As writers it is our goal to make our characters come to life on the page, because when a character is hard to imagine, it’s more difficult for the reader to care about them.
Take a moment to think about your favorite book:
Can you visualize the main character in your mind?
Can you imagine how they move, how they talk, what kind of clothes they wear?
Is their hair perfectly groomed or haphazardly slung back in a ponytail?
How do they enter a room? With confidence or fear?
You can recall the character easily because of the clear and vivid image you have of them.
One of the mistakes writers make when describing their characters is adding too much generalization and details that are vague, broad, and don’t elicit an image for the reader.
For instance, you don’t want to describe your character solely on their function--what they do in life, i.e., waitress, mother, engineer, or logger. While these functions do tell us something about the character, it’s only a component of who the person is. Likewise, you don’t want to provide a long descriptive narrative or summary as most readers will get bored and skim over these details.
Instead of providing broad generalizations or including a lot of detail in summary form, try focusing on a few very vivid yet succinct features or characteristics, revealing them through story.
Below are three examples of how to create powerful character descriptions.
NOTE: Character description is more than just how they look on the outside; it’s also about their personality, their demeanor, and who they are at their core.
1 | Provide a prominent detail or two about their appearance from another character’s POV. In the following examples we see (through Elise’s POV) that Jordan has blond hair and is thin, but we also see that she is sad and neglecting herself physically.
Jordan gazed out the window, her blond hair hanging limply over her shoulder.
Elise poked her head around the corner of Jordan’s bedroom door and smiled. “Jordan, honey, I’m worried about you. It’s been three weeks since the funeral and I have yet to see you eat a decent meal. You’re nothing but skin and bones.” Her aunt wrapped her in a warm hug.
2 | A lot about a person’s character and physical appearance can be revealed through dialogue.
“You alright?” a husky voice asked from behind the car.
“What are you doing out here?” Doug asked, walking around to where she stood.
She was leaning on the trunk of his beat-up Honda, smoking a cigarette. She reached out and gently placed her hand on his swollen forehead.
“Does it hurt?” she asked, ignoring his question.
“Not much.” She looked even prettier under the streetlights. Her hair was darker, skin lighter; the striking contrast between the two was breathtaking.
“I have to go,” she whispered, “but I’ll see you again.”
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asked as she walked away.
She turned to face him. “Caprice, my name is Caprice,” she said, then disappeared into the alleyway next door.
3 | Show how your character enters a room (or scene). Are they confident, flustered, shy, fearful? In the following example, we can see that Doug is worried about being late for work as he rushes into the pub, tripping through the door. And he seems to be making it a bit of a habit...
Doug tripped through the door of the Galway pub at 5:15 on a Saturday evening in late May. He had been working at the Galway for almost a year and he knew that he was going to be in dutch for showing up late again.
By revealing just a few characteristic details as you introduce your character, your readers will begin to develop a vivid image and become emotionally hooked to their story.