Describing Characters

There are a few things that really make me groan and roll my eyes when reading a novel. One of them is the “creation story”. I’ve been reading fantasy since my age was in the single digits, and if I read “In the beginning…” one more time, I think I really might just shoot myself. Or, at the very least, put down the book and walk away.

Another thing that really grates on me is the “mirror description”. Many authors, wishing to quickly and thoroughly communicate their character’s appearance, resort to having their character check themselves out in the mirror. The character inventories their appearance with a great deal more attention to detail than people generally do, using a multitude of (often cliche) adjectives.

Most people when looking in the mirror think something akin to: “Damn, time to shave”, or “I need a haircut” or “Where the HELL did that pimple come from?”

Unfortunately, the characters of an embarrassingly large number of novels do this:

Karen stopped in front of the hall mirror before leaving for work. She had a small, oval face with even features and pillowy lips that rarely required lipstick. Glossy, auburn waves cascaded over one shoulder, accentuating her petite, hourglass figure….

… blah, blah, blah.

This is painful.

Some authors choose not to describe their characters at all. Sophie Kinsella, in “Confessions of a Shopaholic” deliberately did not describe her main character, Becky Bloomwood, at all–but many of the people who read the book had a fairly solid mental image of what she looked like by the end of the story. Why? Interestingly enough, in the absence of a physical description, readers subconsciously just make one up. So if you want to describe your character, it’s best to do it pretty early on. Once the reader has formed their own mental picture, it’s jarring to have it altered later on. If I’ve imagined your main character as a medium-height, clean-shaven man with blue eyes for 3 chapters, giving him grey hair and a mustache in chapter 4 is going to throw me for a loop.

So how do we describe our characters without resorting to a laundry-list such as the dreaded “mirror” sequence?

One approach is to use the appearances of other characters to illustrate the POV character (in this case, Gabe):

Gabe spotted John across the crowded room and waved. John was built like a basketball player, thin and tall, though Gabe still beat him out by a few inches…

All right, so it’s not Shakespear, but you get the idea. We just established that Gabe is very tall by comparing him to someone else. Another example:

Sylvia watched the newcomer enter the room with a little spike of envy. The woman had beautiful, wavy hair, in the same shade of dark red that Sylvia had always wished she had been born with. The kind of ginger that made GQ’s “Most Sexy” lists, as opposed to Sylvia’s natural cheez-puff hue.

Descriptions can also be paired with the action of the story:

“You know, you can be a real downer sometimes,” Gabe said with a sigh, running his fingers through pale hair that was too short to really warrant the gesture.

… or, slightly more subtle hints:

Becky squeezed uncomfortably into the restaurant booth.

John ducked through the door.


Another thing to keep in mind when describing your POV character: if you want a character to be described as attractive, avoid having the character describe themselves as attractive–unless you’re going for the vain, self-absorbed thing. Instead, have the other characters’ reactions illustrate it. If your main character is a good-looking woman, have a construction worker whistle at her on her way to work. Or have someone else comment on her appearance.

“I’m having a bad hair day,” Sophie complained, pulling her hat down further.
“Oh, shut up,” Becky said good-naturedly. “You’re gorgeous, and I’d kill for one of your ‘bad hair days’, so I don’t want to hear it.”

Again, I’m obviously not going to make it to print with any of these examples, but they should give you the general idea. There are a multitude of ways to illustrate your characters’ physical appearance without resorting to a clumsy “inventory” of their features. When in doubt, be concise. In most cases, we don’t need to know about the mole on your character’s left cheek, or the side he parts his hair on–unless it’s integral to the story, just give the reader a general idea and move on.

~ RM

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