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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2021

The Do's and Don'ts of Writing Character Physical Descriptions

WriteOn

If you're writing a novel or short story, you probably want to create compelling characters that resonate with your readers. If you want readers to connect with your characters based on their personalities, behaviors, world views, and how they treat each other, your characters' physical descriptions might seem unimportant at first.

Now take a moment and think back to when you met your best friend(s) or significant other(s). What about them made you want to befriend them? Most likely it was something about the way they presented themselves. Whether we like it or not, most of us aren't mind readers, so we use observations and visual cues to learn about others. We get to know people based on how they outwardly express feelings, beliefs, and personalities; their mannerisms and how they carry themselves; and what they chose to present to the world. Such physical expressions are an essential part of connecting with people in the real world, so the most effective writers create and describe such visual manifestations to help readers connect with their characters.

Now that we've established the importance of your characters' physical descriptions, keep reading to learn the do's and don'ts of physically describing your characters so you can add depth to your characters and help readers better understand what motivates them.

Introducing characters

  • Do introduce characters with their most memorable or striking qualities first. It doesn't matter if a character has brown eyes if the first thing anyone would notice is that she sashays into the room in a hot pink tracksuit with sequins encircling her breasts.
  • Don't list every physical attribute of your character as if you are describing them for a police sketch. When you introduce a new character, just mention a few distinguishing features that are essential to that character. You don't need to describe every single physical detail. Readers will fill in any gaps with their own imaginations—sometimes readers will do this even if you try to describe every single attribute.
  • Do create simple descriptions that make it easy for readers to differentiate between characters. Unless you intentionally want readers to mistake characters for each other, give your characters distinct features. Look at real-life groups of people for inspiration: Even if you encounter a family in which everyone has similar physical features, you will still find physical differences that make each person unique. Even identical twins have features or proclivities that distinguish them, so consider what features other people are most likely to notice in your characters. Perhaps everyone in the family shares the same dark brown hair and caramel skin, but the older sister favors conservative clothing in neutral colors while the younger sister only wears animal prints and heels. Even though this description of clothing preference is brief, it conveys some essential information about each character.
  • Do evaluate each character's purpose in the story and decide whether you want readers to be aware of that purpose. If Jessica is a prankster intended for comic relief, she might be giggling and hiding behind a door waiting to jump out and spook her friend when readers first encounter her. However, if you want Jessica to appear as if she is a rule-following teacher's pet, she might be finishing her homework when she is first introduced.

Adding more detail to characters

  • Do use physical descriptions to convey additional information about each character. A teenager who keeps his eyes downcast and stands with his shoulders slumped is most likely struggling with depression or self-esteem issues, but a teenager who looks adults in the eyes and walks with his shoulder pulled back is probably a confident character.
  • Don't use every adjective you can think to enhance your characters' descriptions. Using a long string of adjectives will exasperate your readers while making your characters feel fake and forced.
  • Do consult a thesaurus or website to find the best descriptive word for each feature. YourDictionary.com has a list of 333 words that you can use to describe the texture, cut, look, or feel of a character's hair.
  • Don't ramble on about unimportant physical aspects of a character. If you include a detail in the story, it should advance the story or be relevant in some way.
  • Do incorporate physical aspects of your friends, family members, or acquaintances into your characters. Your characters don't need to be dead ringers for the person who inspired their physicality, but if you base your main character's bouncy brown hair on your cousin's voluminous ringlets, you will be better able to describe how your character's ringlets lift and fall with each step as she runs. If you give your characters your loved ones' features, you will be more familiar with the intimate details of how those features look when your characters feel excited, stressed, heartbroken, or angry. Including such small observations will help readers better understand your characters and your story.
  • Do describe clothing, accessories, or physical surroundings to give readers additional insight into a character's personality or background. If your narrator notices that the new kid's shoes look four sizes too big but already show holes where previous owners' toes rubbed against the canvas, you've provided a window into the new kid's impoverished home life. You can give more information about the new kid if you show the physical ways that the kid either tries to hide the hand-me-down shoes or makes jokes about them.
  • Do show, don't tell. This is one of the most important guidelines for any kind of writing: Show your readers who your characters are through their actions, movements, and other physical attributes. Don't just tell your readers "Barney was surprised." Instead, show the readers how Barney reacted to the feeling of surprise: "Barney's brown eyes widened as he gasped and whispered, "What are you doing here?"
  • Do describe your character's facial expressions. While readers might not need to know the color of your characters' skin or even the color of their eyes, we can learn a lot about characters by how their faces show emotion. As you describe facial reactions, remember that eyebrows can reveal a lot about a person, so show readers how your characters' eyebrows furrow when he or she is frustrated and lift when he or she is pleased.
  • Do incorporate information about a character's history in the physical description. If you mention the prominent worry lines around a woman's eyes or that someone's face bears the scars of a lifetime of hard living, you give readers a behind-the-scenes view of the character and what might have led them to this moment in time.

Using inclusive language

  • Do be conscious of unintended racial bias. The world is not homogenous, so hopefully the characters in your story won't be either. If possible, include a variety of races in your story, or omit references to skin color and leave race open to interpretation. If you choose to leave race open to interpretation, be mindful of how you describe your characters' other physical features.
  • Don't use physical descriptions to perpetuate inaccurate or painful stereotypes. As society continues to evolve, the best writers' work will continue to stay relevant. You don't want your work to be disregarded in the future because you accidentally used insensitive language when describing a character's appearance.

Considering point of view

  • Do write characters' descriptions from your narrator's point of view. If you have a first-person narrator, immerse yourself in that character and describe other characters as your narrator would see them. If your narrator is obsessed with fashion, he or she will probably take note when another character shows up with a new Prada handbag or if the neighbor wears a cheap imitation. On the flip side, if your narrator is oblivious to fashion, he or she will not recognize another character's designer outfit and might not understand why Aunt Jacquie wails and storms out the door when tomato sauce splatters on her Jimmy Choo shoes.
  • Don't provide physical information that the narrator should not know. The narrator might admire Johnny's new baseball hat the first time she sees it, but she won't know where it came from until Johnny tells her that his grandfather gave it to him last weekend. Similarly, the narrator would only know that Uncle Rick is self-conscious about the way that his stomach hangs over his pants if Uncle Rick tells him this; otherwise, the narrator might guess that Uncle Rick is uncomfortable based on the way he keeps pulling his shirt down over his belt or sucking in his belly anytime he walks past a mirror.

I hope this list of do's and don'ts for writing physical character descriptions inspires you to get started on creating in-depth characters for your next story. Remember that physical descriptions include so much more than just a person's hair or eye color, and you will create characters that readers will remember long after they've finished reading your story.

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