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How to write effective character description

Imagining what a character looks like is part of the enjoyment of reading a story. And if you can imagine what a character looks like, the author has probably described the character well! Giving a comprehensive list of every little detail of a character’s appearance is off-putting. Too much detail could lose the reader’s attention. Revealing snippets of a character’s description as the story unfolds is a more subtle approach and will keep the reader immersed in the story. Only a few details are needed for our mind’s eye to imagine a character. This post discusses a few ways of revealing character description.

Show character description through personality, habits and other traits

Adding in little details to give more information about personality, age, habits, history or other traits will make characters more interesting. For example, noting a bruise could hint at violence or an accident, and more details of this could be revealed later in the story. Perhaps there is an indentation on their wedding-ring finger but no ring, although the character is married. Fragments of information that are pertinent to the plot can be more interesting than a long list of hair colour, height, build, age and clothing.

In the example below from Mummy’s Little Secret by M. A. Hunter (Chapter 1, audio version), a little girl has told Jess (the viewpoint character) that the woman she is with is not her mum. Jess is very suspicious of the woman, and the description, particularly the mention of strained lines around her eyes, is a clue that something could be amiss.

She is much older than I’d expected. A shock of auburn hair interspersed with wisps of grey, and subtle blonde undertones. The skin above her cheeks is mauve and hangs, while the lines beside her eyes are tight and strained. Maybe she’s the child’s grandmother. Certainly not her mother.

Reveal character description by comparing with another character

In The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom (p. 5–6) by Alexander McCall Smith, Professor Dr von Igelfeld contrasts the large nose of Professor Dr Unterholzer with his own, which reveals not only a snippet of von Igelfeld’s appearance but also his pompous nature. This appears on the first page of the book, so the reader knows from the start that von Igelfield has snobbish tendencies.

Unterholzer, by contrast, thrust his nose forward shamelessly, as might an amateur, with the result that it was the first thing one saw when he appeared anywhere. It was exactly the wrong thing to do if one had a nose like that.

The von Igelfeld nose, by contrast, was entirely appropriate. It was not small. Von Igelfeld’s nose tended slightly to the aquiline, which was completely becoming for the scion of so distinguished a family.

Character self-reflection

In A Friend of the Family (p. 25), Lisa Jewell uses a mirror to contrast how Tony used to look with how he looks now.

He pulled himself from his bed and gave his body the customary mirror appraisal. A couple of years ago he’d look in the mirror and see a slightly stocky man with a burgeoning belly and ever so slightly budding breasts. A thirty something man who looked like he’d had a few curries in his time, the odd pint of lager, balanced out by sessions at the gym and the occasional game of football. What looked back at him now was a spherical, snowy-white blob with a belly large enough to house a five-year-old child and sad, slightly pendulous breasts that were bigger than Ness’s (yes – she’d measured them).

Character description through the eyes of a viewpoint character

Looking through the eyes of a viewpoint character is a sound way to reveal character details.

In Left You Dead (Chapter 47, Kindle version) by Peter James, Roy Grace is visiting his son Bruno in hospital after the boy was knocked down by a car. The reader sees Bruno’s appearance along with Grace, the viewpoint character.

Much of his marble-coloured face that was visible was covered in abrasions. His right cheek had a dressing on it. His normally neat blond hair was tousled and greasy. His bruised left hand had two cannulas taped to it, with lines leading up to pumps regulating the flow from the bags above. An arterial line came out of his wrist.

This extract from The Evidence Against You by Gillian McAllister (Chapter 2, Borrowbox version) shows Izzy’s reaction at seeing her father appear outside her restaurant one evening after his release from prison.

He must see her expression, because he steps backwards, and now she can see his face and upper body framed in the window, his arms raised up in a gesture of defeat. No, not defeat, a gesture of peace. I mean no harm, he is saying, palms to her. She stares and stares at him. His aged figure is skinny under his coat. Cheekbones protruding. Hair greyed out, as if he used to be in colour and is now in monochrome.

Use dialogue to show character description

Dialogue is a natural way to reveal snippets of character description. Consider the fictitious example below.

‘Doesn’t she look stunning, Mum?’ whispered Linda.

Joan smiled then replied a bit too loudly, ‘Oh, she does. That red dress is amazing.’

‘Isn’t it just? Very unusual.’

Joan gazed back towards her granddaughter, admiring the intricate criss-crossing of the satin laces that fastened the deep-red bodice. ‘Scarlet really suits her. What with her pale complexion and dark hair. Mind you, I thought she might have tried to lose a bit of weight before the wedding.’

Emotions evoked by character appearance

A character’s appearance can be used to show emotions evoked in the viewpoint character.

In 29 Seconds (Kindle version) by T. M. Logan, Sarah is being sexually harassed by a work colleague. Logan describes the predator’s appearance in detail to reflect Sarah’s incredulity that despite his manner, age and appearance, this man thinks he is irresistible to women. The reader is in no doubt that this man makes Sarah’s skin crawl. And Logan does an excellent job in creating a character for the reader to loathe.

He had been OK-looking once upon a time, she supposed. Maybe even moderately handsome as a young man. But forty years of alcohol and fine food and debauchery had taken their toll, and now he resembled nothing so much as an ageing Lothario gone to seed. He was carrying too much weight on his tall frame, a pot belly hanging over the waistband of his jeans, his jowls fleshy and his nose and cheeks dappled red with booze. His grey ponytail was thinning, strands of hair gathered over his increasingly bald pate. The bags under his eyes were heavy and dark.

And yet, Sarah thought with a trace of amazement, he still walks around acting like he’s bloody George Clooney.

 She tried to edge further away, but she was already hard up against the door, the door handle digging in her thigh.

Show character description through out-of-place setting

Another way of revealing character description is if a character is in a setting where they might be out of place or be conspicuous. In the extract below, Daniel is judged on his scruffy clothes while visiting an exclusive estate agency.

And so it was that he set foot in an estate agency on one of the most expensive roads in London, and that represented some of the most exclusive properties, dressed in a faded T- shirt and a pair of cargo shorts with holes where the seams met at the pockets.

[…]

Her eyes were dark too, deep pools with fathomless depths. In them, he caught the mental calculations as she subtly took in his frayed shorts and T-shirt.

The Girlfriend by Michelle Frances (audio version)

Keep the characters’ knowledge realistic

Not everyone is an expert on every subject, so characters should not be either. For example, a viewpoint character may not have a detailed knowledge of makes and models of cars, so it would not be realistic for them to talk about cars at length. If Martin is a car buff and it is relevant to the story, then the first example shows this perfectly. If Martin is a heritage railway enthusiast, he might be more inclined to the thoughts in the second example.

Solly held the car door open. Martin hesitated. What a beautiful car. A Jaguar XK 120 3.4 from 1953 with double SU H8 carburettor.

Solly held the car door open. Martin hesitated. What a beautiful car. An old Jaguar of some sort.

In brief…
  • Try and avoid long and unimaginative lists of character description.
  • Reveal character description gradually through character traits or habits, self-reflection, comparison with another character, emotions, dialogue or the eyes of the viewpoint character.
  • Make sure that a character’s knowledge is realistic.
References

2½ Pillars of Wisdom, Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, 2004

29 Seconds, T. M. Logan, Zaffre, 2018

A Friend of the Family,Lisa Jewell, Michael Joseph, 2003

Left You Dead, Peter James, Macmillan, 2021

Mummy’s Little Secret, M A Hunter, One More Chapter, 2021

The Evidence Against You, Gillian McAllister, Penguin, 2019

The Girlfriend, Michelle Frances, Pan, 2017

Work with me

I’m Clare Black, a fiction book editor based in Stockport, UK. I help independent authors prepare for publishing by fixing the important details and improving the readability of their books. I specialise in crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, but I am happy to consider other genres. I am a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

I offer various packages to help indie authors get published and would love the opportunity to discuss your book and how I can help you prepare for publishing.

Email: clare@clareblackediting.com

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