A character is more than his or her appearance. Yet, when we introduce a character in our manuscripts we often default to simple physical description of hair color, eye color, and articles of clothing. It’s as if we believe these attributes are the magical foundation of character, worthy of our reader’s first impressions. Of course, the opposite is true. Physical descriptions are usually forgettable. They seldom paint a memorable picture in the reader’s mind, and on top of that, they tells us next to nothing about the character themselves.
So, how do we write compelling character descriptions?
PAINT A SPECIFIC, TEXTURAL, AND VIVID IMAGE OF THE CHARACTER
It’s natural to start with the physical. In real life, appearance is often our first impression of another person. If you’re going to start with the visual, make it memorable! Use your five senses to craft an image of the character that we can’t forget.
- “He was twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face.” – Harry Potter
- ““I’ve heard of him,” Fry says out of the big bulgy mouth that clumps with the rest of his big bulgy features under the world’s most massive forehead.” – I’ll Give You The Sun
Evocative images like long tangles of bushy black hair, or clumping bulging features with a massive forehead are easy to remember.
DESCRIBE CHARACTER THROUGH METAPHOR
Comparing a character to another object can intensify the image in a reader’s mind. A clever juxtaposition can add specificity to a description, and endow a character with traits we associate with that object. The two examples above begin with physical description, but the both end with a metaphoric comparison. I edited, the final lines out of the previous example. Here they are in their entirety:
- “He was twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face. He had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.” – Harry Potter
- ““I’ve heard of him,” Fry says out of the big bulgy mouth that clumps with the rest of his big bulgy features under the world’s most massive forehead, making it very easy to mistake him for a hippopotamus.” – I’ll Give You The Sun
In the Harry Potter example, the metaphor gives us a size reference for Hagrid’s hands and boots. In the description from I’ll Give You the Sun, those bulging features are married to the concrete image of a hippopotamus. The image becomes more poignant with this comparison, and it also gives insight to the character. Our association with a hippopotamus as a creature that’s awkward, cumbersome, or lacking intelligence is now transferred to the character.
Two more great examples of character description through metaphor:
- “Except Dad. He clears his throat. He’s not buying it. Because he’s an artichoke. This, according to his own mother, Grandma Sweetwine, who never understood how she birthed and raised such a thistle-head … A thistle-head who studies parasites.” – I’ll Give You The Sun
- “His nose is like a capsized ship … His jaw and cheekbones hefty as armor … His face is a room overstuffed with massive furniture.” – I’ll Give You The Sun
USE BODY LANGUAGE AND ACTION
Body language and action can tell us a lot about a character. Does a character slouch, steal a cookie, or dash into a room at the last minute? The example below from The Hunger Games starts with description, then it paints an image of a bird through body language without ever mentioning a bird specifically.The body language description focuses on the posture of the character, implying alertness, caution, and agility.
- “She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound.” – The Hunger Games
HINT AT THE UNDERLYING NATURE OF THE CHARACTER
You can engage the reader and set up expectations by hinting at the underlying nature of the character when you first introduce him. Use the description to imply malice or danger, like in the Ender’s Game example. Or use facial expressions and word choice to mimic the internal state of a character. Hinting at the inner nature of a character allows the reader to make assumptions about who they are and how they might behave.
- “Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain.” – Ender’s Game
- “The smile and accompanying crookedness hijack his whole face. It’s an impatient, devil-may-care, chip-toothed smile on an off-kilter, asymmetrical face.” – I’ll Give You The Sun
NARRATOR / CHARACTER INTERPRETATION
A narrator’s attitude when describing another character informs us of the narrator’s opinion, giving us insight into the narrator’s character, as well as a specific impression the character they’re describing.
- “I have seen a lot of movies and he’s that guy: the lawless, solitary, hurricane-hearted one who wreaks havoc, blowing through towns, through girls, through his own tragic misunderstood life. A real bad boy, not like the fake ones at my art school, with their ink and piercings and trust funds and cigarettes from France.” – I’ll Give You The Sun
- “Actually, she can see how the burqa thing could be pretty hot if you played it off right. Did, you know, the harem thing. Yeah, no. The burqa ain’t going to work for O. You don’t want to hide that blond hair, you don’t want those bright eyes peeking out from behind a niqab. O was made for sunshine. California gurl.” – Savages
- “I kept calling Tamas, Istvan. Or was it Andras? Oh well. They were hot with dark hair and eyes, and they knew four words in English as far as I could tell. American. Beautiful. Drink. Dance.” – Finding It
CAPTURE CHARACTER ESSENCE IN A FEW SHORT WORDS
I love the following description from the screenplay Michael Clayton. It boils down the essence of the character Marty Bach into four brisk fragments. Twelve perfect words to describe the character.
- “Big power. Sweet eyes. A thousand neckties. A velvet switchblade.” – Michael Clayton
In fact, this screenplay excerpt could be turned into an exercise.
EXERCISE: See if you can capture the essence of your major characters is four short fragments. Try and keep each fragment to three words or less! It forces you to think about how to use your words economically for the most impact.
A character is more than a first impression, of course, but strike first with a powerful character description and the reader will become engaged, thank you for your clarity, and start turning pages to see if the character lives up to the image you’ve painted of them.
Want more writing tips, book news, and articles delivered to you in-box? Sign up for Ingrid’s Totally Awesome Reader Group.