Think about the last book you read that had great characters. How were the characters described? Did the author go into great detail about each character’s appearance, or did they write more of a character sketch, allowing the reader to fill in the details?
The best characters are usually approached the second way. It seems contrary to our instinct as writers, to be vague in describing things like a character’s appearance, but it’s actually the better approach. There are a few reasons for this.
Describing a character’s appearance stops the story.
Rather than moving the story forward, everything comes to a screeching halt as you describe the color of your character’s hair and eyes, their height and build and even the clothing they are wearing. Often, a character’s appearance has little or nothing to do with the outcome of a story. It’s fluff.
Describing a character’s appearance inhibits the reader’s imagination.
The natural product of reading is imagination. Your reader’s mind will begin to construct images of your story’s setting and characters as soon as they have the tiniest bit material. Unfortunately, as writers, we have the ability to shatter those images if rather than allowing our characters to come to life within our readers’ minds, we force our incarnations of those settings or character upon our readers. It’s a jarring experience to have to reformulate our imagined vision of what we are reading to fit new information that an author gives us later.
To describe a character’s appearance—or not?
So how do we solve the problem of describing a character’s appearance without disrupting the readers flow? Describe the character’s appearance only when necessary. Create a scaffold, a sturdy structure from which your reader can construct the characters in their minds. This will allow your readers to imagine the characters, themselves. How do you do this?
Let form follow function.
What is this character like? How can you illustrate that, using clues from your character’s appearance? I’ll give you an example. In this scene, I introduce a character named Hank. Hank is instigating a fight with another character, right in the middle of town. A crowd has gathered to watch the action. Willow, a conservation warden has just come on the scene:
Hank wore a t-shirt that read, “Truckers do it on the road.” He’d torn its sleeves off like he did all of his shirts, to expose his biceps. Willow couldn’t stand Hank Parker, but even she had to admit that he did have nice biceps. He was circling Steve Anderson, like a lion tamer in a circus ring. Only rather than a lion, Steve was a scared rabbit.
In this paragraph, I don’t describe anything but Hank’s t-shirt. I use it to illustrate a couple of things.
- Hank has a crude sense of humor. He doesn’t care about the sensibilities of others. We know this by the phrase on his t-shirt and the fact that he’s torn the sleeves off.
- Hank is well built. We see that he’s proud of this and that even Willow (who doesn’t like Hank) has to admit he is well built.
These things are important because they contribute to the story. Hank later becomes one of several suspects in Steve’s murder. This paragraph establishes motive and even means, due to Hank’s strength. I never describe hair or eye color. I don’t need to. The reader can come up with their own version of Hank. He might be 5’ 7” or 6’ 2”. It makes little difference.
Another thing to watch out for when describing a character’s appearance
Use care in the device you use to describe a character’s appearance. There are some that have been so overused that they have become clichés.
Clichéd ways of describing a character’s appearance include:
- Looking in the mirror. No. Just don’t do it—ever.
- Using stereotypes such as the “fiery redhead.” Instead, avoid clichéd adjectives that lead to these stereotypes. Often you can find a better way of getting these personality traits across by using better verbs to describe what a character is doing, thus, improving characterization.
- APB (all-points bulletin) Be on the lookout for a male, 5’ 10”, dark hair, blue eyes, with a tattoo reading ‘mother” on his left forearm. Instead, pick one trait and give a more detailed description. In this case, I would describe the tattoo because that can lead to a greater understanding of the character’s personality than would the color of their hair.
Rather than relying on your character’s appearance, consider writing more about the setting in which you’ve placed the character, and how they feel there. Better yet, show us what your character is doing. Use strong verbs.
For example, back to Hank in the middle of town:
Hank pulled back his meaty fist, and his cap flew off. Hank landed the punch square in the center of Steve’s face.
Steve stumbled back, hitting the ground. Hank loomed over him, shaking his hand out.
We see the punch “landing” square in Steve’s face. Ouch! We feel the tension as Hank then “looms” over Steve, “shaking his hand out.” That punch even hurt Hank’s hand. We will later see the damage done to Steve’s face, and we believe it because the action was so visceral.
I hope this has given you some ideas for making your characters more realistic. Often less is more when describing a character’s appearance.
What are YOUR thoughts?
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I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace. My books are available at Amazon.com:
I also blog about living with cancer at Facing Cancer with Grace.