How to Write Character Descriptions That Work [With Examples]

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If you’re writing fiction, at some point, you’ll probably want to describe the people populating your story.

(This isn’t absolutely essential, mind. I’ve just written a short story that consists entirely of dialogue – no dialogue tags, no action beats, nothing – and neither of the characters is described at all.)

When it comes to a description, you want to avoid doing anything remotely like this:

Julia gazed into the bathroom mirror, assessing how she looked. Her hair was neatly parted and just skimmed the top of her shoulders. Her blue eyes were perfectly spaced, and her nose had a smattering of freckles – just right, she felt. The new shade of lipstick, a reddish-pink, went well with her top. But her cleavage was non-existent …

This might just work if you want to convey a character who’s particularly self-absorbed and who frets a lot about their appearance, but, otherwise, it’s a boring and – often – annoying way to introduce your character to your readers.

So what can you do instead? Firstly…

Keep Descriptions Fairly Minimal

Some authors don’t describe much about their characters. Maybe we get a few key characteristics, especially if those are relevant to how the characters behave and interact with others (e.g. they’re unusually tall / short / skinny / fat / hairy / bald …) but we don’t have long descriptions of exactly how they look.

I think this is a good way forward. Personally, as a reader, I don’t really care what characters look like – I care who they are underneath the surface. Sometimes, their physical characteristics are important because they tell us more about who the characters are, or they’re significant because of how other characters relate to them.

In this description, from Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, it matters that Celeste is so pretty because it affects how other characters relate to her, and reminds Jane of trauma in her own past:

Madeline’s expression changed. She beamed and waved. “Oh! She’s here at last! Celeste! Over here! Come and see what I’ve done!”

Jane looked up and her heart sank.

It shouldn’t matter. She knew it shouldn’t matter. But the fact was that some people were so unacceptably, hurtfully beautiful, it made you feel ashamed. Your inferiority was right there on display for the world to see. This was what a woman was meant to look like. Exactly this. She was right, and Jane was wrong.

What to Do (and What to Avoid) When Describing Characters

When you’re describing characters:

  • Don’t give us a huge chunk of description all at once. This is a bad idea not only because it halts the forward momentum of your narrative but also because the reader’s unlikely to remember most of it anyway!
  • Try describing one character through another character’s eyes. This can help reveal a lot about the person looking at them as well as the one who’s being observed, and it works very well if you’re using a third-person limited perspective.
  • If you’re writing a first person narrative, avoid having the viewpoint character describe themselves in painstaking detail. Instead, bring in key characteristics that are relevant to who they are (e.g. they’re overweight and trying to shed excess pounds – or they’re unusually tall / short and it bothers them).
  • Choose two or three key characteristics to focus on, especially unusual ones (e.g. eye colour probably isn’t worth mentioning unless it’s fairly striking, or unless one character is staring into another’s eyes…)
  • With any kind of description, word choices matter a lot. There’s a huge tonal difference between “long yellow hair” and “flowing blond hair” and “long golden locks” … even though all of those could describe exactly the same thing.

Description in Practice

Description is the thing I struggle with most in writing, and I try to do a fairly minimal amount of it! I’ll give you a few examples from Lycopolis, though, and explain why I wrote them in the way I did:

Example #1:

Kay sipped uncertainly at her hot chocolate. Seth was taller than she’d imagined him. His blond hair hung perfectly, parted in the middle to fall to his chin, just like his profile picture on Messenger. She’d brushed her own hair into fierce plaits as usual, but the wind had whipped strands of it loose.

This is the very first paragraph of the novel. Kay’s the viewpoint character, and the reader hasn’t met her or Seth yet – so I’m trying to get in a bit of description of both of them, and hint at the backstory between them (e.g. “taller than she’d imagined him” – she knew Seth already but hadn’t met him in person before; she’s clearly spent at least a bit of time imagining what he looks like). There are some basic physical details (Seth is tall with longish blond hair; Kay has plaits).

Example #2:

A few paragraphs later, we’ve got:

She lifted her head, and met his eyes. They were a greyish blue, like stonewashed denim, like the pebbles on the beach back home.

I’m not generally interested in character’s eye colour. But I’m hinting here not only at Kay’s crush on Seth – she’s noticing his eyes – but also at her homesickness (by this point, we know she’s a first-year student at Oxford).

Example #3:

Later on, we get a description of Seth from a different perspective, 14-year-old Edwin:

Seth was pretty much how Edwin had imagined from his Messenger profile picture. He was tall, and his hair was cut longish and floppy without looking gay. He wore dark cords and a grey denim jacket over a shirt which, unlike Edwin’s sweater, didn’t seem to have spent the last few days in a heap on the floor.

“Hey,” Edwin said, and found himself suddenly nervous. Did he look sort of stupid, with collar-length hair and studded bracelets and head-to-toe black?

Again, Edwin knows Seth online, but this is the first time he meets him in real life. Unlike Kay, he did picture Seth as tall – he’s rather more in awe of Seth than Kay is. I’ve got comparison going on again: with Edwin’s rather less careful attitude to clothes, for instance. And just in case Edwin hasn’t reminded the reader recently enough that he is Properly Goth, we get a quick description of what he’s wearing (and how insecure he is about it).

 

You can probably tell that, for me at least, character description is generally a way to bring in all sorts of other things: to hint at and establish relationships between characters, for instance, and to tell us about the viewpoint character, who’s describing someone.

 

Have you come across any character descriptions that work particularly well (or that just didn’t do it for you)? Share them, and the books they come from, in the comments.

 

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

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8 thoughts on “How to Write Character Descriptions That Work [With Examples]

  1. Hi Ali.

    I’m really interested in reading your short story without any dialogue tags etc…

    “I’ve just written a short story that consists entirely of dialogue – no dialogue tags, no action beats, nothing – and neither of the characters is described at all.”

    How on earth would you do that?

    • With difficulty! 😀 I can’t publish it here at present as I’ve submitted it for a competition — I’ll let you know how it goes!

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! It helped me know that I’m kind of on the right track.

    I like to describe my characters from the other characters’ points of view. Like you said, it gives insight into both of the characters and how they see the world.
    The MC in the book I’m trying to write at the moment (a bit conveniently) is very observant. She not only observes physical characteristics, but she watches body language and listens to every word the other characters may say. I’m hoping that this will give readers a good idea of hers and the others’ personalities.

    I’m only sixteen but I LOVE writing. I’m hoping that sometime in the future I will be able to publish.

    Thank you again for posting this! It really helped!

    • Yay! An observant MC definitely gives you an edge here. 🙂

      There’s never been a better time (in my opinion, at least!) to be an up-and-coming young writer. Once you feel that your writing is of publishable standard, you’ve got so many options with publishing, from the big traditional publishing houses to quirky independent presses to striking out alone as an independent author, publishing via ebooks and print-on-demand. Best of luck with wherever writing takes you! 🙂

  3. Let’s get into more depth about description. There are many ways to tackle description, but if you want potency, description isn’t enough. Look, the readers don’t care if the character is blonde, pretty, old, wearing a shawl–UNLESS their description has heavy emotional threads. So how do you mold your descriptions to soak up the essence of a character’s being–how do you write a character that you can FEEL? Look at Fahrenheit 451, when Guy’s foot finds his wife’s empty pill bottle.

    ” Two moonstones looked up at him in the light of his small hand-held fire; two pale moonstones buried in a creek of clear water over which the life of the world ran, not touching them.”
    ‘Mildred’!
    “Her face was like a snow-covered island upon which rain might fall, but it felt no rain; over which clouds might pass their moving shadows, but she felt no shadows. There was only the signing of the thimble-wasps in her tamped-shut ears, and her eyes all glass, and breath going in and out, softly, faintly, in and out her nostrils, and her not caring whether it came or went, or went or came.”

    Profound.
    Absolutely profound.
    It was more than “she was lying on the floor, pale, hardly breathing, and half dead”–more than “Oh dear! Her eyes are glossy!”–no, he used scenery. I recommend challenging yourself to use the same technique. For example, if a character is being deemed guilty before a judge, what scenery would emulate the same dread? Drowning, perhaps? Okay, let’s try that.

    “When he said it–the ‘G’ word–when those pink-ish mudcracks parted into words, became quenched with judgement, I knew he had peeled the flood gates open. But I hadn’t known the gushing power of his voice could swallow me whole, jab watery pins to my eardrums, force feed itching screams down my lungs. My fingers wanted to claw through the waves–but even if I tried, my wrists would be fastened to the wet chains wrapped around my body.”
    (note: Admittedly, my writing isn’t fantastic and this blurb reeks of my novice skills, but I think it was good to practice.) 🙂

    • Thanks for the fantastic examples, Charity! I really struggle with doing metaphor well, but I think this can be a great technique to try. 🙂

  4. “He was tall, and his hair was cut longish and floppy without looking gay.”

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t help but wonder what this means? It sounds a bit like an insult, or like it’s being used as a slur, is that what we’re supposed to get from that particular character’s description of Seth?

    • Probably rather unclear out of context, sorry! It’s from 14-year-old Edwin’s point of view, and to Edwin, yes, “gay” is seen as something of an insult. It got used like that a lot when I was at school here in the UK (“your bag is gay…” “ugh, we have extra maths, that’s so gay…” that kind of thing).

      (Please don’t take the character’s views / language as representative of the author’s here!) 🙂