All writers seem to know that characters need to be described in a way that’s interesting. Readers want to be captivated, intrigued and entertained by the fictional (or real) people they encounter on the page.
But the actual how of making character descriptions interesting is harder to define. In this post, we’ll chat about seven tips to consider when you know that your character descriptions could be packing more punch.
1. Avoid Shopping lists of traits
When we describe a character, it’s natural to start with the physical. What do they look like? This is important to know, as it can help ground your writing. However, what a character looks like is often not the most important element of their description.
Readers have pretty good imagination, and when given small details are usually able to fill in the blanks to picture what a character looks like in their head. This imagination is why castings of book-to-film adaptations are often controversial—readers have their own view of what a character looks like.
Shopping lists of traits are therefore not necessary, nor are they particularly interesting to read about. You don’t have to paint an exact image of a character – some broad strokes will do.
Pick one or two physical traits to focus on. More than that in one section can feel dull to read. Often, we see authors go for hair colour and eye colour as the bare minimum. But it’s not a rule that these are the traits you must focus on. A person’s build, their posture, the shape of their face or skin colour (though care should be taken to not exoticise or be insensitive)
2. Describe non-physical elements of a character
Arguably more important than the physical elements of a character are their other qualities. You can add to a character’s description by showing the reaction of the other characters to them.
How do they feel when that character walks into the room? Afraid, excited, content, intrigued?
You can also choose to highlight their values or their interests. Consider the following descriptions.
eg. ‘Alex’s bedspread had a large illustration of Spiderman on it. His mum had bought it for him, and he hadn’t had the heart to tell her he hadn’t watched the web-slinging cartoon in years.’
eg. ‘Alex had blonde hair, blue eyes, a big smile and was around eighteen years old. He was popular at school and had lots of friends.’
The first example tells us more about Alex; his interests (or what he isn’t interested in), and his relationship with his mother. From a story perspective, these types of descriptions can move the plot along better than if all your character descriptions are shopping lists of traits.
3. Spread out descriptions
You don’t have to give all your character descriptions straight away. Pick those elements that are most important for readers to know for that scene or chapter.
You can get deeper into the description and backstory later on, or at another point in the story when it flows naturally. It’s rewarding for readers to have different elements of a character revealed, the deeper into a book they get.
4. Provide contrast between your characters
No two people are exactly the same, so chances are neither are your characters. Descriptions can be used to contrast characters and highlight how each character is an individual.
This can be particularly useful if you’re receiving feedback from readers that your characters are easily confused. How can you show how they differ? Do they look different? Are they interacting with the world in a different way from the other character. Consider Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; these two characters are heavily contrasted throughout each story — which makes their commonalities (the desire to solve the mysteries) more significant and interesting for readers.
5. Descriptions in motion: character movement
How your character moves through the world can tell us a lot about who they are. Action beats — small bits of prose between dialogue, or sections describing how they move are not to be overlooked.
A character that slouches, or dawdles as they walk from one room to another can describe to us things that aren’t directly in the plot. Their mood, history, their relationships, can all be witnessed in action and movement.
People are very rarely still, even when they’re talking. Use your character’s body language to your advantage.
It may be helpful to close your eyes and imagine them entering a room. If you’re still having some trouble, think about what the body language of people you know tells you. How do you know when your loved one is upset? How do they walk when they’re happy?
6. Don’t overdo the adjectives
Adjectives are wonderful words. Without them, many descriptions would fail. But when over-relied on, descriptions can become ‘purple’ and less engaging for readers.
‘Purple prose’ is a phrase generally applied to writing which has an overreliance on adjectives, metaphors and adverbs. These passages can read as melodramatic and disingenuous and put off many readers.
Rather than packing too many adjectives and adverbs into a sentence, (particularly if they share a similar meaning), pick one or two, that offer the most impact with their presence. eg. ‘She has beautiful, pretty, lovely eyes’. is less effective than, eg. ‘She has beautiful eyes’
Like any aspect of writing craft, descriptions need to be practised. If you’re struggling with character descriptions, consider stepping away from your story. Set yourself some time to practice writing descriptions for the people you encounter in your day. Or your family members, and friends.
Doing an exercise separate from your book can help you to navigate and experiment with descriptions in a pressure-free environment.
However you choose to practice, try and let go of the idea that your writing has to be ‘perfect’. This writing is just for you, and a lot of the time, it won’t be very good. And that’s okay!
Improvement comes with practice.
To finish, I thought I’d leave a quote from The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn. Quinn is one of my favourite authors because of her characters and the talent she has for describing them.
Kostia smiled. Not with his mouth, but folded into the corners of his eyes, where only I could see it.The Diamond Eye, Kate Quinn