, we cross posted I think! Thanks for commenting!

Conda, I agree. In moderation, it's fine, and sometimes fits the style of writing, but I think it still needs to show characterization, not just attributes.

Kirsten, sounds like you're on the right track. :)

Thanks Kelly--glad it helps!

Kathryn, I agree, I think this is how it should be done. Something has to be left up to the reader to imagine to make the character their own.

Laura, I agree. It doesn't bother me either, but I do know many people who need detail to help anchor them in the character. I think a few details should usually be present, and then the character's actions and dialogue round out the picture.

Raven, it sounds like you'd be fine there. In that case, her thoughts reflect her feelings, which just happen to include her physique as a plot point, not general descriptors. She's obviously not a victim, and it fits into the current action, explaining why she takes this risk.

Matthew, exactly!

Erica, glad it helps.

Bish, I think too you're showing something important here with your example--the description should be more than run of the mill. Hair the color of dried grass is a unique way of putting it and sticks with me. It also makes me think texture as well--a dry, haystacky look with lots of fly-aways. :)

KM, yes getting others to mention details through dialogue that fits the scene is a good method as long as it isn't overused. Too, what a character says and doesn't say, what they notice and what they ignore says a lot about them as well. :)

Cher and Jana, thanks so much. I'm glad this breakdown helps. :)

Lisa, it's true, Zombies have been through a lot. I have a soft spot for them tho, and can't bear to cause further torment...

Karen and Jaycee, glad this is useful. It really helped me to get it all down in one place, too. :)

The Daring Novelist, I think this is exactly the approach to take. A character in the midst of doing something is a lot more revealing that one doing nothing. What characters do, what they think about other people and themselves and how they express their emotion tells us a lot about who they are. Combine this with a few physical details woven in naturally though how they do things, or through the eyes of another (or themselves) and it's the perfect match.

Kristi Helvig said...

Awesome post - I think this is an area where newer writers have difficulty. I know it's something I work on almost every day - thanks!

Eric said...

Great post. This is an important issue, and one I struggle with from time to time. We touched upon this in our short story class, and one thing I learned is to describe one or two things only. But when you describe it, make it a window into the character. You allude to this where you talk about showing personality as well as appearance in your descriptions. I like the idea of this technique and plan on working with it, see if I can do it more often in my writing.

fairchild said...

Wonderful post! Thanks for the insight.

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm guilty of the mirror technique when I've written in first person, but if I've killed zombies in the process, I feel good about it.

When I began writing, I thought I had to provide a lot of details. More recently, I've been better about telling less, and letting the reader imagine more.

You give some better scenarios for incorporating physical description. Great post.

Marcia said...

Wonderful pointers for cutting down on the static "info dump."

L.J. Boldyrev said...

I was thinking about this recently. I've just started writing a new YA novel and it is the love of my writing life. In this one, I did not describe the character's in detail, and I didn't name the setting.
I had a friend read the first 4 chapters and she described my two main characters almost exactly as I picture them, and she had the setting spot on. I think I must've done something right.

I love your examples! And I think around page 50 I mentioned someone's dimples and someone else's green eyes, but both times it was an organic description in the story. Great post!

Vegetarian Cannibal said...

Great post!

beccap said...

Awesome post, Angela! You know how I feel about zombies, so I wouldn't mind rubbing a few out (MWAHHAHAHAH), but this information should be very helpful for describing characters.

Wendy Marcus said...

Hi Angela!
Great post. Thanks for the tips. (I printed them out for future reference.) Describing characters is one of my least favorite things, as is reading long-winded descriptions.

Angela said...

Kristi, many thanks. I agree, this is daunting for new writers, but can also be a challenge for established ones as well.

Eric, thanks for sharing your experience! I like the window comparison.

Fairview and Marcia, thanks!

Theresa, I'm going to pretend you said 'Garden gnomes' instead of Zombies in your comment. *hugs zombies* LOL

LJ, it sounds like you hit on the magic! Way to go!

VJ, Thanks! And I love your name!

Becca, you just need to get in touch with your inner zombie. My likes to hang out right around revision times.

Wendy, glad this post helps!

MissV said...

Thanks for this! I hate descriptions too, but you just made it seem not only easy, but fresh and interesting!

Tory said...

Hi, Angela! I think this is an excellent topic for discussion, especially for newcomers as myself.

Months ago, when I began Book #1, I spent countless hours envisioning the pyhsical appearance of the characters in my YA novel.

On a wimb, I decided the main character (a young, female protagonist) should be completely opposite of my physical and emotinal make-up. Maybe I wanted a challenge, or perhaps I subconsciously want to be blond-haired, blue-eyed, and a teenage heart-throb.

I suppose that's the beauty of being an author: there are no limits or boundaries; the characters are who they are, and that's that!

Bluestocking said...

Great post! I love how you go through all the different ways to accomplish describing appearance. I cracked open a book getting lots of buzz right now and cringed a the mirror scene in the first chapter. Dealbreaker.

Amy Brown said...

Is it just me, or is Melvin kind of hot? ;)

Katja said...

Thanks to you Olivia Newton John is now singing in my head and I'm picturing obese men humping in the gym.

But great article nevertheless!

Shilpa said...

Thank you so much Angela. The characters in my novel ALWAYS look in to the mirror to describe themselves! LOL! I am going to change that...:)

cweaks said...

So I'm almost a year and a half late on reading this post, but I love you for it! Especially this morning as I apologetically admit (sigh) that I am apparently a Zombie Slayer. But I'm reforming! Promise :) XOXO

Kevin Smith said...

absolutely perfect! This has helped me so much. Before I read this I was using "to kill a zombie method" but now all of my characters are actually interesting. I'm like you in that I loathe describing my characters but now it is much more tolerable. Thanks!

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