Writing Character Descriptions In a Better Way
Imagine your favorite character. Go ahead. Close your eyes.
What do they look like? What are they wearing? Modern hiking gear? An outfit from the 1880s? What’s their hair color? What stands out to you?
Can you imagine Indiana Jones without his brown fedora and leather whip? Probably not. How about Peter Pan in a blue outfit? You can’t, right? You know he wears green with a red feather in his cap. That’s because strong characterization includes memorable character descriptions. Or depictions.
Describing characters, writing physical descriptions, and introducing characters all pose headaches for authors. What does the POV character notice first about this new person? Is that too many adjectives? When do I mention they’re wearing their Grandmother’s baby teeth in a pouch around their neck? You know, normal questions, as authors do.
Visual storytellers don’t have to worry about any of these because wardrobe, hair, and makeup all add to the story without interfering with it. It’s just there. And if an author didn’t describe what a character looks like or what they’re wearing, my imagination would come up with my own outfit for them. No need to direct the reader in what to picture; the reader can use past references to create their own.
So, how should authors approach character description? Why is describing characters important? Is it important?
Authors should describe a character’s appearance when writing, but—and this is a big but (teehee)—the description cannot: 1) slow down the story’s pace, 2) interfere with the reader’s experience, or 3) not be used later on.
Defining Character Description
Character description is the written depiction of a person in a novel or screenplay that is implemented to further the story. Describing fictional characters can include a variety of information, depending on the author’s goal(s), like:
size of ears
size of eyes
tightness of outfit
signs of old material, ie holes, rips, tears, stains, etc.
how they laugh
how they walk
speed of speech
repetitive traits (like a certain facial muscle moving when they’re angry)
habits when nervous
The list could go on and on, but the effectiveness of this information largely depends on the author and how they present it.
Here’s an example. We’ve all read the fanfic that reads something like, “She slipped on a pair of ripped jeans, cream colored sweater, and threw her hair into a loose bun.” Like, ok cute, but unimportant??? We can do that better. “She blindly groped the floor for a pair of jeans brimming her pile of dirty laundry, sniffed, shrugged, and tugged them on.” Okay, it’s not perfect, but it paints a more realistic picture, right? It tells us multiple things about this character or raises questions and invokes the reader’s curiosity:
It’s funny that she deemed the jeans clean enough to wear
Why hasn’t she done her laundry (not that I’m blaming her)
She’s tugging the jeans on so she must be a curvy gal
The best character descriptions aren’t noticeable. Now, that doesn’t mean an author shouldn’t give them attention; authors absolutely should describe a character’s appearance in their book. But the goal is to build a stronger narrative without extraneous information.
The Dangers of Writing Character Description
Description has the potential to start or stop story. Description has to flow in the narrative, navigating between establishing setting and grounding details while weaving in atmosphere and exposition. Description can further story by building up the world around the characters, written in a voice, a lens, that only the character can see through, or it can hinder story when it gets in the way of what the character needs, what they’re trying to accomplish, what the purpose of the scene is. Think: Tolkien going on about the trees for 20 pages. He gets in the way of story a lot.
Another pitfall description poses to authors is the urge to describe a character’s facial features. I couldn’t tell you what Harry Potter’s face was described as. The only descriptors that apply to him is that he wears glasses and has a lightning bolt scar. Other than that, he’s an average kid. Both the glasses and the lightning bolt further the story; the glasses are used as a symbolic connection to a deceased father he never knew and his scar is used as a plot device in connection to the antagonist. They’re both connected to story.
In a study published by Science, these researchers found that “our face perception abilities suffer in proportion to our reading skills.” Facial recognition and recall doesn’t come easily to anyone. So unless the descriptions authors give furthers the story, it’s not useful information and shouldn’t be included. Identifying well written novels includes a healthy dose of literary criticism.
Instead of throwing in descriptive sentences about a character’s appearance, authors can shift their descriptions to expand the world they’re writing in.
Don’t Focus on Appearance, Do Focus on World Building
There’s a lot of resources out there for writers to fill out lengthy questionnaires so they can get to know their characters, but those aren’t necessary. Authors don’t have focus on their appearance, unless it furthers the plot. Don’t waste your time answering those long lists. Characters speak to authors on the page.
The only question writers need to ask is: why? Why is it that way? Why are they wearing that? Why do they act that way? That is how you flesh out, or clothe, a three-dimensional character, and it is through those characters that the world is built around them. Consider looking for descriptors that ground the reader in the scene without going out of the way to establish setting.
Don’t Reference Appearance Over and Over Again, Do Reference It When Impactful
Character description doesn’t have to be noted in every scene. Otherwise, it becomes redundant and unnecessary. The description of physical characters can be referenced when it furthers plot, when it takes form in the place of a change, something the POV character notices. The more something is referenced, the more emphasis is placed on it. Authors should refrain from continually referencing particular items unless there’s a significance associated with them.
This goes hand in hand with plot, theme, and symbolism. If an author is a pants-ster, they’ll discover those recurring beats throughout their drafting process. If an author is a plotter, they’ll strategically craft those moments so that the object, place, appearance, whatever descriptor can have its moment create the effect it needs. Description lends itself to character in the sense of past, foreshadowing, or parallelism. Think The Hunger Games’s mockingjay pin.
If an author is ever in doubt, consider if this item/ weapon/ artifact/ outfit can be built upon, utilized, or paralleled later on to further the story. And remember: story is not plot! Story is the protagonist’s internal conflict!
Don’t Think of Clothing as Flat, Do Think of It As a Prop
On screen, wardrobe has movement, sound, maybe even smell. (Granted, we can’t smell it through our screens, but it might be referenced by other characters.) The same wardrobe characteristics apply to novel writing.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wiped something on my pants like Cheeto dust or my own sweaty, nervous palms. Each of those things tell you something about me, right? It opens a whole bunch of doors for characterization possibilities.
Authors that treat their characters like Barbies to be dressed up will 100% be felt through the writing. Characters are not Barbies (honestly, no one can be her). Authors must treat characters like the living, breathing people that they are. They’re not walking out onto the page to perform. They’re walking into another day of their life with sweat stains and pants 2 sizes too big because they can't remember where they left their belt. Authenticity comes from adding specific features to a character that creates gateways to their past, enriching their future, through the present of plot.
Importance of Character Description
Character descriptions are important because they allow authors to present compelling fictional people and allow readers to connect with them on a deeper level. Authors explain what a character is wearing because it can tie into the character’s internal conflict and/or the setting and world they live in. Describing character’s isn’t a separate task to writing. It’s integral to story.
It doesn’t matter if it’s character description, exposition, dialogue—if it doesn’t serve story, there is no place in the pages for it. Every word committed to a novel is committed to serving the narrative. So write wildly, judge critically, and delete mercilessly.
What does good character description look like to you?