How to write effective character descriptions
Don’t just write a shopping list of features
There’s a temptation to tell us everything about a character as soon as they enter the story, but sometimes that results in what sounds like a writer reeling off a shopping list of traits that may not all feel relevant at that point in the story – many of which will be forgotten for that exact reason. It’s far more effective to introduce your character’s traits in action, rather than in a list.
This is part of that classic piece of advice, “Show, don’t tell”. Say your character is a teenage girl… you could simply tell the reader that she’s a sixteen-year-old dark-haired girl who’s an outcast at school, but you shouldn’t need to do that if your story does that for you.
Perhaps we see her putting on her usual uniform of black clothes and sneakers, arguing with her parents about not wanting to go to school, and sitting alone in class while the blond-haired popular girls pick on her. It’s not as short a description, but it tells us the same information in a way that’s much more engaging and will stay with the reader for far longer.
Don’t include too much description for description’s sake
One misconception that lots of new writers tend to have is that if you don’t tell a reader everything about how a character looks, they simply won’t be able to imagine them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Readers are excellent at creating their own pictures of your characters in their minds, regardless of whether every aspect of them is described in detail or not.
You do need to make sure that descriptions that are important to the story or tell them something they should know about the character are included. Over and above that, too much description just isn’t necessary and could get in the way of your story.
Do think about more than their hair and eye colour
Think about the traits and plot information you want the reader to understand about this character. Are they untrustworthy? Are they stressed? Too perfect to be true? How can you use their description to hint at those things? Chances are, it’s not with their hair and eye colour.
If you were walking down the street, what would you notice about a passerby that would make them seem pleasant and trustworthy? It might be as simple as an open, friendly face with a smile, as opposed to an angry glare. It could be in the way they’re dressed – a pair of cargo shorts and a colourful t-shirt as opposed to a more intimidating sharp suit. Perhaps it’s also in the way they walk or the way they do their make-up. All of these things paint a picture of their character and the way they express themselves.
Don’t forget about perspective
You might be dying to tell the reader about your main character’s attractive features, but if your narrative is written from that person’s perspective, it will likely feel jarring to have the character describe themselves in this way. How often have you looked in a mirror and thought about the details of your own rockin’ bod?
It helps to keep the reader more immersed in the perspective of your main character if descriptions are written with their thought process in mind. Instead, you could use the reactions they receive from other characters to do this work for you.
The same is true when your main character looks at others. Imagine they’re looking at their mother, for example. They would have seen their mother plenty of times, so how realistic does it feel that they would look over now and start noting the colour of her hair or the wrinkles she has (unless either of those is a surprising change to them)?
Think about what they might note in that moment instead. Perhaps they notice that grey is starting to show in the roots of her usually perfectly styled and coloured red hair. We still learn what her hair colour is, but we also learn something about how our character sees their mother and what may be happening in the story.
Do be aware of your own unconscious biases
Everyone has unconscious biases. There’s no escaping them. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, just that you’ve been conditioned (as we all have) to have certain initial expectations around the gender, race, sexuality, or appearance of people we meet, including characters in books. But you don’t have to accept those conditioned reactions as yours.
Think again. You can acknowledge those unconscious biases and still try to be more mindful when you make decisions about your story and your characters.
The initial form of the character that pops into your head may be heavily influenced by the messages you received growing up. Try to think more deeply about the character and what happens to them in your story. For example, consider why you decided they should be male? Is it pertinent to the plot? How would the story change if they were female? What would that look like? Think consciously about their ethnicity and skin colour, rather than letting your brain default to the one it sees most often.
Taking the time to examine the decisions you make will help you create more realistic and more memorable characters.