The Writer’s Bane: Describing a Character’s Physical Appearance

facelessI’m going to be totally honest here. There is little I detest more than trying to describe how my character looks. The reasons are numerous. I think it sounds boring. It slows the story. It reads like a list or sounds cliched, etc, blargh de blargh.

I write in first person, to boot, making it even more difficult to create natural-sounding character description without using the dreaded MIRROR technique. After all, every time a writer uses a mirror to describe their character’s physique, somewhere in the world a zombie dies. Think about that. Right now, Zombies are dying. I can’t add to this terrible crime. Can you?

But then I read Word Painting and realized I was looking at it all wrong. Physical description doesn’t need to be a dry, tasteless blob of facts to help the writer see our character. It can be seasoned and textured, and doled out bite by savory bite.

Let’s Get Physical–The Problems

When introducing a character, there are a few basics most stick to: sex, hair, eyes, build. Which is fine to start, depending how you go about it. A description like Melvin the bellhop had brown hair, green eyes and was a bit on the skinny side can be summed up in one word: BLAND. This is the ‘just the facts’ approach, and can often read like a list.

Another common mistake is the ‘throw in some adjectives’ approach: Melvin the attentive bellhop from our luxury hotel, had gleamimg, oiled brown hair, haunting green eyes and a crisp uniform that fit his lean frame perfectly.

Oh dear. Can you hear the zombies screaming, Clarrise? The issue with relying solely on modifiers to liven up the physical description is that they often end up hitting on cliches or sounding overwritten.

Let’s Get Physical–The Solutions

1) Choose description that is apt and characterizes rather than conveys information.

The bellhop’s well-oiled brown hair suggested an abundance of cowlicks needing to be tamed.

This here not only paints a picture, it tells us something about Melvin. He takes pride in how he looks, and will go to lengths to appear professional.

2) Select a few attributes that stand out and work together to create a full picture.

The bellhop approached us with steps as crisp as his starched maroon uniform. His gold name tag, exactly level with his lapel, announced his name: Melvin. He smiled as he took our bags, and then with a cock of his eyebrow, enquired if we were ready to go up to our room.

Again, the crisp steps and starched uniform provide an apt comparison. His smile softens the starchiness, and his cocked eyebrow, along with him asking, not telling the hotel guests to come with him, provides the image of a smooth professional who knows how to make customers feel catered too. You’ll notice no hair, no eyes, no build is described. Can you see Melvin anyway?

3) Actions speak louder than words

Which is easier to describe–a character in motion with a goal in mind, or one standing still? The answer is obvious. This ties back to the show-don’t-tell line of thought. A character is defined by what he does, and through those actions, the reader can begin to understand what it is that he wants, needs and feels. By showing a character interacting with the setting, we understand more about who he is and can ‘see’ him better.

A Melvin scanning the lobby for debris, returning empty glasses to the bar and offering help to a flustered businessman wrestling with his over sized laptop case will be seen differently than a Melvin standing near the elevator, eyes straight ahead, waiting for his name to be called to the front desk for assistance.

4) Create a realistic, personal environment

Good character description does not rest on the character alone, but also through the places they spend their time and the objects they surround themselves with. Know the setting well and spend time world building it, because characters don’t exists in white boxes of nothingness. Think of your bedroom or bathroom, and the personal touches that make it different from a friend’s bedroom or bathroom. The things your character touches, the things they view as important…these are also items that will help build a concrete picture of your character.

5) Remember to use more than SIGHT to describe

Sight is only one way to get an image across. The other senses like smells, sounds or touching can also reveal a lot about a character and create intimacy ties between the character and the reader through recognition. Use them to characterize! Our pal Melvin would probably steer clear of heavy scents, careful to always consider both his guests sensitivity to strong colognes and to maintain his background role. Yet I could imagine standing next to him in the elevator and catching a whiff of clean soap, or perhaps a touch of aloe from his hair gel.

6) Description is best in manageable pieces.

A certain amount of detail is needed to intro a character, but really all that is needed is a line our two. Further characterization, tics and mannerisms will be revealed as you show them in action, so don’t hamper the scene with clumps of physical description. Drop tidbits here and there, and remember to allude to important details more than once. If we described Melvin as pale skinned and it’s a defining detail because he’s really a vampire, mention it again in a different way down the road. Does a patron note the whiteness of his arm against his dark uniform as his sleeve rides up? Does his face appear to fade somewhat as he stands in front of the pearl-toned wallpaper? A reminder will reinforce the image we need then to see.

PSST!

Need a bit more help describing your character’s features? We have a thesaurus for that!

 

Image: PublicDomainPictures @ Pixabay

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Cliches, Description, Pacing, Show Don't Tell, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

50 Responses to The Writer’s Bane: Describing a Character’s Physical Appearance

  1. Pingback: Happy Writer - Are Your Characters Faceless Blobs? (Or, How Exhaustively Do You Describe Your Characters?)

  2. Auyan says:

    Great article! I’ll definitely use at least some of these tips. But I’m going to pretend that every time a writer uses a mirror to describe their character’s physique, somewhere in the world a zombie gets its wings and goes on a cheese-targeted murder spree, leaving its wingless brethren to die of loneliness.

  3. Pingback: Are Your Characters Faceless Blobs? (Or, How Exhaustively Do You Describe Your Characters?) | christina writes

  4. Pingback: Season's Greetings, Musers! | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS

  5. Kevin Smith says:

    absolutely perfect! This has helped me so much. Before I read this I was using “to kill a zombie method” but now all of my characters are actually interesting. I’m like you in that I loathe describing my characters but now it is much more tolerable. Thanks!

  6. cweaks says:

    So I’m almost a year and a half late on reading this post, but I love you for it! Especially this morning as I apologetically admit (sigh) that I am apparently a Zombie Slayer. But I’m reforming! Promise 🙂 XOXO

  7. Shilpa says:

    Thank you so much Angela. The characters in my novel ALWAYS look in to the mirror to describe themselves! LOL! I am going to change that…:)

  8. Katja says:

    Thanks to you Olivia Newton John is now singing in my head and I’m picturing obese men humping in the gym.

    But great article nevertheless!

  9. Amy Brown says:

    Is it just me, or is Melvin kind of hot? 😉

  10. Bluestocking says:

    Great post! I love how you go through all the different ways to accomplish describing appearance. I cracked open a book getting lots of buzz right now and cringed a the mirror scene in the first chapter. Dealbreaker.

  11. Tory says:

    Hi, Angela! I think this is an excellent topic for discussion, especially for newcomers as myself.

    Months ago, when I began Book #1, I spent countless hours envisioning the pyhsical appearance of the characters in my YA novel.

    On a wimb, I decided the main character (a young, female protagonist) should be completely opposite of my physical and emotinal make-up. Maybe I wanted a challenge, or perhaps I subconsciously want to be blond-haired, blue-eyed, and a teenage heart-throb.

    I suppose that’s the beauty of being an author: there are no limits or boundaries; the characters are who they are, and that’s that!

  12. MissV says:

    Thanks for this! I hate descriptions too, but you just made it seem not only easy, but fresh and interesting!

  13. Angela says:

    Kristi, many thanks. I agree, this is daunting for new writers, but can also be a challenge for established ones as well.

    Eric, thanks for sharing your experience! I like the window comparison.

    Fairview and Marcia, thanks!

    Theresa, I’m going to pretend you said ‘Garden gnomes’ instead of Zombies in your comment. *hugs zombies* LOL

    LJ, it sounds like you hit on the magic! Way to go!

    VJ, Thanks! And I love your name!

    Becca, you just need to get in touch with your inner zombie. My likes to hang out right around revision times.

    Wendy, glad this post helps!

  14. Wendy Marcus says:

    Hi Angela!
    Great post. Thanks for the tips. (I printed them out for future reference.) Describing characters is one of my least favorite things, as is reading long-winded descriptions.

  15. beccap says:

    Awesome post, Angela! You know how I feel about zombies, so I wouldn’t mind rubbing a few out (MWAHHAHAHAH), but this information should be very helpful for describing characters.

  16. I was thinking about this recently. I’ve just started writing a new YA novel and it is the love of my writing life. In this one, I did not describe the character’s in detail, and I didn’t name the setting.
    I had a friend read the first 4 chapters and she described my two main characters almost exactly as I picture them, and she had the setting spot on. I think I must’ve done something right.

    I love your examples! And I think around page 50 I mentioned someone’s dimples and someone else’s green eyes, but both times it was an organic description in the story. Great post!

  17. Marcia says:

    Wonderful pointers for cutting down on the static “info dump.”

  18. I’m guilty of the mirror technique when I’ve written in first person, but if I’ve killed zombies in the process, I feel good about it.

    When I began writing, I thought I had to provide a lot of details. More recently, I’ve been better about telling less, and letting the reader imagine more.

    You give some better scenarios for incorporating physical description. Great post.

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