Describing Your Character: How To Make Each Detail Count

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)

Click to enlarge

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!

Image 1: OltreCreativeAgency @ 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, Emotion, Empathy, Motivation, One Stop For Writers, Pacing, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Describing Your Character: How To Make Each Detail Count

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 02-09-2017 | The Author Chronicles

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  3. Mary Van Everbroeck says:

    Thanks Angela. You present so many interesting aspects to consider. You are a great teacher!

  4. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [02.05.17]

  5. ajay says:

    Mam , I wants to write .I could not find any platform for my writing skills please help me

  6. J. says:

    The https://onestopforwriters.com/ website is amazing! Thank you for sharing. I signed up I’ve never seen the like. Most articles have only a short list and don’t do much else. A whole website devoted to this is great!

  7. Talia says:

    Man, I’m really terrible at physical description. I was looking though my WIP to try to find a snippet to share, and… I couldn’t find one. So, here is one from one of my other books:

    “Marcus?” Jane asked.
    Marcus turned to her and tossed his head to the side to get his hair out of his face. His left eye was swollen and there was a little blood on his forehead. “Hello, Jane,” he said. His voice sounded fatigued, as if merely speaking was an overexertion of his energy. “Are you… are you all right?”

    So that’s the best I can do at the moment. 🙂 I’ve been meaning to go back and revise my WIP, and I will definitely be using the tips in this post. And the thesaurus collection at One Stop. 🙂

  8. “Philippe de Ciel, the abbot of Soissions monastery, allowed himself a small sip of wine. His host, Archibishop Cecil, flushed at the gesture.” The Book of Rhino

    This is an example of how I used table manners to introduce a character.

    “Philippe inherited the small blue eyes and bulbous nose of his paternal grandmother, features that he imagined transformed when the warp-spasm came upon him.”

  9. I had some fun in the beginning of my ms with a description of one of the elderly ladies in the small town I’e created for my series for Harlequin Special Edition.

    “Humph. And don’t think you can flash those pearly whites down at the Pick-N-Save to get those smitten girls to sell you any. I know their mommas.” Tavie sniffed and touched her halo of teased hair as if she’d handed down a pronouncement as momentous as Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door of Castle Church.

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