A good character description is walking a fine line between too much and too little information. Not only that, it's how you deliver the information to the reader that can make or break a good description. So whether you already have a vivid picture of your characters in mind or you don't know where to start, you've come to the right place. Read on to explore character description.
- What is a Good Character Description?
- Descriptions for Character Profiles
- Descriptions in Prose
- Character Description Examples
- Tips for Writing Character Descriptions for Profiles
Table of contents
- What is a Good Character Description?
- Descriptions for Character Profiles
- Description in Prose
- Character Description Examples
- Tips for Writing Character Descriptions in Prose
What is a Good Character Description?
A good character description isn't just about describing how a given character looks. It's also about describing the character through the world around them and through their actions. When these factors come together, you can create a vivid description that not only tells the reader a lot about your character's personality but also sparks the reader's imagination. That, after all, is what reading is all about.
And while we'll mostly be discussing character description in prose, we'll also be discussing how character description is important when writing your character profiles. Since character profiles are best utilized before you write your novel, we'll start there.
Descriptions for Character Profiles
Creating a character profile can help you when it comes time to write. It can ensure that you know your major characters intimately before you start writing. These profiles are about more than just character description, but for the purposes of this article, we'll focus on the physical attributes, as they're the building blocks for writing descriptive prose.
Think of a profile as a character sketch. You're not trying to get every single detail down, as it's always good to leave room for spontaneity when you're writing your novel. But when it comes to the basics of how the character looks, it can help to nail down the details.
This includes things like eye color, facial expression, height, weight, build, hair color, skin color, any disfigurements or scars, and things like tattoos or birthmarks. This should also include clothing and any other accessories, such as hats, watches, necklaces, and piercings.
You don't have to get fancy with the profile. Just get the information down so you can refer to it later. If you want to go the extra mile, you can write down some varying descriptions of your character as if you're writing the novel. It's often easiest to focus on one physical attribute at a time until you're comfortable. These practice descriptions can lend inspiration when you start writing in earnest.
Description in Prose
Description in your book is a bit different than in your profile. A good description can give the reader a glimpse at the character's personality traits as well as their appearance. There are many different ways to write a great character description, but they all have one thing in common: they're creative and anything but boilerplate.
Many new writers opt for the list-style of description, thinking that less is more. They often look like this:
“He had piercing green eyes, sandy blond hair, and stood a stocky and solid six-foot-two. He had a slight limp and the musculature of a man who works hard for his living.”
While this may be fine for a minor character, it falls a little flat for a major character that you want the audience to know intimately. So for ideas on how to write character descriptions, let's look at some examples from some masters of the craft.
Character Description Examples
“His present dog was a huge white brute, a mountain dog from the South. He had named it Halina, after his second wife, with whom it shared some personality traits. . . It weighed almost as much as he did and its coat was matted and filthy; it lifted its massive head and watched him with lunatic eyes.”
This description, from Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn, is a great example of how to describe physical appearance. Neither the man nor his dog is a major character in the story, but the description tells you a little about the K9 and its owner in a few concise sentences.
“He did not look like anything special at all.”
This one-sentence description in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated is an excellent example of “less is more.”
“When he did appear his eyes were as brown as I remembered, pupils flecked with gold like beach pebbles.”
This description is from Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn. It's a compelling use of simile to create a picture of a character's appearance in the reader's mind. Note that she doesn't use tired and worn-out similes such as “eyes as blue as the summer sky” or “hair as red as autumn leaves. Getting creative with figurative language can work out very well.
“He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”
This description, from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, focuses on the character's actions to tell the reader about him. Or, rather, on a single action: a smile. At the same time, the writer is telling the reader something about the POV character, giving insights into how the narrator sees the character while describing him.
Tips for Writing Character Descriptions in Prose
Most writing teachers and authors will tell you that if you want to write, you need to read. And the descriptions above should be shining examples of why that is sage advice. Reading how the authors you love write character description is key. But I've included some tips you can use when it comes time to write your own masterpiece!
1. Start With a List
This is where the character profile comes in handy. Not only does it keep you on track (there's nothing worse than realizing you switched a character's eye color halfway through a book) but it also allows you to keep a picture of your character fresh in your mind's eye.
So keep a list handy. Even if it's just the basics, like “black hair” or “brown eyes” and the like, it helps.
2. Edit it Down
One of the most oft-quoted pieces of advice from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is “Omit needless words.” For writers old and new, this advice is sound indeed for writing character descriptions. We've all read a book where the description of a character goes on for pages and pages and we find ourselves asking, “When will we get back to the story?”
This is something to avoid at all costs. So edit your descriptions down as much as possible. Don't use flowery language for its own sake. Instead, try to get your point across to the reader in as concise a manner as possible. You don't have to get into a character's backstory with the description if it will interrupt the flow of the story.
Remember that you want to create a vivid character in the reader's mind, but that doesn't mean that you want to take all of their imagination out of it. Leave something for the reader to interpret, if at all possible.
3. Get Creative With Surroundings and Movement
Description isn't all about a character's physicality. It's also about how the character interacts with the world around them. The way a man sits on a couch or a woman drives a car or a child eats an ice cream cone can all add to the character's description. A sentence about what a couple does while waiting in line at the movies can tell the reader more than a paragraph of straight description.
The way a character walks, the way they gesture when they talk, the way they squint when they're thinking. These are all great ways to add to a character's vividness and depth through description.
4. What Is and What Isn't
Describing a person, fictional or otherwise, can be done by looking at what is there and what isn't there. In fact, sharing what isn't there — what's missing — can be a great way of describing a person. As a writer, this can also help you develop your craft and keep your prose fresh. Whether this is a missing limb, a shirt pocket that has been torn off, or the lack of seeming intelligence on a vacant face, the absence of things can say a lot about a character.
5. Adjectives Can Help or Hinder
As a rule in fiction, it's best to limit your use of adverbs. And the use of adjectives in character descriptions is no exception. Like adverbs, adjectives can become a crutch that holds back more concise and creative writing. This is not to say that you shouldn't use them on occasion. Sometimes an adjective is just the right kind of word for character description. Just keep in mind that overusing them can lead to reader fatigue and overly flowery language.
6. Practice Makes Perfect
This should go without saying, but practicing your description will go a long way to becoming a better writer. When you consciously sit down to write a compelling character description, you can really think about what you want to say and how best to say it.
To do this, choose a character archetype and flesh that archetype out into a full-fledged person through descriptive language. Try writing several descriptions of the same character type, focusing on a few different tributes each time. You can try writing one where you focus on appearance. One on movement. One on how she/he interacts with the world around them. One on clothing. And one on what's missing (if anything). These practices can help you get your head around how best to describe a character in any given situation.
7. Description Can Help Reveal the Narrator
Description can also tell the reader about the POV character or narrator. And if your narrator is also your protagonist, this can be very important. This is because, short of having your character stand in front of a mirror and describe herself, there aren't many easy ways to describe your POV character without taking the reader out of the story. So, a great way to enlighten the reader is to use the way your narrator sees other characters. This can often be in the form of physical comparisons that the narrator makes or insights that they glean from watching/interacting with another character.
Not only does this add to the main character's believability, but it also provides an opportunity for character development as the story progresses. Perhaps your POV character has a bad habit of comparing himself to others he learns to break. Or perhaps he focuses too much on physical attributes to the detriment of seeing who other characters really are.
Whether you're writing a short story, novella, or a 1,000-page tome, you'll want to get familiar with character descriptions. The best way to start this is with a character profile. This will help you with your character analysis, which is great for fleshing out your main character, villain, and even secondary characters that need brief but compelling descriptions.
Once you have the basics of your character down, you can start experimenting with description. By focusing on one major character trait at first, you can develop your own style of description. Then you can incorporate more attributes, sharing only a couple at a time as your novel progresses.
Be concise, creative, and don't forget to look for what is and what isn't there. Use movement, interactions, and gestures to make vivid and crisp character descriptions.