One of writing’s many challenges is creating character descriptions that convey what they should without going overboard.
Character description works best when it incorporates something beyond physical description and reveals insights into a character. This kind of description is all about selecting the right details and nuances that convey a character’s very distinct personality.
Anne Rice famously opened The Vampire Lestat with a full-on self-description that caused many others since to similarly try a “more is better” approach and show a beloved character exactly as the writer imagines. Many of these followers missed the point. Rice wasn’t just describing what Lestat looked like. She was giving away on the first page his utter vanity and passion that he would reveal throughout the book.
“I am the vampire Lestat. I’m immortal. More or less. The light of the sun, the sustained heat of the intense fire – these things might destroy me. But then again they might not.
I’m six feet tall, which was fairly impressive in the 1780’s when I was a young mortal man. It’s not bad now. I have thick blond hair, not quite shoulder length, and rather curly, which appears white under fluorescent light. My eyes are gray, but they absorb the colours blue or violet very easily from surfaces around them. And I have a fairly short nose and a mouth that is well shaped but just a little too big for my face. It can look very mean, or extremely generous, my mouth. It always looks sensual. But emotions and attitudes are always reflected in my entire expression. I have a continuously animated face. My vampire nature reveals itself in extremely white and highly reflective skin that has to be powdered down for cameras of any kind.”
A character description should not read like an Ident-i-kit. Otherwise, it comes off as only a laundry list of standard features that taken together could resemble anyone. Or no one.
A description should feel unique.
And preferably, a description works even better when it has just enough clues that a reader can create an image using their own imagination – rather than the author’s. As beloved as any author’s creation may feel to them, the point of storytelling is to yield the rights to these children and entrust them to readers. When a reader connects with a character in a deep and personal way, enough to visualize them in a form they co-create with just a few tips from the author, that’s when the magic happens.
And magic doesn’t happen quite so easily or readily when a laundry-list of character features is being read out and the reader is expected to memorize these, as well as fill out said character exactly as the author intended. Characters don’t belong only to authors, when it really comes down to it. They belong as well uniquely to each and every reader.
There are some authors who don’t bother with physical descriptions at all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When a story is compelling enough, readers will always supply their own character description – and be surprised the author forgot to (on purpose).
But for the sake of what I’ll talk about today, we’ll stick with discussing how to describe – minimalistically and deliberately that makes best use of what’s being shown.
The two key questions most authors ask themselves with regard to character descriptions are “How much?” and “When?”
As far as “How much?” – just enough should be the usual answer. Although there are genres and even individual stories where a fuller description is expected or warranted – with character descriptions, less when done right can most assuredly be better than a laundry-list recitation of character attributes.
For the second question, “When?” is usually answered by “as early in the story as possible, or else don’t bother at all.”
I’ve actually read more than one first-person point-of-view novel recently where the author was so wrapped into the character’s voice, she belatedly worked in a character description 20 or more pages into the story. By that point, unless it’s relevant (straight brown hair is not relevant, by the way) a reader probably has the beginnings of their own inner-visualized character description and the author’s belated attempt to “clarify matters” is liable to shock the reader out of the story as the reader hastily has to erase and re-draw what they were already beginning to carefully form.
I don’t know about you, but I hate using an eraser to do broad-scale erasing after I’ve gotten a good start on something.
So my advice – if you haven’t begun to sketch a description of your character within the first – oh, I dunno – five pages, then don’t bother.
First-person point-of-view yields some of the most challenges to providing a character description of the point-of-view de facto main character. The “mirror trick” is over-used, cliche, and cannot be made original at this point – if it ever could at all.
There is nothing wrong with a character later examining something in particular in a mirror if a plot calls for it. But save the mirror for much later, and save readers having to wade through cliche.
If you’re going to attempt to describe the main character through someone else’s dialogue in a first-person narrative, make sure it works well and doesn’t feel either clumsy or artificial. Either of these would be: “Jan! I so LOVE how your red hair looks with that bow in it!” If it’s important that the character’s red hair be shown to readers, do it in a way that feels natural and not contrived.
With first-person, you can insert minor details in subtle ways by classic “show, don’t tell” – like: “My glasses kept finding their way down my nose and I just as absently shoved them back.” Or a blend of show-and-tell: “I tugged my skirt lower. I have knobby knees and hate when they show.” Or a pure tell: “Long hair is a blessing when you need it to hide behind.”
All of these descriptions reveal something beyond just the physical aspect. The point is to get as much utility from a description as possible. Make description multi-purpose whenever you can.
Here’s one I did in Snowflake Promise that is a little fuller description than I usually do. But all of it serves a purpose, book-ended between brittle form of beauty and lips drawn now in an expression of disapproval:
The woman’s features revealed an almost brittle form of beauty, as though nature had chosen to grant subtle flaws to mar its own gifts. Angled cheekbones framed a narrow mouth. Her hair swept away in curls of a lustrous shade of blonde that flowed like a wave over her shoulders. Her lips were drawn now in an expression of disapproval at this unwelcome interloper.
Third-person description is far easier to implement than first-person. It’s also far more tempting to over-do description because of that.
With Winter Fade, I took a less-is-more approach and focused on a single character trait at the beginning – one which immediately revealed mood:
Imoen Doyle stood up, smoothing the bed behind her. She had dimples that showed when she smiled, or when she frowned, as she now did.
A couple paragraphs later, I gave just a brief reflection on clothes – but from a perspective of what they revealed about her personality – a practical side when it came to shoes and an indication her clothes are as threadbare (albeit well-cared for to extend their use) as her apartment which had just been described as: Her bed and dresser were the major pieces of furniture in the small space, along with a lone castoff bookcase salvaged when its previous owner sought a new and less-encumbered beginning.
She bent to adjust an ankle strap, casting her face into shadow and deepening her hazel eyes to a richer green in a blending of darkness and light. She preferred the comfort and sensibility of flats over heels, although she now wore her sole pair of the latter. She picked a fine, stray hair from her sleeve and lifted the hem of her skirt to check for fraying or loose threads.
Later in the story, she meets two characters who will play important parts in her life:
Seth smiled. He had an open and friendly face. His curly hair had a reddish, almost copper tint that set off his ruddy features. He resembled nothing so much as a friendly bear.
A pixie-like girl watched them as they came to a stop. Imoen reluctantly got out of the car as the girl approached. She had fashionably cropped black hair and was dressed in what Imoen vaguely thought of as casual chic. She was younger than Imoen, barely out of her teens, with wide, dark eyes that seemed to gaze in perpetual wonder at the world. Her face was glowing as she brushed past Katharine and headed straight for Imoen.
In this description from Snowflake Promise, the description is incorporated into an entire impression of the character and what he might do, culminating in the concluding sentence:
The second man was far more striking. Powerfully built with broad shoulders, he towered over all the others in the room. His thick mane of hair retained the colors of a remembered sun, flaxen with a glint of copper that shone through it. His presence was made all the more imposing because he had forgone a chair, choosing instead to lean against the wall. His eyes were a light shade of bluish gray. They paused on Imoen and Ben, and then turned to assess the reactions of the others. Despite his casual posture, Imoen had the familiar sense of a readiness about him, like a spring whose coiled tension revealed its potential.
And another one which does the same:
A slightly built young woman with a frizzy halo of red hair came down the stairs toward them, her feet light like a dancer’s. She was casually dressed, with a large faded green backpack slung casually over one shoulder. She smiled at them, eyes twinkling around a heavily freckled nose. “Toby gave me tonight off.”
Sometimes it helps to make a character description distinctive by alluding to things a reader can immediately imagine and associate with the character. In Becomings, I did this with several character descriptions. Note the way the eyes are described – if you’re going to give a color, try to make it matter when possible:
The young woman stepped forward, her hand releasing from the man’s and falling away beside her as she walked with confidence toward Jeremy. Still in her late teens and perhaps a year or two younger than Isabel, she seemed to already possess a confidence far beyond her age. Her hair fell in rich dark tresses that reached to her waist. Her eyes were the color of a fisherman’s floats whose green has faded from too long in the sea.
And two more:
For his part, Alexei appeared more at ease than he undoubtedly felt. Probably a farm boy, she decided, noting his rugged build and the easy way he shouldered his pack of heavy equipment. His face was open and pleasant, framed by an unruly mop of hair the color of the burnished sun as it set each evening over the ruins of the former city.
He turned toward her now, but he was looking down, and he noticed her hands first. She would always remember that. The rest of her was swaddled in thick and shapeless clothing the color of earth that had just been turned over beneath a plow blade, a raw and rich blend of shades. Her blonde hair lay concealed beneath her cap, her long braid run down beneath her clothing. But her graceful fingers were exposed. Even with their grimy nails, she noticed him watching them, with an expression that made her feel self-conscious.
Glowstar is a more lyrical novel, so character descriptions follow the mood of the story:
Dark hair flowed like a fan around her pale face, delicate eyelashes drawn shut as if enraptured by a dream. Her face held an expression of peace that had been found after a night grown too long for hope of respite.
He became aware of her as her shadow fell across him. He looked up and smiled, a gentle turn of lips between cheeks with a hint of blush showing through the cold. A scattering of sandy hair snuck out from beneath a tasseled cap, and his brown eyes blinked against a gust of wind that rippled the paper held securely in hands turned almost white by winter’s touch.
What it all comes down to is making a description work by choosing what is relevant and just memorable enough to begin to define a character in a reader’s mind. The reader will fill out the rest.
It’s enjoyable to create a character who readers will share back their mental image of – and discover that each reader has imagined the character in a different, and very uniquely personal way. This is so much better than forcing readers to only see what the author has imagined down to the very last detail – most of which are pretty boring anyway.
Character descriptions are really all about the details. But they are not about all details. They’re about the right details.
The right details will spur a reader’s imagination into action, filling out the character – and yes, probably in ways the writer didn’t intend. But that’s exactly the point. What matters is for the reader to gain a personal connection with a character.
Come up with details and make them interesting, and focus on only the few that matter.
If a character’s hair color isn’t really important, skip it or at the very least minimize it. Height can very often be skipped, or at least contained within the vaguest of terms, like “He was a little taller than me, and I had to raise my eyes just a bit to look into his.” There’s a lot of 6’2″ and 5’4″ height descriptions in stories that really don’t matter to readers as much as they do to authors in many cases.
Clothing tends to get considerable description in certain genres, and where that works and given audience expectations, that’s perfectly fine. Clothes can reveal a lot about a character, and can convey moods. After all, most of us wear clothes for any given occasion for exactly those reasons, and we expect characters to do the same. So my advice is that when clothing description is called for, make it work. Let it bring out the character rather than simply sheath them. Remember that it is the character wearing the clothes, not the clothes wearing the character.
Every time you introduce a character, you imagine what that character looks like. But as you’re introducing a character, you also should already have begun to construct an entire background for that character. You understand their motivations and how that defines itself in their personality. So make good use of your chance to describe the character by combining personality with physical description.
Make description work by breathing life into the character whenever possible in the course of describing them. This goes for main characters and even for minor characters. Minor characters can be enlivened with just a stroke or two of the proverbial pen. Remember that many great artists have also done memorable charcoal sketches that omitted details but retain the fullness of a figure by allowing the viewer to supply the rest.
And the same goes for anything else described. Even inanimate objects can become animated and attain a kind of characterization for themselves. Bring them to life with description and infuse them with mood. Don’t let them just sit on shelves or stand up or look pretty at a curb.
If it’s a car, don’t be mundane and simply call it a Ford Mustang. Either don’t identify it beyond the generic, or else dress it up and personalize it. Make it feel like it’s really someone’s vehicle rather than only another car no different than any other in a showroom. Here’s how I described one car in Winter Fade:
Then she was shoved across a car seat where her body settled, legs dangling on the floor, her neck angled against the corner of the seat. The car reeked of smoke and age, stale smells that mingled where she lay on the worn upholstery, its springs pressed hard against her body.
Similarly, you can describe a building by instilling mood into its description, like this:
They cautiously approached the old church. A modest building, it had fallen on hard times. Stained glass had been replaced with weathered plywood. The grass surrounding it was now suffocating under a heavy overgrowth of weeds. There was a stillness to the air that made her wary. Something didn’t feel right.
Or this building:
Tongues of flame licked through windows where plywood had shattered from the force of the explosion. The flashes of light from the dark windows seemed to stare hungrily at her, like eyes that had suddenly opened and come alive, anticipating her approach.
Here’s New York Central Park where animation is employed in description:
Bethesda Fountain lay encircled within a ring the color of umber. Rising from its center, an angel stood poised in mid-stride, her wings outstretched to catch the fallen snow, a halo of white wreathing her head. Four cherubs played beneath her shadow, hands raised as though testing the frosty air. Further beyond, staircases rose like stepping stones from the snow up to a terrace graced beneath with arches.
And High Line Park:
Tall-stemmed grasses swayed in the wind, adorned with cotton ball puffs of frozen snow. She reached down to cup her palm around one, enticing it to release its trapped moisture like tears falling onto her skin. A few wispy clouds trailed across a sky patterned in rich hues of orange that stretched out to meet the deeper blue over the Hudson River. She walked to the railing to stare out at the water, where its slow movement seemed as enticing as a waltz. She closed her eyes, remembering the way the river had caressed her with cold fingers, drawing her down into its dark embrace where time fell away along with all her concerns.
And the inside of an old church:
She looked around carefully, finding a few others scattered about the wooden rows whose warm mahogany resonated beneath stone columns the color of snowmelt arrested before its final release. Statues followed her slow movement with eyes like marbles, their frozen visages recalling timeless passages of so many others who had come before. The sweet and smoky fragrance of candles lingered like heavy dew drops in the air, fulfilling a promise of warmth while they burned away their short lives. She found a solitary seat near a wall, protected within shadows that would keep their secrets close.
Even something as simple as a sip of wine needn’t be boring, when it’s shared with someone special and intended to convey more:
She accepted a glass of wine from Liam, and took a tentative and exploratory sip. Her tongue tingled beneath a taste like apples captured in their moment of perfect ripeness, along with a refreshing coolness that seemed to clear away her thoughts.
Description draws readers in close to share in the story the author has created. The author should be thinking deft and avoid being heavy-handed or dull. They should think, “How can I make this character or even this simple object come alive in a way a reader will really see it?”
Again, it’s not about revealing all the details, but only focusing on the right ones shown in the right way. And the right way will be individual to every writer. But what they will share is using description in ways that connect with the imagination of readers.