When were you at the movies last?
Imagine this: You sit down in eighth row with a boatload of popcorn and your favorite beverage, and after the usual commercials for sock cuddlers and inflatable potato chips, eventually the main flick comes on.
Leaving nothing to chance, it starts with the protagonist: It shows his face from all sides in close-up, his hair color, eye-color, his hands, his feet, button-up shirt, him from behind… for a full five minutes.
By that point, you would be alone in the theatre, and an angry crowd would have gathered in front of the ticket counter to demand their money back.
Because these days, super-slow, excruciatingly precise descriptions make us want to play Russian roulette with our pet lizard. They are just sleep-inducing!
Today, action movies cut with lightning speed. Our cell phones are tickling wonderboxes filled with never-ending stimulus. Today, you have to be quicker and pickier with your character descriptions, if you want to hook your reader.
Look at how Charles Dickens describes Uriah Heep in his novel David Copperfield, long before music videos were invented:
Uriah Heep is one of the villains. Dickens lets us know about his evil spirit subtly, just by describing his looks: Hostile to life and people (cadaverous face), strange (fifteen, looking much older), snake-like (hardly any eyebrows and no eyelashes), rotten and somber (long, lank, skeleton hand).
So. This was great back in 19th century, when people still welcomed the author’s help to visualize a story. But nowadays?
You better make it quick.
This post should be your personal 101 on how to create a sparkling, fascinating character description. Read on to find answers to questions like:
- What should you include in your character descriptions, and when are they too much?
- A character description is not the sexiest part of a story; so how can you present it in a dynamic way that makes your reader eat it out of your hand like candy?
- When is the best moment to insert a description?
- An additional tip to make your reader feel who your character is
So step on into this post. Welcome!
Character Description Examples
But this wouldn’t be Ride the Pen, if I just released you into the wild like that. So please find here, as an exclusive download, a MASSIVE list of character description examples, divided into categories (facial features, body type, clothes, accessories, etc…).
Should your imagination struggle one day, then you will find a ton of inspiration on this sheet. You will also find the precise words to describe any particular character of yours.
1. You Have to Pick Your Sights (Or: The Why)
First things first: In no way are you obligated to write ANY character description. You didn’t sign any contract, and there is no character description police out there (and if there is, I will protect you, I promise!).
In fact, only describe a character as far as you have a good reason to describe her:
E.g. you want to convey a trait that explains better what will motivate her later on in the story.
Or you want to make her more interesting to the reader.
Or you want to slow the pace down a bit (more on that below).
Anytime you don’t feel the specific need to go for a description, just leave it out. You have to pick your sights, so to speak.
Many great characters in literature are hardly described at all. Of others, we only know one or two features as cornerstones, for example their big nose and that they are thick or thin.
That’s because their authors know the movie that’s most fascinating for a reader will play in her mind. Less is often more.
Think of a character that’s street-smart and in the end always gets it the way he wants. One reader might depict him as an albino blonde, skinny guy, flexible enough to dodge the bullets. Another one will see more of a dark-haired, stronger built dude.
If you describe him like you see him, you might actually take away from your reader’s mental movie. Leave it up to your readers, and they will enjoy what they see so much more.
Let your audience fill in the blanks themselves. Be picky. They will follow their imagination, and it will be less work for you.
2. Take it personally (Or: The What)
However, if you do describe what your character looks like, favor the features that tell us something about who he is.
The fact your character’s shoes are by Gucci is not interesting in itself at all. If it is not deeply connected to your character’s personality, don’t mention it.
But why is he wearing Gucci? Is he very conscious of his fashion, and stylistically confident? Does he need to identify with a brand to feel better about himself? Is he arrogant even? Does he have so much money he doesn’t care, or does he spend way too much?
Now it gets interesting. And even more interesting if that trait is connected directly to your story: Is he a fashion guru, so that’s why he needs to get a rare fabric? Can’t he deal with money, so that’s why he is now forced to do that shady job for those mafia guys?
What can you tell me about the owner…?
In the following, see how you can distinguish traits that show us who your character is from traits that don’t show us anything at all:
1. Features that do tell us more about how your character is wired
These are the features that are more closely connected to your character’s personality: Body language, movements, the clothes she chooses, and even the style of her hair, his beard, etc…
2. Features that tell us less about how your character is wired
These are the features that usually don’t tell you anything about a person: Height, eye color, hair color…
Here is an additional point, and I hope it doesn’t confuse you: Every feature could potentially tell us more about your character. Even body height, for example. Taller people appear more serious and threatening than small people, and they have an easier time being taken seriously than a very small person.
But some features just tell us easier about personality than others. Roll with those details that do naturally tell us more about your character’s personality.
3. Character description adjectives: Show, don’t tell (Or: The How)
“He was an evil magician.”
Are you scared now? Do you feel his evilness?
Not really. That description is too general, too cliché, plus you probably never met an evil magician in your life (tax authorities and automated phone systems don’t count). You have no point of reference.
So in order to make your readers feel your character, you need to get more specific. You have to show them details of what makes that magician evil, not just tell them that he is evil.
But don’t just list adjectives. Instead, list some details that set the mood:
His look was cold and piercing under big black eyebrows that came down like hawks. His face, pale as a corpse, made a sharp contrast to his flowing black robe with the red heptagonal pentagrams. What was dangling around his neck to me looked like a human eyeball with cracked veins.
Let’s take a look at a more modern character, a total nerd (because hey, an evil magician was nothing more than the misunderstood nerd of the fantasy world):
“He was a nerd.”
Do you feel his nerdiness? A bit maybe, depending on your imagination and how many nerds you have met. But if you want to draw your readers into your world more deeply, get specific:
He was wearing thick glasses, a long greasy pony tail, and a Superman T-shirt from the 1999 comics fair.
These are specifics that make your character come alive in the reader’s mind. They are not just meaningless data, but details that tell volumes about who that guy is. You showed instead of telling. Well done!
And if you need an extensive list of features, attributes and adjectives to help you out, this sheet here took me a while to assemble, and it contains tons of ways to describe your character:
4. Look for the sneaky opportunity (Or: The When)
You can make your description even more interesting and pleasurable by inserting it at the right moment.
A story keeps us hooked when faster and slower parts take their turns. That’s because fast parts are exciting, and slow parts explain, relax us, and prepare us for the next fast part. A good story is an ebb and flow of rhythm.
Thanks, Alex. And how can we use this academic piece of information…?
By putting our descriptions of characters, of landscapes, of buildings, of backstories in between story parts of love, fight, hope, tears, desire, anger and joy… (you get the picture).
If you must describe several characters, try to find a way to put some EMOTIONS in between the descriptions; for example, some action or dialogue. Somebody doing stuff, or being scared, or something exploding. Or so. Be sneaky.
The more emotional your moment is, the more description you can insert afterwards without your audience getting bored.
Movies use this technique too, you can take a page out of their screenplay.
In the movie “Split” (just saw it, kind of recommend it), the antagonist has a split personality and keeps three girls locked in his basement. In one scene, the camera is tilting very slowly from his feet up to his head, to reveal him wearing women’s clothes and displaying female demeanor. Because the change of personality is so shocking, that slow tilt is perfect. The scene carries enough emotion to get away with a very slow “description.”
5. Be a mover and shaker (Or: The With What)
Think about it: “She flattened her bright orange dress” sounds a lot more interesting than “She wore a bright orange dress.” That’s because the former is more dynamic, it includes a verb of movement.
It also insinuates why that movement is happening, and therefore describes the character better: She is obviously concerned about her appearance. Or maybe she is just nervous. Or bored.
“He scratched his full beard” is lightyears ahead of “He had a full beard.” Again, the first one is dynamic, moving, scenic. This guy might be confused. It’s almost like these five little words tell us a mini-story.
And while you are distracting your reader with the action, you are smuggling in the info that the guy has a full beard. You sneaky, sneaky person you!
6. Bringing it all together (and running out of W-Words)
Great characters, the ones readers love or hate with all of their hearts, go far beyond character descriptions. They are made of personality traits, words, actions that let them step out of the page and straight into our living room. But great characters might start with an excellent description.
And how can you get that above-and-beyond luxury description going?
Remember to go a bit farther than adjectives, let us feel your character. You could develop an unusual combination of features, like the punker girl with the neatly polished skateboard, or the Olympic athlete smoking a cigar. If you bring out an unexpected feature, it will grab your readers and make them feel like your characters are made of flesh and blood.
Finally, the most skillful form and “secret sauce” to describe your character is by association. For example:
“Her eyes were a clear blue like the bright sky”
What does this say about your character?
It could stand for her innocence, pureness, or naivete, depending on your story.
Every reader knows what the clear blue sky looks like, and that sky has made them feel light, happy, extended, free at some moment. So that’s the feeling they get when they hear about her clear blue eyes.
You could also write “Her eyes were a clear blue as the summer midday sky.” That would make your readers feel these summer feelings we want to evoke even stronger. But on the other hand, we might get into cheesy territory there, and once you get stuck in that cheesecake, it’s a sticky way out. Your call.
How about “His hair looked scrubby, like impenetrable thicket,” or “Her Cinderella-shoes were balanced on pencil-thin stilettos,” or “The pearls on her necklace seemed to line up in strictly calculated order, like wooden beads on an abacus”?
Can you guess what each character description reveals about the figure? And all while describing their features in an unobtrusive, interesting, poetic way.
Time to get creative!
Character Description Sheet
Here, let me throw that sheet at you one more time like sweet candy!
If you need a bit of support for your character descriptions, or if you just want to equip yourself with an extensive list of features, attributes and adjectives for any case – click here for the free download.
Writing prompt for you
Time for you to get into gear. Remember, you will internalize best what you just read, when you put it into practice immediately while it’s still fresh in your memory.
This is your prompt:
You sit at a café and watch a guy opposite of you busily shuffling his papers around while on the phone. He looks like the high-pressure manager or lawyer type.
Describe his looks! Provide him with a certain personality, maybe even some background. Think about which details to describe to convey his personality best. How can you show his character traits through what we see and hear, and not just tell us? Could you even describe who he is by association?
You sit at the same café, and you see an old lady sitting alone, munching on her cake. Let us know about her character by describing some details about her. How can you show, not tell, these details best? Can you even find an unexpected trait?
Post your prompt in the comments below!
You don’t have to describe what your characters look like. But whenever you do describe your characters, depict details that tell us something about their personalities. Don’t just list adjectives, but get into specifics and show us who they are. Add verbs of movement, and if you can, even associations. Look left and right before you cross the street.
If you do all of this, not only will you be safe, but your characters will mesmerize your readers without end. These characters will be far from cardboard figures, they will feel like flesh and blood. Nothing hooks readers more irresistibly than a fascinating character.
Now let the intriguing characters that lie within you appear in front of your readers’ inner eyes vividly… and you will see how he can’t wait to turn the pages…