Ever read a book that didn’t describe the characters upon their introduction? Did you ever envisage said character with black hair and blue eyes, only to find out later that they were really blonde with brown eyes? Did you find it hard to picture them with their new description?
Not the best situation in which to find yourself, either as a reader or the author who wrote it. So this blog is about how to master the art of character descriptions.
TOP TIP #1: If you don’t describe your characters’ appearances relatively early on in their introduction, then don’t describe them later.
A description of your characters can be helpful in building them and making them seem more real. However, ensure that you describe them well. The worst thing you can do is give a confusing or unimportant description of someone.
What constitutes confusing and unimportant?
TOP TIP #2: Readers don’t need long descriptions.
We don’t need to know that John’s eyes sparkled like the moon, and his hair was the colour of the sand, and his jaw was as chiselled as a marble statue, and his tight, blue shirt with the green pocket clung to his chest – a chest that was neither too big nor too small…
No one cares! Unless you’re writing porn. And if you’re writing porn, you don’t need to be reading this because porn isn’t so interested in character development. Descriptions need to be simple and to the point. “John’s sandy hair and blue eyes always dazzled the ladies, and his chiselled jaw only furthered the appeal.”
TOP TIP #3: As well as the description itself, you need to be careful how you introduce the description.
You don’t necessarily want to be blunt about it.
For example: “Jane was Sue’s best friend. Jane had brown hair and green eyes, and was significantly shorter than Sue.”
Yawn. Boring and feels awkward.
Instead try, “Unlike John, Jack was tall and muscular.” Or, “Lucy had not been blessed with her sister’s blue eyes and freckles.”
A similar trick is not to use a person but something physical.
For example: “Its waves streaked grey from last night’s storm, the ocean was the same colour as her eyes.” Or another example. “As she entered the house she noticed a cat speckled with tawny spots, and wondered if he had a thing for her freckles.”
Whatever you do, do not have your character gazing at their reflection. It’s unimaginative and unrealistic – who actually checks themselves out in that much detail when they pass a mirror? None of this “I glanced at the mirror and saw blue eyes stare back at me. Brown hair framed a heart-shaped face…” blah, blah, blah – no. Just no.
TOP TIP #4: Physical descriptions describe more than the physical.
When done correctly, physical descriptions create a character. Charles Dickens manages this seamlessly in Oliver Twist when he describes the Artful Dodger.
He was a snub-nosed, flat-bowed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man… His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment – and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again… He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the blushers.
This is a beautiful and witty description, depicting not only Dodger’s appearance as a street urchin, but making the reader aware of Dodger’s efforts to appear more than a child by wearing gentlemen’s clothes. Every detail works brilliantly to paint a vivid image of Dodger’s personality and social standing.
TOP TIP #5: Useless information can come in the form of not only how you choose to describe your characters, but also the aspects you’re describing.
When I first started writing as a child, the most important things about my characters were who was the tallest, who was the oldest, who was nice, and who was mean. Of course, I overcame that stage in my writing, thank goodness. But nonetheless, my first book had phrases like, “Ally was the second tallest and the oldest. She was nicer than Jamie, but not as nice as Max, who was the nicest in the group, and also the youngest.”
This reads more like a math quiz than a novel. If Jamie is smaller than Max, who is sitting next to Ally, who is the most likely to alienate my reader?
You need to choose which aspects to describe, and which aspects aren’t worth knowing. Of course, you can say that someone is tall, but you don’t have to describe that in relation to everybody else’s height. Similarly, you don’t have to specify ages. If you have six main characters, the reader doesn’t need to know the birthdate of each of them. Just simply stating any relevant age differences should suffice. This isn’t an online dating profile, after all.
Conversely, some writers don’t describe their characters at all. Cormac McCarthy barely describes his characters. It is only through dialogue and interior monologues that we figure out how old the character is, his genetic make-up, his job, his marital status, the state of his heath, etc. It’s almost like he couldn’t be bothered. I’d give you an example of his parsed down description, but really, I couldn’t find any passages to quote.
Which brings us to our final point.
TOP TIP #6: Don’t describe. It’s way overrated.
List your protagonist, important secondary characters, and your villain. Identify the age, general appearance, and prominent traits (eg: big teeth, big eyes, scars etc.) of each for a firmer understanding. And then cut out the ones that are not relevant to the storytelling. It might be all of them.