Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Describing Your Characters

I have a really hard time picturing characters, both in other people’s stories and in my own. Maybe this is why I don’t mind books made into movies, since I never really had a clear idea of the characters in my head to start with. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but unless I see a picture of the character (like on the cover of the book) I won’t know—and I won’t care—what they look like.

Probably one reason for my apathy toward character’s physical appearances is because so many authors, especially amateur ones, do a really poor job of description. In the first chapter they might mention a character’s ‘long blonde hair’ or ‘deep blue eyes’ and then leave it at that. There’s nothing remarkable about that character. If their blonde hair has no bearing on the story, then I might as well think it was black. If it doesn’t matter that her eyes are blue, why can’t I think they’re brown? In short, if a character’s appearance doesn’t matter, then your description is worthless.

The thing is, though, as much as we try to avoid it: appearance matters. It changes the way people think about the character. It changes the way the character thinks about themselves and about others. This isn’t just a black and white I’m-pretty-so-everyone-loves-me or I’m-ugly-I-want-to-be-someone-else sort of thing. It’s much more complicated than that.

I’m short. Most of the time, I’m perfectly fine with that. Sometimes, however, when I’m standing next to some other people who are tall and wearing high heels, and I’m just wearing flats, I feel really small and insignificant. I feel like a little kid. It doesn’t help that I also look young. So, in specific situations, my height and general tiny size, makes me feel somehow unimportant. If you’re writing about a short character, they may have similar feelings. On the flip side, if you have a tall MC, she may feel really self-conscious and shy about towering over everyone.

All of your characters should have some sort of defining characteristic. I’m short and have thick, really annoying brown hair. One of my friends has short, ridiculously curly (but super cute) hair, while another has longer curly hair that looks thick, but it’s really thin when she straightens it. Another friend has freckles on one half of her face and not on the other. My sister has a tiny little bump on one ear that she calls her ‘earring.’

To help your readers picture the characters, give them a defining physical characteristic. This doesn’t need to be anything too weird, just something that the readers will remember. Then don’t forget to figure out what the MC thinks about these features. Does she love her hair, or hate it? Does he still wear glasses because he can’t stand the thought of touching his eyeball to put contacts in? Don’t forget to figure out what other people think about your MC’s looks. I have a friend with huge gorgeous eyes that everyone loves… except her. Perhaps your character’s most beautiful feature is actually the one that she hates?

Physical appearance is something that everyone has to deal with, every day of their lives. What we look like can have a huge impact on how we think, act and talk with others. Don’t be content with giving your MC a generic appearance and then forgetting about it. Let their appearance affect the character’s personality, just as if they were a real person. 


  1. I'll try my best to keep this in mind =) Thanks for writing this.

  2. Great post! Some people do tend to not describe the feature of their characters enough, but some (very few, but still some) describe too much--mostly for minor characters. An entire paragraph to someone we see twice more in the story.
    Anyway, I agree with you to have the one special characteristic that makes your character stand out in appearance.

  3. Thank you so much! I'll keep this in mind.

    Oh, and *looks* I see you are the author of WANDER, and I am THE wander fangirl. i actually referenced something from it in social studies class. :o

  4. I think that describing hair and eye colour can actually be pretty important.

    *copy and pasted from your thread*

    I've a weird way with character description. I've always got a clear picture of my charries in my head, so in the first draft I only describe the basics. I just want to get it all down before I mention that Evett's hair is the exact same shade of the Island on which he was born unless it's relevant to the plot. The next draft is when I go through and slowly create the image of the characters in the readers eye. I'm weird that way o_o

    I've a purple-eyed MC, but there's a reason for her eye colour. It's not like I've just decided "Hmm. I like purple. Let's throw in a charrie with purple eyes!" It's probably unhealthy, but I have to justify my characters appearance.

    Why does Ahlea have blonde hair? Bright-ish colours like yellow, shown in blonde hair, are connected with the feeling of happiness and a bubbly personality. Happy people generally are seen to have a happy hair colour.

    Why does Eva have black hair? Because the colour black is associated with darkness and night, two themes of which Eva is linked with closely.

    In the same way brown hair on an MC is often portrayed as average or "normal," other colours and physical traits can put in a sort of subliminal message about your characters personality, and that's why I don't think it's easy to go wrong when describing hair or eye colour.