Describing a Character’s Appearance

There are different schools of thought when it comes to describing the physical appearance of characters in a book. Some readers want to know exactly what a character looks like—from hair and eye color, to the size of their hands and the color of their shoes. Other readers prefer little to no description, and give the character an appearance of their own choosing in their imagination as they read. Neither one is right or wrong, or better or worse—and no matter which one you do, you will likely have readers who want more or less description.

Some genres lend themselves to more in-depth physical descriptions of characters. In fantasy and science fiction, where there is a lot of world-building and thus descriptions of scenery, objects, and fantastical creatures, some physical description of main characters is expected. Also most romance genres describe characters’ physical appearances.

But whether you’re writing a fantasy romance or a literary drama, what’s the best way to actually describe the characters? Most editors and experienced writers agree that the info-dump method is not the best way. A full paragraph (or more) of straight “telling” description is not the most engaging way of describing a character: “She had brown hair and blue eyes. She was five-foot-five, unless she wore heels. She wore a brown leather jacket and a red scarf.”

I am currently struggling with the character description thing, because even though I’m writing in the third person, it’s close POV from only one character’s viewpoint—so how do I describe the character who is the one telling the story? While I still don’t have a perfect answer to this question, as I’ve been mulling this over, I’ve been trying to pay better attention to how other authors do it. Below are three different examples from books I’ve read that introduce a character’s physical description without resorting to bland info-dumps.

The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert

We look the way the wood should look were it to come alive and walking. We move quickly and silently through the trees we know so well. All of us draped in earth-colored tatters, caked with dirt. My hair and Nettle’s as jumbled as bird’s nests, Mad Helga’s pate as bald as a new-laid egg. We look like the wild heart of the wood, but walking. No wonder the villagers fear us. If I didn’t study my face in the brook from time to time, I could come to believe that I am not a girl, but simply a wild and untamable bit of the wood.

Physical description of a first-person narrator can be very tricky. In this book, the main character describes herself by describing other people and things that are important to her, and thus describes it all (including herself) as a cohesive whole. This technique wouldn’t work in every story, of course, but this passage offers some great insight into how a writer can give the reader a feel for both the physical and mental state of the main character, and how she fits into her world.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Duchess of Denver was pouring out coffee. This was one of her uncomfortable habits. Persons arriving late for breakfast were thereby made painfully aware of their sloth. She was a long-necked, long-backed woman, who disciplined her hair and her children. She was never embarrassed, and her anger, though never permitted to be visible, made itself felt the more.

This physical description, brief and spartan though it is, tells the reader a lot about the personality of the character as well as her looks. While we don’t get a description of the color of her hair or her clothing, we get a very clear picture of her overall demeanor. Also, because of the setting, some things about the character’s physical appearance can be surmised or taken for granted. For example, this book takes place when it was written (1920s England), which is apparent to the reader from the get-go. Therefore, the reader can automatically fill in some of what this character might look like, based on the typical attire of British aristocracy in the 1920s.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

She turned slightly in my direction, but without meeting my gaze. “They are smaller things, but still very important. He is not kind. He does not know when to say something comforting and when to be silent. He does not really care about history. He does not have soft gray eyes or bushy eyebrows, or roll his sleeves up to the elbow.” I stared at her, and now she looked me full in the face with a kind of determined courage. “In short, the biggest problem with him is that he is not you.”

This is another example of a physical description of a first person POV character. Like the previous example, there’s not a lot given—all that we really know is that the character has gray eyes and bushy eyebrows. We learn a lot about his personality and demeanor, though, as the character who is speaking (Helen) compares the POV character (Paul) to someone else. This is an interesting and unique method of describing the main character, without resorting to an info-dump or a “character examines himself in the mirror” scene.

What are some unique and interesting ways that you’ve read (or written) physical descriptions of characters? Please share!

2 thoughts on “Describing a Character’s Appearance

  1. This is sooo something I struggle with! I hate description that is info dumped, but then I often forget to include any description of my characters at all because of it. First person is definitely tricky, but I usually write first person stories with two alternating POV characters, so I can describe each protagonist from the other person’s perspective. Something I’ve noticed with a lot of first person narration is that the protagonist will often describe themselves by comparing them to others (“Her hair is not as long as mine,” “his eyes were much darker than my own blue ones,” etc.”). It can work if it’s not overdone, I think. I love the examples you included!

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    • I struggle with this too, regardless of the POV I’m using. 😛 I often resort to the comparison description, too, even in third person POV, to avoid the info dump description; it works, mostly. I haven’t yet figured out how to describe characters as artfully as these three examples that I used. 😛

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