by Angela Ackerman
I think we can all agree that characters are the heart of a novel. We build worlds around our story’s cast, spend dozens of hours plundering their psyche to understand needs, motivations, and beliefs, and even envision complete backstories. Then, of course, we go on to produce tens of thousands of words about their vulnerabilities and strengths as they rise, fall, and rise again on the path to their goal. We also revise, dedicating yet more hours to ensure readers understand and care about our characters as much as do.
Yes, it’s fair to say we work hard to make sure our characters live and breathe on the page. But here’s the irony…in all that effort, many of us overlook or underutilize another important area of character description: their physical appearance.
It’s true, a character’s features and physicality can be hard to convey. We may not have a strong mental picture of them ourselves, or if we do, how to sum it all up economically. After all, at the start of the story when we need to provide details on a character’s appearance, we’re also juggling everything else we must show like the action, setting, circumstances, plus the character’s motivation, underlying problem, emotion, and so on.
So we find ourselves asking, does the character’s looks really matter? Isn’t it what’s inside that counts?
Obviously, we want to start a story with action, pulling readers in by showing what a character is doing and why. But including some physical description is also necessary, too. Without it, readers may fail to create a mental image and struggle to connect with the character.
Avoiding physical description and leaving it up to the reader will also create a minefield for the writer because if they mention a physical detail (like a character’s pink hair) later on in the story and it clashes with the image the reader has created on their own, well, it breaks the storytelling spell. Worse, the reader loses confidence in the author’s skills and may be unable to fully suspend disbelief from that point on.
The Goldilocks Approach
We all remember that break-and-enter deviant, Goldilocks, right? Well, to take a page from her book, just like avoiding porridge too hot or too cold, we want to avoid both descriptive sparseness and information overload. Dumps of description of any kind hurt the pace and cause readers to skim, so we should make it our goal to offer enough to point readers in the right direction and then drip in more as needed. The rest they can fill in themselves.
Even more important than quantity is the quality, however. If we choose the right details, we open a gateway to great characterization and hook readers at the same time.
Choose Details that Do More
To avoid disrupting the pace it can be tempting to just give a quick overview of a character’s general features and move on, but unless the character is unimportant to the story, this wastes a valuable opportunity to show-not-tell. Whenever description is needed, we want to think about how to ‘spend’ our word currency in the best way possible. Even with physical description, we want to choose details that will push the story forward, reveal characterization, and show readers what’s hidden.
Try using your character’s appearance to allude to...
Personality. Is your heroine the type to wear bright yellow to a funeral? Does your groom show up to his wedding in a tux t-shirt and flip-flops? Is it a toss-up between which is tighter – the pearls strangling Aunt Edna’s wattle or her disapproving glare as a neighbor’s children run amok? Written with purpose, details about your character’s clothes can say much about their personality and attitude, priming readers to see them in the exact light you want them to.
Occupations and interests. Does your protagonist have the perma-stained grease hands of a mechanic or the meticulously clean ones of a model or physician? Is there a smudge of paint above one eyebrow or a clod of potter’s clay in his hair? Small details can hint at what a character does for a living and the passions they may have.
Perceptions and self-perceptions. Does the hero fixate on his beard so much he carries a comb and smoothing gel with him everywhere he goes? Does his socially oblivious sidekick have a habit of scratching his leg with too-long toenails at the beach, grossing everyone out? Does your heroine ask friends what they plan to wear before choosing herself or does she throw on whatever is clean? The time and attention a character gives to their appearance can show how comfortable they are in their own skin and whether they care about the opinions of others.
Health. Is your character disconcertingly underweight, does she have a bluish tinge to her lips, or is she always hiding her hands so others don’t see the tremors? Does she carry an inhaler or epi pen? A well-placed detail about her appearance can hint at an underlying condition, hereditary health issue, or lay the ground for an unfortunate diagnosis that will upend the character’s life.
Hidden lineage. Does your character have a unique eye color, rare skin condition, or sun sensitivity? A physical peculiarity can help you set the stage to reveal your character is the long-lost descendant of a royal family, lead them to finding their birth parent, or shock them with the discovery that they belong to a race of magic users believed to have died out long ago.
Pedigree, station, education, and wealth. Rather than a hidden lineage, your character’s appearance can show-not-tell their importance within society. Wearing colors only a sect of assassins is sanctioned to use, the quality of their garments or adornments, observing the latest fashion, or showing a character’s bearing, posture, and manners can allude to their upbringing, economic status, or caste.
Secrets. Whether it’s a dried blood drop on the face of their watch, a strange tattoo behind their ear, or the fact they are carrying a concealed weapon at a bridal shower, details that are mysterious or out of place show readers there’s more to a character than meets the eye.
Backstory Wounds. Does your character have an odd bite mark on one shoulder, a chemical burn scar, a missing finger, or they walk with a limp? You can be sure that if it’s important enough to describe, readers will be intrigued about what happened that led to that peculiarity and want to read on to find out.
Talents and Skills. Does your villainess have throwing knives strapped to her sleeves, chest, and back? Or does your hacker protagonist always carry a backpack full of electronic gadgets and a laptop? If a character’s skills require certain supplies, tech, weapons, or tools, it’s likely they will keep them on hand, a neon sign to readers that they have a special talent.
Emotional mindset and comfort zone. Body language, mannerisms, posture, and the buffer of space the character keeps around them (or not) will all help readers understand what a character may be feeling and how comfortable they are in a location. A character who feels utterly uncomfortable may be pulling at their clothes, sweating, and choosing dark corners over conversation. A character standing tense and watchful, ready to grab the knife at his hip is clearly expecting danger. Someone who loves to be the center of attention will be doing exactly that, confidently working the crowd, smiling and telling jokes, making people feel welcome and basking in the attention.
Motivation. A character who tests the release button on his poison ring before heading out to shake hands with his enemy makes it clear what his goal is, just as a grieving widow will by practicing tearing up in the mirror so she’s ready for her police interview to go over where she was when her husband was mugged and killed. Mission-oriented people dress, behave, and act in alignment with their goal, so describing them in the moment will focus the reader’s attention right where you want it to go.
This is by no means a complete list, but it hopefully gets the idea ball rolling. So, the next time you need to describe a character’s physical features, use it to reveal something extra that activates a reader’s need-to-know mindset, hooking them to read on.
Do you find it easy to write physical description, or is it a bit of a struggle? Let me know in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold over half a million copies.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.