Describing a character’s physical appearance is a tough job.
Most writers either really get into it and share every dimple, curl, and laugh line, or they sprinkle in just a few details so readers can make up the rest. No surprise, the best approach lands somewhere in the middle, but even so, ALL description should wow readers.
We all know it’s important that our description paints a picture. Readers need a way to connect with characters and the story. But like everything else with writing craft, it’s all in the HOW. If we don’t choose details with care, we will miss an opportunity to draw readers deeper into the story, and our writing can come across as bland or boring.
Make Every Detail Count
Description should be deliberate, with each detail pushing the story forward rather than holding it back via a bloated word count. This means making careful selections, and only describing things that are meaningful.
A character’s physical appearance is a big chance to make a memorable impact. Meaningful bits will pull readers in, help them understand the character better, and most importantly, make them care. BOOM, just what we want, right?
Let’s look at different ways to make sure your physical description is pulling its storytelling weight.
1) Choose Details that Show Personality
Choosing features that hint at who the character is deep down is a great starting point for physical description. Consider:
I approached the woman seated behind the front desk. On the phone, her gaze flicked up only long enough to dismiss me as someone unimportant. Her pale blond hair was a bondage experiment gone wrong, yanked back and knotted, then skewered with pins. The skin on her face, bloodless and stretched, barely moved as she spoke. Ten bucks said that if I leaned in a little, I’d hear her pores screaming.
Can you see hints of this woman’s personality from this description? Haughty, controlling, frigid…this is what comes to mind for me. The tone is also set for what is to come: that this woman will lack warmth, friendliness, and likely will be less than helpful when she does finally decide to end her call and speak to the POV character.
2) Choose Details that Reveal Emotion
As writers, we want to weave in emotion wherever we can, and physical description is a great place to do so. Readers will feel closer to the POV character as necessary physical description is being delivered about another character, or themselves.
Hank leaned back in his chair, hands laced lightly over his expansive torso, considering me. I couldn’t look at his eyes so I stared at his chin—dimpled and pale as a baby’s bottom. Yet, if it gave just one tiny jerk left or right, his goons would turn me into a bloody smear. I dropped my gaze to the floor.
Here we can imagine Hank, an intimidating force who holds all the power in the room. And we know this through the terrific descriptive contrast of a physical detail that is the exact opposite of imposing: a chin, smoothly shaved and dimpled. But when this description is delivered through the filter of the POV character’s fragile emotional state, we see Hank as the danger he truly is.
3) Choose Details that Show Motivation
Physical description can also reinforce a state of mind to readers while alluding to motivation. Consider this scene:
Alan didn’t savor his food. He didn’t take small, considerate bites, pausing to reflect on the complex flavors of the citrus duck and saffron stuffing. Instead, he shoveled in bite after bite, his teeth tearing and mashing, consuming calories for the sole purpose of burning them off on the football field.
Eating, while a necessary part of a character’s daily routine, can create some pretty boring description. But this sparks great imagery; we can imagine an incredible spread of food that someone went to a lot of work to prepare, yet our footballer is so focused and motivated by his goal that to him it’s only fuel. We can’t help but wonder what’s on the line here, and why is winning so all-consuming. Not only can we picture the scene, the description’s focus is on a feature that is rarely described in fiction, making it all that more fresh and interesting: his teeth.
4) Choose Details that Create Hooks
The old man in the faded Army cap carried a misshapen, string-tied package up the city hall steps. At each concrete riser, his knees strained and groaned, trying to hold their weight. Like soldiers carrying too-heavy packs, they struggled gamely on, doing what they’d been trained to do: finish the mission.
A description about knees that draws a reader in? Yes, it can be done. In this example, the details act as hooks. Not only do we want to know more about this man, we want to know his why: why he’s at city hall and not at home napping in front of the TV. Why he’s struggling up these steps on a mission. Why he’s carrying a package so resolutely, clearly a burden for someone in his condition. (And heck, I want to know what’s in the misshapen package, and who it’s for.)
Using physical description to make readers wonder about a character puts questions in their minds, and the desire for answers will keep them turning pages.
Remember Your Character Is More than a Pretty Face (Or, You Know, an Ugly One)
It’s easy to get caught up in the face when we describe our characters (especially the eyes, hair, and smile combo). Give your readers something fresh and different to work with by thinking about the whole body. Different areas might better deliver the emotion or meaning you’re going for than an overused facial feature.
If you need more help, I recommend checking out the Physical Feature Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers. There’s an entry on every physical feature, and a load of different ideas on how to describe your character, including how to use simile & metaphor effectively. Plus, we list all the cliches to steer clear of to ensure your description is fresh!
Have you used one of these techniques to show readers your character’s appearance? Have a snippet to share? Let me know in the comments!