How characters look is a much-discussed element of writing craft. So, just how much do we need to describe our character’s appearance?
Obviously individual writers’ mileage may vary on this question. Some authors may spend a lot of time on character appearance. Others may do it more intuitively, or leave it almost entirely up to the reader’s imagination.
Coming from a screenwriting background, character appearance is a hot topic with my ‘Bang2writers’ because of casting. The ‘right’ actor for a character may refer to personality, but also appearance. For example, a LOT of people felt Tom Cruise was entirely the wrong choice for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character!
With this background in mind then, I am going to offer up my top tips on character appearance in your novel. Ready? Let’s go …
- Beware of ‘Laundry List’ Character Introductions
Character introductions are super-important. The first time we ‘see’ them, we should get a feel for WHO they are via WHAT they are doing.
In screenwriting, we say ‘characters are what they DO’ … but too often, writers introduce their characters just by what they’re wearing. I call this the ‘laundry list’ character introduction. Yet all of us know ‘clothes DON’T make the wo/man’!
Sometimes it won’t be clothes. Instead it may also be the way they wear their hair, how they do their make up or whether they have certain physical attributes. (For example, whether the character has big breasts … Yes, you’ve guessed it, female characters fare worst in this).
Yes, what we choose to wear CAN reflect our attitudes (especially strong looks like punk or hippy). But the fact is too many writers use this as a lazy shortcut **on its own**.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Avoid the ‘laundry list’ introduction. If you want to use clothes go ahead … just don’t rely on them to define the character.
2. Avoid non-stop moving body parts!
So if characters are what they DO, then we should rely on action when thinking about appearance. This Physical Feature Descriptive Database at One Stop for Writers offers some good hints for describing things like a characters’ lips and what they may do to signify different emotions.
However, we’re not out of the woods yet!
Whilst characters physically moving *can* be a good indicator of what they’re going through, we don’t want to rely on it too much either.
When it comes to novel writing, the psychological aspect is very important. If we reduce every character to what they’re physically doing all the time, it can adversely affect the read. Instead of an emotional connection, the reader becomes a voyeur.
This is most obvious when authors write constant actions pertaining to the body, such as …
- Eyebrows rising
- Hands on / off hips
- Nodding / shaking of head
- Smiling / grimacing
- Licking of lips
- Hands in the air or similar gestures
In other words, constant moving body parts become a ‘filler’ or worse, a stand in for actual characterization. No thanks!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Avoid your characters’ movements becoming ‘filler’ by taking the emphasis off their ‘smaller’ actions. Use them in moderation instead.
3. Beware the WORD OF DOOM
There’s one word I see too often when I read female character introductions. Guess what it is …
I call this the ‘word of doom’. (BTW, we may also see other variants of this word too, ranging from ‘pretty’ to ‘sexy’, so nice try but no cigar!).
I’m not alone, either. Check out what this A List actor has to say on the matter.
In fact, the word of doom pops up in the screenwriting world so often there are whole websites devoted to terrible casting calls, such as Miss L’s brilliant but scathing Casting Call Woe over on Tumblr. Here’s another called @femscriptintros.
Authors are not off the hook either. In recent years more and more readers have been calling out novelists for objectifying female characters like this.
Confused?? After all, ‘beautiful’ is a compliment, right?
Well, think on it this way. Female characters are often described by HOW THEY LOOK *over* WHAT THEY DO.
Yet if characters are supposed to be what they do, their behaviour is supposed to be what drives them, not how good-looking their appearance is.
Remember, a male lead might often be good-looking too, but they’re still more likely to be introduced by their character traits, than how they look. Gnash!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Avoid falling back on the ‘word of doom’ when introducing female characters. Instead of focusing on their appearance, think about their internal character traits and behaviour. Personality before gender (this works for all characters, by the way).
Lucy V. Hay is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. She’s been the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts & has also been a script reader for 20 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. She’s also an author, publishing as both LV Hay and Lizzie Fry. Lizzie’s latest, a serial killer thriller titled The Good Mother is out now with Joffe Books, with her sixth thriller out in 2024. Lucy’s site at www.bang2write.com has appeared in Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life, as well as a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK (ninth in the world.). She is also the author of the bestselling non-fiction book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays: From TV Pilot To Feature Film (Creative Essentials), which she updated for the streaming age for its tenth anniversary in 2023.