How to write character descriptions
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Many writers, especially beginners, seem obsessed with hair and eye color. My advice?
This is the most cliched way to describe a character in your book. Bonus shit-point if they refer to their characters based on those characteristics. Black-eyed, black-haired, blonde, these are all overused and make your writing read like a shitty fanfiction. Older/younger are also bad.
If you ever catch yourself doing that, I have only one piece of advice. Take the entire page outside and set it on fire.
Then start again. Gouge your character’s eyes and shave their hair. What is left?
Body type is also commonly used, but that actually makes sense, because it can tell you something about the character themselves. A chubby guy gives a much different impression than a burly one. A frail girl is different than the muscular one. So that’s the start. What’s next? Skin color is also pretty obvious, especially if you want to write about people of different races. This also takes care of the two characteristics we’re not allowed to use, because if you have a dark-skinned person, they probably have dark hair and eyes too.
Then there are the details. Mind you, you don’t have to describe every single detail of the character’s look. That would make your descriptions run for pages and modern readers hate that. Instead, pick one or two, ideally something that tells the reader about the character’s, well… character.
She was a chubby, dark-skinned girl with a permanent smile plastered across her face.
There. Can you see her? Isn’t she more alive than another “dark hair, brown eyes?”
Of course, you can give your character a more flowery description if that’s your style.
Her skin was like burnished bronze and black hair cascaded down her back in a shiny wave.
Okay, we describe hair here, but it’s more about the structure and style rather than color. And with language like this, you can tell the reader your character is beautiful without actually saying it. Or, you know, give them any other trait.
He stood like a statue of burnished bronze, tall, powerful, and unyielding.
Do you see him? Are you cowering yet? Do you know his eye color? No, because no one fucking cares.
Another thing, try to avoid sentences like he was/she was or he had/she had. Experiment with different sentence structures.
Closely-set eyes and small, hooked nose gave him an owlish look.
I’m not saying NEVER to use them. Like all things in language, they have their place. But they should rather be used for small and vaguely important details, something you want to point out, but not make the center of attention.
I noticed she had a small scar running just below her left eye.
Some people like to use comparisons for description, but I’d advise being careful with that. I’m currently reading a novella set in the ‘80 that is full of references that probably make a lot of sense to someone who grew up at that time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alive back then, so it’s all gibberish to me. You can use general ideas for comparisons, though.
With her crisp suit and immaculate makeup, she looked like she stepped down from the pages of some fashion magazine.
He looked like a painting, with skin so pale it was almost translucent and fine-boned face.
That’s all I have for you. To sum it up:
1. Don’t use eye or hair color
2. Focus on the personality
3. Try to limit the use “was” and “had”
4. If you use comparison, make them general
Now, you can give meaningful descriptions even to minor characters.
People will tell that you don’t need to describe minor characters. Some will say that you don’t have to describe ANY characters. But personally, I think it’s overkill. Descriptions were part of literature for as long as we had literature, and if someone can’t take them, maybe they should stick to picture books. Besides, as I hopefully showed, you don’t need half a page of text to introduce your character. Sometimes a sentence or two is enough.