I’m sure we’ve all read a book that introduced a character and then endlessly described their appearance for a good paragraph or five. I’ve encountered stories as well where the descriptors were very sparse.
I like knowing what characters look like and it can matter to the story. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still helps me differentiate characters: I know the Weasleys in Harry Potter all have red hair, for example.
Descriptions can tell us a lot about the character: age, personal style, status, occupation, etc. Looks can be important in this way which is why I’m all about knowing what characters look like.
With that in mind, here’s some advice on how to do it well. These aren’t hard and fast rules, mind you, but they can serve as a helpful guide in your work.
- Don’t shove it all in the introduction of the character. When you first introduce a character, you’ve probably got this person’s story mapped out. You know this character and what they’re about. You care about this character, but the reader doesn’t yet. The reader wants to learn about this character’s role in the story, what they’re going to do, and why they’re important. It’s less important to detail what they look like. Give a brief description there and then put in the details as they become relevant (we’ll come back to this idea.)
- Talk about it from the point of view of another character. This way you can really tailor your descriptions to the situation and to other characters. What would Character A notice when first meeting Character B? If A is shorter than B, they’re likely to notice their height difference. What situation are they in? Are they in a bar fight? Did they just bump into each other on the street? Did they share a dance at a masquerade ball? The situation matters. In a fight, A might notice B’s stature and strength. When dancing, they may notice skill (or lack of) as well as the way they dress. In a neutral situation, what would A notice? Eyes? Hair? Nose? Build? What would strike them first?
- Put it with an action. Don’t think your readers are dumb. Readers will pick up on stuff. If B is taller than A say something like “A looked up at B.”, now we know that B is taller than A. Or “A shoved B to the ground.” Here we know A is strong enough to shove B over. “They held hands and A noticed that B’s hand was soft without callouses.” Now we know that B probably doesn’t do a lot of manual labor. “B spun and moved to the music with grace, he/she never missed a step.” We know B knows how to dance. These are very generic examples, but you can apply them more specifically.
- Try not to stick to just visual details. Visuals are important, of course, but so is sound, smell, and tactile details. Does Character B where a lot of perfume/cologne? A will probably notice. Has B not bathed in quite some time? Does B smell like horse manure? Is B all sweaty after a hot day working outdoors? As well, what they sound like is important. Is B’s voice low? Does B stutter? Is B quiet? Is B always the loudest person in the room? Does B where heavy boots that make big thuds when they walk? Does B have a lot of ornamentation or jewelry that jingles as they move? Does B move almost silently so A can’t hear them when they walk up behind him/her? If tactile details are important (if the character’s touch for some reason) you can discuss those things (like the hand example from earlier). Does B have dry skin? Is B constantly cold? All these things not only describe Character B for us but also serve tell us, at times, deeper details like status, style, or occupation. Even personality details like outgoing vs. shyness.
- Avoid general descriptions. If I described my friend to you as “Male, average height, blond hair, blue eyes, and square jaw.” chances are that will mean something different to everyone, so it’s not very useful. Also remember that the reader can’t see the character, so generalities like “pretty, ugly, creepy looking, average looking, etc.” aren’t useful to the reader. Focus on specific things details. How long is the hair? Are they broad or slender of build? What color blue are the eyes (light, dark, etc.)? If I tell you my friend “Has a bit of a big nose and always wears his hair in a mohawk.” that’s more specific. Unless you need to only use generalities for a specific reason that’s plot relevant, avoid that.
- Try to give characters at least one significant feature. By significant, I mean one that is unique. Think of all those cop shows where they ask witnesses to describe the suspect and ask for any identifying features. Something that would make it easy to pick this person out of a line up of similar looking people. Things like: Tattoos, scars, birthmarks, a missing tooth, facial hair, tan lines, or something else really distinctive. A big nose or really bushy eyebrows, maybe they’re especially tall or especially short. What is the most striking?
- Don’t make all of them perfectly attractive, especially the “good” characters. Unless this is a world where every character is incredibly good looking for some reason, then everyone (in the real world or not) probably has some type of physical “flaw” (I say “flaw” in quotes because these things are perfectly normal and not really flaws.) It can also help create/show unique features. Crooked teeth/one crooked tooth, acne, unkempt hair, a scar, extremely pale, bushy eyebrows, a big or crooked nose. This way characters don’t all look the same or similar (unless they’re supposed to). Even if a character does find another attractive, that doesn’t mean that he/she looks perfect.
- How does a character feel about the new character? This can go a long way. It can tell us not only about looks, but how the new character carries her/himself. Is character A intimidated by B because of their height or noticeable status? Does B creep A out for some reason? Does A’s behavior change when interacting with B (people interact differently with authority or children than they would other people)? Does B wear a symbol of a rival faction that A hates? Again, avoid generalities. Avoid things like “A thought B was beautiful/hideous.” Stick to specifics. “The way B’s eyes followed A around the room sent shivers up his/her spine.” is better than “B creeped A out.” As well, “A’s heart beat faster and he/she felt nervous whenever he/she looked at B.” is better than “A was taken with B’s beauty/handsomeness.”
- Avoid poetic language. This is something that’s endlessly discussed in fantasy writing, but here’s my two cents. Unless your whole work is meant to sound especially heightened or poetic, than use it only to make a point. Don’t throw it in just for the sake of it “sounding nicer”. If B has green eyes, call them green. Don’t use “B had emerald eyes.” or “peridot“, just say “bright green, dark green, light green, etc.” Personally, I don’t mind the use of smilies if they’re done well. “B’s eyes were blue like a stormy sea” is one (poor out of context) example. But again if it’s just a quick glance, this probably isn’t helpful. That’s the sort of description you get with a prolonged gaze or really studying those features. Context and execution are most important here and are more likely to be used once characters feel certain ways about each other after a period of time.
If character A describes B poetically immediately, make it intentional. Is A really fond of poetry and projects that onto people he/she meets? Does A easily develop crushes on practical strangers and falls hard for them really quickly? Again, the point is that if you’re going to do it, do it intentionally, do it for a reason, and do it to further the plot or communicate important information.
- Don’t have your character standing in front of a mirror looking at themselves. Let’s say that you’re having a POV character describe themselves to the reader. A mirror is obvious, but overdone and frankly boring. It’s boring because nothing is happening. Unless they’ve gotten a makeover, or their appearance has otherwise changed, there’s no reason to have them standing in front of a mirror (unless it’s also important to plot), especially when the reader first meets them. Instead, first think about what your character feels about their appearance. Are they confident? Insecure? Do they not really care? Either way give them one feature they’re proud of. Do they love their hair? Their eyes? Are they strong and proud of their muscles?
Otherwise, there’s plenty of ways to describe their appearance without standing in front of a mirror. Do they struggle getting on a horse because they’re short? Do they bump into door frames because they’re tall? Do they spend time styling their hair? Do other characters comment on their appearance? Do they bite their nails? All the same things that apply to characters describing each other can apply to characters describing themselves.
So there’s 10 paragraphs of advice that can aid you when describing characters. Like I said, these aren’t hard or fast rules. They can all be tweaked, broken, or avoided all together so long as what you’re trying to accomplish is executed well.
In closing, here are some resources that can help you out when describing characters:
Imaginary Characters Reddit (Links to all sorts of art for different character types including archers, warriors, pirates, etc.)
DeviantArt (Search through art and find pieces that help you visualize your characters.)