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 aka Bang2write is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. Lucy is the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts. She has also been a script reader for over 15 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. Publishing as LV Hay, Lucy’s debut crime novel, The Other Twin, is out now and is being adapted by Agatha Raisin producers Free@Last TV. Her second crime novel, Do No Harm, was a finalist in the 2019 Dead Good Book Readers’ Awards. Lucy is also Lizzie Fry, whose books The Coven and Kill For It are out now with Sphere books.
Lindsey Russell says
Though not always possible I try and avoid describing characters when in narrator mode. I think description comes best from the mouth of another character but still only what is necessary to give an impression. I rarely describe what thy are wearing unless it is pertinent to the story – I write crime so it will be undercover police or villains disguising themselves. And to describe someone or something as beautiful should come from a character’s lips or thoughts not in narration.
AL Maze says
What a confusing article! Don’t use movement, don’t use words and don’t use clothes. What’s left? You show character by using all these things and there’s no examples on how it should be done either. Woe betide the amateur writer!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Al, I think you may be misreading this post. Lucy’s not saying to not describe clothing and other things to do with appearance, she’s saying to choose details that matter, and to remember less is more. The best way to characterize is through behavior, not clothing or appearance, but the latter can help set things up.
Paul Lamb says
It’s almost NEVER important what a character is wearing. Give a little description early to give the reader a sense of the person’s style (casual, frumpy, dressy, dirty) and get that established in the reader’s mind. Don’t interrupt the narrative with things that aren’t important. This has been called a “Nancy Drew Moment” because it was done so much in those novels.
Lucy V Hay says
Agree, I never bother with clothes unless it’s relevant to what’s going on, ie. Someone is getting ready for a party, or to show a character trait such as my villain dresses like she is 12 despite being a fully grown woman. Even then I dont bother wuth mega detail. Clothes dont tell us much.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thank you, Lucy. There are roughly a gajillion ways to describe a character’s appearance, but we always see the same words and body parts being used. And the description very seldom does more than just describe how they look. There’s so much more we can do when it comes to describing our characters’ appearance.
Lucy V says
Totally agree! I always find it interesting that when we writers can do whatever we want, we can STILL fall back on the ‘same old same old’ …