From Harry Potter’s scar to Katniss Everdeen’s braid, from Éowyn of Rohan’s removing her helmet to Klaus Baudelaire’s adjusting his glasses, and from Elizabeth Bennet’s sass to Hazel Lancaster’s increased difficulty to breathe, descriptions in books help understand each and every character, movement, and emotion more and help us to build the film-like pictures in our minds as we read.
When it comes to appearance, some books may be lacking, some may be overwhelming or unnecessary, and others may be just the right amount for the majority of their readers. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, and it will never please everyone.
There are several ways to work around this and find that golden ratio for your characters within your stories and books. Here are some of my tips for doing so.
1. Avoid mirror descriptions
Yes, I understand that people often look in the mirror as they are getting ready in the morning. But most people don’t sit and observe everything about themselves. But this has also become a cliché way of describing main characters when the stories are told in first-person, and sometimes even when the story is told in third-person. I’ve become increasingly annoyed with this type of description each time I read it over the last few years.
It might make more sense if the character noticed only one or two things about themselves, like I do when I observe even the tiniest of zits that appear on my face or when I see that I have lipstick smeared all over my teeth. But I don’t really fixate on them. I notice them, attempt to fix them, and then move on. I know that type of observation and then leaving the mirror without further inspection isn’t always the case, but I feel as though it is far more common that someone looking in the mirror and thinking about every tiny detail about their face, body, and clothing.
So my solution to this is to step away from the mirror and take a different approach.
2. Describe through the eyes of other characters
I love using this approach. If you’re writing in third-person, talking about characters’ appearance through the perspective of the characters around them is such an easy thing to do. However, it does get a little bit more complicated when in first-person. The other characters actually have to say what they’re thinking about the main character. This can be done through shocked observation, compliments, or insults.
Here are some examples:
“‘You’re crippled,’ the woman said, and her voice was thin and mean. ‘Why would she want you?’” Shadow Spinner
“‘Princess—I had no idea—I mean . . . I don’t mean to be forward, but you’re even more beautiful up close,’ he stammered.” Just Ella
“My mother almost never snapped at Celia, but she said, ‘Stay out of this. That one sits in school while you’re killing yourself at work. She’s already ruining her eyes from reading. No man wants to marry a girl with a squint.’” The Boston Girl
3. Tell us about things that have to do with appearance but can be described with actions
This is another great method to use while describing appearance. Does your character have messy hair that gets in their eyes? Describe them pushing their hair back with their fingers or attempting to wrangle it into a hair tie or shoving it under a hat. Does your character have a hand that is scarred and a bit painful? Describe them trying to message some of the pain away. Does your character have glasses? Describe how they clean them or how they wiggle their nose to adjust how the frames are resting on their face. Does your character wear lots of skinny jeans or tight-fitting clothing? Describe how it restricts their movement.
4. Mention how the aspects you’re describing make this character who they are
I love it when authors take just a minute to tell us why the physical features they are describing are a big deal to this character. I don’t just want to know what the character looks like, but I want to know how it makes them who they are and how it affects their life.
Does your character wear fun and crazy colours because they have depression and want to make their life a little bit brighter? Are they immigrants or ex-pats trying to learn how to balance their own culture with the culture they now have to adjust to? How does the colour of their skin affect how people interact with them in different regions and around different people? Do they have curly hair that constantly gets tangled in people’s earrings when they hug their friends? Have they shaved their head in order to try and gain freedom and confidence?
There are so, so many options with this tiny little aspect of writing that can completely change how your characters are viewed.
5. Allow some of their history to show through their appearance
This concept is kind of a subcategory of the previous point. When describing your characters, there are so many things that can make them who they are and tell stories about their past. Most frequently this subcategory is described through scars, but it isn’t limited to scars. But it can also be through their clothing, their hairstyle, the way they stand and hold themselves, or various trinkets that they are always carrying with them. These little details can express anything from a history wealth or poverty to abuse or love.
A small detail that can express physical abuse endured by women and even men is having short hair so that it cannot be grabbed. That type of detail can pass on through an entire lifetime because of PTSD. A little detail that can express a history of wealth that transition into poverty is expensive clothes that have been worn threadbare. A tiny detail that can express love is a nearly ever-constant smile. A miniscule detail that can express poverty is a watch that runs ever slower just slightly.
This is something that can be experimented with and go into the tiniest of details. Make them pop, but make sure that they match the history and current life of your characters.
What are some of your tips for describing character appearance?
What are some of your favourite tiny details?
Let me know in the comments below!