Introducing a new character to your story can be difficult. There’s a lot that goes into it, and to make matters worse, you only have one chance to give readers a good (and memorable) first impression of that character. One of the ways you can do this is by giving them a distinct appearance, but many writers tend to fall short of describing appearance well.
We’ve all heard the same cookie-cutter descriptions for characters a million times before. Golden hair, a heart-shaped face, a chiseled body, piercing eyes, yadda yadda… The problem with these descriptions is that they’re bland, they’re cliché, and they don’t really help your characters stand out.
However, if you break from clichés, you can create uniquely vivid descriptions that will give your characters life. There are endless ways you can describe characters, and I’m not going to walk you through how I would describe every single possible human feature (or humanoid, animal, alien, etc). For one thing, that would take too long, but for another thing, descriptions are based on more than just the character’s physical appearance—their personality plays a part too.
Tips for Describing a Character’s Appearance in a Story
There are a number of things to keep in mind when describing a character’s appearance. Here are just a few general tips before we dive into some more specific techniques for describing different parts of a character’s appearance.
Don’t Make Everyone a Supermodel
This is probably one of the most (if not the most) important things to remember when describing a character. You should never objectively describe your characters as flawless. Humans aren’t perfect, so if you describe your characters like perfect little supermodels, they just won’t feel authentic. Worse still, they won’t stand out from the protagonists of every single young adult novel out there. You need to make them distinct, and to do that, you need to give your characters flaws. And I mean real flaws, not fake flaws that are actually just endearing traits packaged like flaws.
Don’t Dump Everything Out at Once
Describing your characters is important, but you need to be able to keep it concise. No one wants to read a 7-page summary of every detail of a character’s appearance. You can go in-depth, sure, but don’t put your readers through a word-avalanche just for them to figure out what the character looks like.
Remember, you can reveal more about the characters over time. When you introduce a character for the first time, you should focus on the things a person would naturally notice first, such as their face, hair, clothing, voice, and general energy. You can further elaborate on their appearance later when it is relevant, and describe their gait, posture, temperament, and more.
There is one exception here I want to highlight. If you are telling a story from the first-person perspective, and you want to illustrate a character’s obsession with another person, hyper-fixating on the details can be a good way to show this. It can make the character seem creepy, and it can foreshadow the protagonist doing something bad to the person they are obsessing over.
Don’t Sell Them Short
Opposite to the point above, you shouldn’t make your introductions too short. To some extent, it can be good to leave some parts of the character’s appearance up to the reader’s imagination. However, you should give them something to help them visualize the characters in the beginning. Otherwise, if you later reveal that the character has dark hair, all the readers that imagined them with light hair might have a difficult time accepting that.
Descriptions are important, and they help to include a reader in the narrative. Like a well-described setting, vivid characters can help immerse readers into the world and make them part of the story.
Use Their Personality
A character’s personality can have a large impact on how they are perceived, and therefore should alter the words you use to describe them. Two characters might have similar features, but based on their personality, you would describe them differently.
For example, two characters might both be tall, but one would be described as “awkward and long” while the other is “towering.” In this case, the characters’ levels of confidence impact how they are perceived. For another example, think about two characters who both have light skin. You could describe one as looking like “porcelain” and describe the other one as “pasty,” depending on their other traits. Those two descriptions create very different perceptions from each other.
Use the Point of View
If the character in question is being described from the first-person perspective of another character, then the protagonist’s opinions should sneak into the description. Your protagonist probably isn’t going to objectively evaluate the other person—they’re likely to rely on stereotypes, biases, and things they have heard from others about the character they’re looking at. Rely on that to make the description fit into the story more organically.
Here are some examples:
- She had no right to have such a disarming smile.
- His expression was empty—just like his head.
- His dark, tangled hair reminded me of a swamp.
- She didn’t even wear any makeup! But even more frustratingly, she didn’t really need it.
- They looked divine… like I wasn’t even worthy to look upon them.
- He looked like the type of person to stare at his own reflection before getting in the shower.
- They were short and stocky, but they could still probably beat me in a fight.
Remember, your protagonist can make speculative judgments about the character they’re looking at. You’re telling the story as they experience it, so their judgments are part of the narrative!
“…he was greeted by the barista—a young teen who had not yet matured enough to be handsome. Once his soft cheeks hollowed and his jaw squared, and the childish optimism fled his eyes, then he would have the chance to smolder. That crooked smile would win over many hearts in the blink of an eye, but not just yet.”– excerpt from a draft
Keep the Description Balanced
A good rule of thumb when describing characters (or anything else really) is to create a balance of concrete details and flowery imagery. You should alternate between those two, as well as general and more specific details, to make the description flow more naturally, and to make it more interesting to read.
Imagine reading a description like:
“His hair was red and curly. His eyes were large and green. He had freckles, but they weren’t that noticeable. He was tall but very thin.”
That’s so dry, and it’s not fun to read. Compare that to a description that varies how the information is provided:
“His hair was like a massive red bush surrounding two wide, green eyes. Freckles faintly dotted his cheeks, but they were only really visible in the sunshine. His long, lanky body and large hair made him look a bit like a big red lollipop—which was only heightened by his tendency to blush often.”
Wasn’t that a lot more fun to read? Not only does it make the character description more interesting, but it also influences a reader’s perception of what the character is like. Certain words help readers to gauge what kind of person this character is. The first example gives no indication of personality, but the second one uses words like “sunshine” and “lollipop” to associate the character with lively, happy things. Additionally, using words like “lanky” and “blush” suggests that the character is awkward or shy, saving you the time of having to spell that out for readers.
Give them Something Special
One helpful thing that I’ve learned over the years is that you should give your main character some distinctive feature that sets them apart from the other characters around them. Diverse descriptions are great, but it never hurts to make your main character a little more unique. This could be something like a distinctive scar, a tattoo, a weird eye color, a patch of silver or white hair, a missing or extra finger, a birthmark, or something else along those lines. That can make them stand out more, and it can be a really clear indicator that they are special.
Although your story won’t suffer if you don’t give your main character a distinct feature like this, it is usually a good bet—especially if you think your story could ever conceivably be adapted into a visual medium, like a comic, animation, or film. That character could become iconic. People may just see your character somewhere and that alone could motivate them to read or watch the whole story. As another plus, it could give you a cool opportunity for your story’s cover.
How to Describe a Character’s Face
When describing a character’s face, the easiest way to do that is to first break the face down into its essential parts: the eyes, the mouth, the nose, and the facial structure.
So let’s start with the eyes since they are the focal point of the face. Stay away from the descriptions you’ve heard a million times, like “piercing” or “doe-eyed.” The eyes are the window to the soul, and they can tell a reader a lot about a character. Instead of “piercing,” try “icy” or “sharp,” and instead of “doe-eyed,” try “wide,” “innocent,” or “full of wonder/awe.” The goal is to describe the character in a unique way to make it more interesting to read, while still creating a vivid image of that character.
You can describe the shape, color, and depth of a character’s eyes, but you should be careful not to rely on insensitive generalizations. For example, instead of “Asian” eyes, use “almond-shaped” or “mono-lid.” Not all Asian people have mono-lids, so simply using the word “Asian” to describe the character’s eyes doesn’t actually narrow down what they look like.
That goes for all the other features of the face, too. Though it is true that some features are more prominent in certain races, nothing is inherent. You shouldn’t rely on the character’s race or ethnic background alone to be the basis of your description. Saying that a character is Japanese or Jamaican without giving other details doesn’t do any more for the character’s description than saying they are European or white. Doing this only encourages your readers to stereotype your characters, even if that wasn’t your intention.
With that said, don’t get too caught up in describing every detail of a character’s face. Give the most important information, such as the eyes, face shape, scars, and other notable details or imperfections, then move on. If a character has an exaggerated feature, such as a large nose or bushy eyebrows, then that’s important to mention too.
How to Describe a Character’s Hair
There are lots of different types of hair colors, textures, thicknesses, and shines, so try not to make all your characters have the same kind of hair—unless they’re related or part of a small, isolated community, of course. Hair can be curly and blond, sleek and black, coily and auburn, and even dyed wild colors. Making your characters’ hair more distinct will make them easier for readers to visualize, especially if you introduce many characters at one time.
Beyond the basics, you can use words to describe a character’s hair that reflects who they are as a person. For example, describing a character’s hair as springy or bouncy could indicate the character is upbeat and moves excitedly. Slick, greasy, or wispy hair could suggest an untrustworthy or sneaky character. The words you use to describe the character’s hair will be subliminally applied to the character themself.
How to Describe a Character’s Clothes
Clothing is an important element of self-expression, and what your character decides to wear can reflect a lot about them. However, unlike with the character’s face, you should not spend a lot of time describing their outfit. For one thing, they’re probably going to change their outfit at some point in the story—likely more than once. Secondly, readers just won’t care unless you give them a good reason to.
If you want to describe what your character is wearing, make sure to keep it short. If it’s just a simple way of helping the reader visualize the character’s style, present the information objectively and in only a paragraph or two, such as:
“She wore short-shorts and a denim jacket, and pink thigh-high socks that she had to keep pulling up because they always slipped down to her knees. Her tennis-shoes were white and bulky, as was the belt bag she wore off to one side. This free, laidback style was completed by the two messy buns her faded purple hair was pulled up into.”
However, there are a few times in which you can use clothing to explore more complex ideas in the story. For example:
- An article of clothing might have special significance to a character. It could have been handed down from a relative, it could be a favorite shirt, or it could be meaningful in other ways. That would merit drawing more attention to it.
- An article of clothing might have special significance to the story. This could be a type of ceremonial outfit, a piece of magical armor, or something along those lines. That would require a more thorough in-depth description of the item.
- An article of clothing may be unfamiliar to most of your readers, such as a specific cultural outfit or an unusual costume, in which case a descriptive explanation could help illustrate what it looks like.
- A particular outfit could draw attention to a character, such as an attractive or surprising outfit, that could merit taking more time to describe it (and explain why it garners the character extra attention).
How to Describe a Character’s Body
Describing a character’s body is fairly straightforward. Like with many other aspects of a character’s appearance, there are a few methods you can use to approach describing their body. You could take the objective approach, which would do just fine in most cases, or you could toy with your readers’ perceptions.
I’ll start out with a word of caution. Too many times, I’ve seen unrealistic descriptions of characters’ bodies. Whether it’s a waist that’s impossibly thin or muscles like a bodybuilder on a teenager, people tend to push the boundaries of what the human body is even capable of. You need to keep your characters within the limits of what’s actually possible, unless you have a good reason for doing otherwise (genetically modified supersoldier, not actually human at all, etc).
Now, as with some other aspects of the character’s appearance, you can get away with a simple, objective description, like “tall and muscular” or “short and curvy.” Honestly, that’s usually all you’ll need to do. However, bodies are commonly associated with physical attractiveness, and if attraction is the point of your description, you need to take a different approach.
Writing about attraction is tough (which is why I go more in-depth about how to write about attraction in my other article, Romance 101: How to Write Characters Falling in Love). You’ll want to highlight the positives of the character’s body—the elements of them that have caught your protagonist’s attention. Whether it’s biceps, legs, or a large chest, you’ll want to describe it in detail, as well as highlight what it is about them that has the protagonist so interested. Here’s an example:
“He was tall and sturdy, and even in this relaxed environment, his pose held power. The way his shirt stretched taut around his shoulders when he shifted snagged and held my attention—I couldn’t help but stare. Did he pick that shirt on purpose? He had to know the thin fabric clung close to his body, showing off every rippling muscle underneath…”
How to Describe a Character’s Posture and Body Language
Body language is an often overlooked element of describing a character, but you should give it some thought even if you don’t intend to draw a lot of attention to it in the story. How does your character stand? How do they emote? Do they gesture when they speak? Do they fidget? Try to envision what they look like when they are waiting, actively engaged in a passionate conversation, and when they are uncomfortable.
People move in different ways, even if they aren’t thinking about it. Come up with a list of movements and behaviors that are typical for the character, and utilize those movements to make dull scenes and conversations more interesting. Instead of just dialogue, you can give readers more to imagine as your character shifts their weight, runs their hand through their hair, or twists the hem of their shirt. This can also help to establish the tone of the conversation.
A person’s body, personality, and mood will all influence how they move. If you establish a baseline for how the character stands and behaves when they are in a neutral mindset, this will help you keep them consistent over time by casually mentioning their body language throughout the story. As a bonus, it can also help you tip readers off if you want them to notice that something is bothering the character. If you have established that a character is pretty relaxed in most situations, readers will instantly notice if they exhibit anxious body language even if you don’t draw a lot of attention to it.
How to Describe an Attractive Character
Describing an attractive character isn’t all that different from describing any other character. You still shouldn’t make them flawless, but you can put off mentioning their more negative qualities until later—especially if another character is looking at them through rose-colored glasses.
One recommendation that I have for describing a character who is supposed to be extremely attractive is to keep their description vague. Beauty is subjective, so each reader is going to have a different idea of what “attractive” means. By all means, describe the basics of their appearance, such as hair color, eye color, skin tone, and whatnot, but don’t dive deep into the shape of their features. This will leave a little bit up to the reader’s imagination, and they will fill in the gaps in the character’s description with the traits that they find most attractive.
Another helpful tip is to utilize the reactions of background characters to establish that the character is, in fact, attractive. Other people staring at the character or nudging and whispering to each other about them would help your reader understand that the character is good-looking, and alter their mental image of them accordingly.
The Importance of Creating Vivid Visual Descriptions for your Characters
Creating vivid visual descriptions for your characters is incredibly important for a number of reasons. For one thing, being able to imagine the characters will help draw your readers into the story and immerse them in the world. Additionally, by giving your characters more distinct appearances, they will stand out more from each other, and from characters in other stories. The more complex and interesting the character, the more likely they are to stick in a reader’s mind for years after they finish reading the story.
Good luck with writing your descriptions! I know you’ll write something great.