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How to describe character appearance the right way

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There are loads of opinions about writing character appearance so it can be confusing trying to understand what’s the right way to do it. Should you mention appearance at all? Do you need fancy words to describe the colour of someone’s eyes?

In this post, I’ll tell you what really matters when you describe character appearance and how you can do it the right way.

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Does your character’s appearance matter?

The answer to the question is both yes and no. Whether we like it or not, we make judgements about people based on their appearance, and as a writer, you can use this fact to your advantage.

Describing character appearance is a great way to show, not tell when you do it right. If someone is carrying a Chanel handbag with them, they’re probably very different from someone carrying a knock-off Chanel bag. Someone wearing muddy Converse shoes is probably different from someone wearing Birkenstocks with sports socks.

Someone’s eye colour, however, doesn’t say much about a person. It’s fine for your point-of-view character to be charmed by someone’s deep brown eyes, but we might not need to know the POV character’s own eye colour. And speaking of point of view…

Point of view matters when describing a character

You might not have realised it, but your chosen point of view dictates how you should describe a character.

When you’re writing in first person or third person intimate, you’re looking at the world through the eyes of one character at a time. That means their thoughts and observations become a part of the narrative and you shouldn’t make them think things that a person normally wouldn’t. For example, you wouldn’t think to yourself “I have red hair and green eyes”, but you might think something like “my brother had always teased me about my red hair and green eyes”.

And no, you can’t get around that by having your point-of-view character stand in front of a mirror and think about what they see there like they were some creepy guy gawking at their hips and bosoms. Just no. Let’s stop doing that forever, it’s gross and it’s poor writing. If you want to avoid all that, you can learn more about sticking to the right point of view.

Anyway, when you’re writing in the omniscient point of view, you can describe your characters like an outside observer. That means you can write things like “she had long arms and a short nose” if you want, though you might still want to choose more evocative words. Perhaps her arms were so long she could scratch her knees without bending over.

What do we actually need to know when describing a character’s appearance?

Whether they realise it or not, readers assume everything they read is relevant somehow. That’s why you shouldn’t be mentioning things about a character’s appearance that aren’t relevant to the story or don’t help bring the character to life.

For example, if you mention that a character’s hair was always messy, but it never comes up again (they don’t get the job of their dreams because they look unkempt?) or it isn’t supposed to say anything about the character (are they a sleep-deprived parent? rebelling against beauty standards?), then it’s a completely useless detail.

When you’re still writing your first draft, it doesn’t matter how you describe your characters since you’re only telling yourself the story at that point. It’s the job of the editing process to fix those details. When you come across something you’ve written about character appearance, see what would happen if you removed the detail. Would we have a poorer understanding of the character? Would something in the story stop making sense? If so, we need that detail. If not, make changes.

Who would notice such things?

It’s important to know that describing someone’s appearance always says something about the describer themselves. When it doesn’t say anything about the characters who are doing the observing, it will say something about you, the writer.

The way you describe character appearance also depends on your tone and your genre. If you’ve only ever read romance novels, you might not know how to best describe your characters in science fiction. And maybe it’s just me, but if you mention every female character’s breasts and you’re not writing smut, I will judge you. (I’m looking at you, Delia Owens.) Be sure to check your biases when you’re describing your characters.

Of course, you should use this to your advantage. Choose your words on purpose and describe things that others wouldn’t notice. I don’t have the book on me currently because my friend left it in Hungary (thanks) but I think Miranda July describes someone’s ears as “darling little shells” in The First Bad Man, and I remember I had to put the book away for a moment because I was so taken aback that someone would use such strange words. I loved it.

No, you don’t need to use big words to describe character appearance

Instead of trying to find bigger and fancier adjectives, use words that really bring images to your readers’ minds and that make them actually feel something.

You don’t need to call someone’s eyes Dartmouth green or describe him as Brobdingnagian (you know, the opposite of Lilliputian) when you could say how his eyes reminded her of the moss in her grandma’s garden and he was so large he needed to book two seats in the train just for his legs. Not everything needs to be described so wordily, but it’s often the better option if you find yourself looking for fancier words.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should settle for the first words that come to your mind if they’re vague. If you want to say something, make sure you say it properly or don’t say it at all! When you’re describing someone, make sure the words you’re using actually say something and don’t just confuse the reader. What even is “average length hair” or “eyes that looked like they were looking at something”? (To be fair, it was surprisingly difficult to come up with those examples and they do sound like something out of a Douglas Adams novel.)

How to describe a character’s appearance naturally in your writing

Now that you know what’s important to mention and what kind of words to use, you should know how to include character descriptions in your writing.

You don’t want anything to feel out of place so you want everything to come up naturally. You also want to paint a picture with your words instead of just giving us a list of characteristics. So, instead of writing something like “Maura’s hair was dark brown”, you could say “Maura had tried dying her hair a lighter colour, but even an hour of bleaching didn’t bring her any results”. Instead of “he was tall” you could say “people were always asking him to reach things from high shelves”.

Remembering all the senses is also a good idea when you’re describing someone. Okay, maybe you don’t want to describe how blonde someone’s hair tasted, but don’t forget to mention what your character sounds like, what their perfume reminds people of or what their calloused hands feel like. I know this post is talking about character appearance but I just wanted to remind you there are other things besides appearance you would notice almost straight away.

Exercises for how to describe appearance in writing

I’m very big on actually applying writing tips to your writing instead of just reading them, so here are some exercises for you. (I also have another post for beginner writing exercises.)

  • Think about yourself and come up with ten adjectives that describe your appearance. Then write a paragraph where you describe yourself the same way BUT you don’t use adjectives at all. So instead of “I have red hair and I am short” you could say “My hair always reminds me of chili peppers and I never go anywhere without a step stool”.
  • Think about a celebrity you like and write about their appearance without looking up their picture. (If you’ve got a picture of them on your wall, turn away from it!) Then find a picture of them and see what you missed. Did you miss something important? See if you could practise your observational skills or if you could start noticing things that are different.
  • Choose a person. First, describe their appearance like you were their most ardent admirer and then like they were your nemesis. Were your descriptions different? If not, how could you include your personal bias in describing them?
  • Choose a character you’ve previously created. One day they’re poor and the next day they’re rich – how would you describe their appearance on each day?
  • Choose two existing fictional character: a hero and an antagonist. How have their appearances been described? Is there something you don’t like or that you’d rather do differently? (For example, is the antagonist described as unattractive as if only good people were pretty?)

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