Characters are the heart and soul of any story. They are the things readers need to love or hate. Their actions are what drive the plot and keep readers engaged. So, from their very first mention, solid impressions of them need to be conveyed. Here are nine things to keep in mind when writing character descriptions.
1. Take Your Time with Character Descriptions
One of the major issues with poorly written descriptions is their length. As a writer, you might be anxious to dive into the plot, but painting a picture of your characters is a vital part of bring them alive and making them relatable. It’s difficult to really delve into the plot if you can’t envision the people involved in it.
Also, remember your audience is not you. After months of working on your story, you have a solid idea in mind of how characters look and act and what makes them tick. Your readers don’t. They are working with a blank slate. Fill every inch of that slate.
2. Describe Rather than Label Your Characters
He was middle aged, tall and stocky with brown hair.
If you met someone in a bar, and all you remember is gender, age and hair color, he has certainly not made an impression on you, unless that impression is “boring.” If you’re describing physical appearances, get into the details. In the above example, how do we know this character is middle aged? Is he just starting to show lines around his eyes? Are there wisps of gray hair at his temples?
As for his hair, what shade of brown is it? How long is it? How is it styled?
He was an imposing figure, with short, light brown hair lying flat against his head. A slight weathering of the face suggested a man in his 40s.
3. Include Activity
No person simply exists. He is always doing something. Even if the character is merely standing, that is still an action.
Standing there was an imposing figure, with short, light brown hair lying flat against his head.
4. Include Comparisons, Similes and Metaphors in Your Descriptions
Do not limit yourself to clinical, concrete character descriptions. You can often evoke a more powerful impression through comparison.
Short, straight hair the color of straw lay flat against his head as if plastered by rain.
5. Avoid Clichés
Sometimes a cliché sounds like a very accurate description of the character, but that’s only because we’ve been programmed with that description. I’m really tired of reading about strapping young men and heaving bosoms. What, exactly, does strapping even mean? This returns us to point 1: describe rather than label. There are many more descriptive and accurate terms to solidly paint a picture in the reader’s mind than these worn out clichés.
Short, straight hair of luminous amber lay flat against his head as if plastered by rain.
6. Choose What You Describe
While you should spend a good amount of time on a character description, that does not necessarily mean you should include every single aspect you can possibly imagine. If you’re going to describe the character’s shoes, it should be because those shoes say something about the character other than he doesn’t run around barefoot. Well-worn shoes might speak to his overly casual appearance, or it might imply he doesn’t have a lot of money. But if all you have to say is his shoes are brown, it’s probably not worth mentioning.
7. Describe the Space around Your Character
Of course, describing the scene is important in its own right, but it also helps set the tone for the characters within that space. How does he fit within it? If it’s the character’s home, does it seem to fit with his personality, or is it incongruous?
He stood in the doorway of his meticulously appointed room, an imposing figure who filled the space with his frame.
8. Describe Associated Objects
Like the scene, what the character is currently interacting with can be just as insightful about him as a physical description. It might speak to his way of life or his occupation. It might imply things he enjoys, which certainly can speak to personality.
Objects can also have actions. While they are frequently not doing it under their own power, they can still hang from a hand, sit upon a shoulder, or rustle softly across the floor.
He stood in the doorway of his meticulously appointed room, an imposing figure who filled the space with his frame. Short, straight hair of luminous amber lay flat against his head as if plastered by rain. A slight weathering of the face suggested a man in his 40s. A battered, overstuffed backpack hung loosely from one shoulder, while he clenched a worn briefcase in his calloused hand.
9. Remember your Five Ws
A good place to start is asking yourself about who, when, where, what, why (and how). The who concerns the direct descriptions of the character. When might be anything from time of day to historical period, depending on what is necessary to set the scene. Where is location, particularly when that location speaks to the character. What is what the character is doing, while why and how go further into the issue of what. All of these points might not be relevant, but they are things to think about, particularly if you’re feeling stuck about what to address in a character description.
Character descriptions are a major element in any story. Take your time in composing them. Besides being specific about the person directly, don’t forget the things around him, particularly if they speak to the character’s personality. This is important even if the details do not specifically relate to the plot. When character descriptions are robust, they come to life in the mind of the reader, providing more engaging and relatable figures.