Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 19, 2024

The Power of Character Descriptions

by Lori Freeland

Enjoy delicious alcoholic drinks. Medieval people as a royalty persons in vintage clothing on dark background. Concept of comparison of eras, modernity.

“When writing characters, it's important to remember that they are not just tools to move the plot forward; they are living, breathing individuals with their own hopes, dreams, and fears.” 

- Stephen King

I’m a character-driven writer. But even if you’re more story driven, great characters are the beating heart of every memorable book. Living vicariously through wonderfully written, unique characters is the best part of reading—and often the best part of writing. 

Writing amazing character descriptions is an art. It’s bringing a thought alive using only words. It’s creating a movie experience in a reader’s head without actual sights, sounds, or smells. It’s turning imaginary people into living, breathing entities who your readers want to get to know and  bond with.  

Writers often skip over building multi-dimensional, relatable characters in favor of exciting action, witty dialogue, and complex story problems. Those elements are all important, and you want them, but it’s when readers can see, hear, smell, and feel your characters’ emotions that they become invested in their journeys. That’s when they root for them. Cry for them. Stick around till the end to see what happens to them.

And it’s not just physical attributes that make characters worth remembering. It’s how you describe their:

  • personalities
  • thoughts
  • choices
  • speech patterns/pet words/phrases
  • clothes/possessions/cars 
  • worldviews
  • reactions to obstacles/struggles 
  • treatment of others
  • relationships
  • backstories
  • and so much more 

The Meet and Greet

When readers first meet a character, they tend to make assumptions, like we do when we meet new people. If we don’t guide those assumptions the direction we want them to go, if we don’t paint an accurate picture on the page of who our characters are, readers will draw their own conclusions. 

Sometimes, that’s great. Other times, they’ll go the wrong direction, and it’s hard to correct. 

If you give no clue to the age, gender, or personality of your character, the reader could imagine a jaded middle-aged woman (who they instantly dislike) when you meant to write a shy, lonely twenty-year-old girl searching for the meaning of life (who you want them to root for). And by the time they reach your description ten pages in, you’ve lost them. 

The best time to give the most description is when we first meet a character. Show a little bit of physical description—maybe a trait that sticks out. What someone notices about themselves or others can be a huge clue to what’s important or not important to them. And add in some mannerisms or personality clues. Be careful not to throw in too much and interrupt the scene. It can be tricky to find that balance. 

After that first meeting—where you’ve pushed the reader the right direction—you can build that character out even more by sprinkling in additional descriptions each time we see them. 

Examples of character introductions from my young adult novel The Accidental Boyfriend: 

  • My flip-flops slap to a sudden stop when I see Dad standing next to Vi, who’s kicked off her heels and gotten cozy with our wing chair and an oversized mug of coffee. Sunlight streams through the wall of windows overlooking our pool, highlighting her lavender bob and brightening her fuchsia suit. Twenty years past her party-queen prime, she still somehow manages to rock both those colors. I’d kill to shop where she buys her confidence.
  • All I get is a short grunt from Dad as he tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 
  • A group of women swarm some guy, taking pictures, handing him things to sign. Close to my age, he reminds me of a younger Sam from Supernatural. A few inches shorter than Sam’s 6’4”, this guy’s still tall and lean in a pair of washed-out jeans. A fitted Eminem T-shirt puts the muscles in his chest and biceps on parade, and messy brown hair flops over his forehead in the front and grazes his collar in the back. Wearing charm like a million-dollar smile, he’s laughing with the crowd, but there’s a subtle stiffness in his spine that makes me think he’d rather be anywhere else. Just like me. 

Examples of memorable characters from popular books: 

  • Severus Snape (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)

Snape is described as having greasy black hair, sallow skin, a hooked nose, and dark, intensely penetrating eyes. But what Rowling really creates is a mystery and an uncertainty about him that leaves us wondering what he’s really up to and whose side he’s on throughout the series. 

  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

Katniss has olive skin, long dark hair that’s usually braided, gray eyes, and a lean, wiry frame. But what Collins really creates is a strong female lead who’s tough, athletic, a skilled hunter, and someone who is resilient in an impossible situation.  

  • Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)

Tyrion is a scarred and disfigured stocky dwarf with mismatched eyes, a broad, flat nose, sharp wit, and a love for wine and women. But what Martin really creates is a shrewd, intelligent man with a complex personality who can’t be stereotyped and constantly surprises us.  

  • Hazel Grace Lancaster (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Hazel, pale and fragile with dark eyes and short, thinning hair, usually wears jeans, a T-shirt, and an oxygen mask. But what Green really creates is a teenage girl struggling with mortality who all of us can relate to.

Your Turn

Think about:

  • the reasons each of the characters above stuck with you long after you closed the book
  • what you like to know about a character when you first meet them

List what’s important for your readers to know about your character:

  • right away
  • at different points in the story

Keep in mind that you can always go back and “beef” up your descriptions when you’ve gotten to know your characters a little better and drafted more of the story. I often don’t have a solid idea about who I want them to be until I’m at least five chapters in.  

The Bottom Line

By making character descriptions a priority and widening them beyond physical attributes, you’ll deepen the story, immerse readers in an emotional journey, and give them multiple reasons to stick around. 

I’d love to read your character descriptions. Share them in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Lori

Photo of Lori Freeland

Lori Freeland wrote her first story at age five. It wasn’t good, but it left her with the belief that everyone has a story to tell. An author, editor, and writing coach, she writes everything from articles to novels, has taught at conferences across the country, and helped many new writers find their voices. A mood reader, she loves happy endings, thrills and chills, unexpected twists, and anything a little weird—as long as it has a touch of romance. When she’s not curled up on the couch with her husband and her dog drinking too much coffee, you can find her messing with the lives of the imaginary people living inside her head.

lorifreeland.com (young adult & contemporary romance fiction) 

lafreeland.com (inspirational blog & resources for writers) 

Cover of the accidental boyfriend illustration shows a young woman in tshirt and jeans with a sweater tied around her waist, and holding a book, coming down an escalator. A young man in sweater over a white collar shirt and with his hands in his front jeans pockets waiting at the bottom of the escalator.

The Accidental Boyfriend was an Amazon #1 New Release, a ReaderViews Bronze Award Winner, and a Publisher’s Weekly BookLife Prize Finalist.

Jess is everything Gabe wants. Gabe is everything Jess doesn’t know she needs. After celebrity heartthrob Gabe unknowingly hijacks homeschooled Jess’s first kiss, he decides she could be the perfect decoy to throw off the paparazzi. If he can convince her to play his girlfriend of the week. Keeping the impossible promise he made his mom depends on it. Only Jess isn’t about to be anyone’s fangirl and wants nothing to with TV's hottest hairball or his Hollywood ego.

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17 comments on “The Power of Character Descriptions”

  1. Lori, this is fabulous information with absolutely stellar examples. Love it. The following is the introduction of a support character to my two protagonists, Miranda and Beryl in My Soul to Keep.

    A scrawny old woman in a baggy, orange and green plaid shirt and red and black checkered pants rode a mule out of the shadows. Her long, gray braids swayed with the stout, black mule's movements. The mule slowed, lowered his head, and nibbled the grass.

    “Git up, Frank, git up.” The old woman prodded the mule’s sides with muddy work boots. “Got some nice oats fer you at home.” The mule snorted but didn’t move.

    Beryl whistled three high-pitched notes. The noise startled Miranda, though she’d expected the signal.

    Quick and smooth, the old woman drew a red fireman’s axe from a holster at her waist. She held it poised to strike and swept the clearing with a wary gaze.

    Beryl whistled the three notes again.

    The old woman lowered her axe, rested the weight of it on her shoulder, and leaned across the mule’s neck. “Didja hear that, Frank? Ain’t heard that bird for a long spell.” She sat upright on the mule’s back and whistled a two-note phrase, twice.

    Beryl answered, only this time she repeated the three tones three times in rapid succession.

    The old woman chuckled. “Don’t that beat all, Frank? Be it a trap? Or a haint?” She slid off the mule and kept her back to it. She stood, in a fighter’s stance with her axe perched on her shoulder.

  2. Great information, Lori! I'm a big fan of character driven fiction. Here's a bit of the intro to Nian, one of the main characters from Dominion of Darkness:

    A black, flowing cape made Nian appear to float rather than walk into the dim light of the torches. His shoulder-length gray hair was tied back with a leather thong. Slate-colored eyes were buried deep within a face lined and worn by the passage of time, partially hidden by a long, grizzled beard. He exchanged soft words with the king and then turned to study me.

    His magic licked at the edge of my senses, and I steeled my mind against the probing. So, the king did allow some magic to be practiced in his court, and I could feel the darkness within this man’s energy. His searching was focused, and for a moment it picked at the chinks in my mental armor, but did not penetrate. I reached back with my own abilities and found him similarly guarded.

    We were not wasting any energy on trust. His mouth twitched as he rebuffed my mental approach, and he nodded slightly in acknowledgment of his own failure. Hardly a test, more like a gentle sparring match.
    ...
    His was the raw power of nature, but not the power of forests and streams — I sensed the impending threat of a winter storm on the northern seashore.

  3. Hi Lori!

    Fantastic examples and lots of useful suggestions in this post. Thank you!

    I am working on not providing info dumps as character descriptions. Instead, I'm trying to work physical characterists into the narrative and emotional ones in dialogue.

    It's a process to be sure.

  4. Thank you for this timely information (for me)! I'm currently puzzling out a character for a short story and your post came at just the right time for inspiration! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  5. I was so happy to read this post, because it bothers me how often authors of novels don't offer any physical character description - the trend seems to be growing. I understand we shouldn't rely only on describing visual features when shaping characters, but some authors offer nothing.

    Here's a description from my WIP; would love your feedback! Set-up: Caro and her best friend Patty are grocery shopping; a man they don't know has just stopped to look at them.

    They make an odd pair, Caro and Patty—like a wizard and a pixie. Patty is petite, with sparkly eyes and a sweet, impish smile that reminds Caro of Meg Ryan’s before the plastic surgery. Wispy, silvery-white wings of hair sprout from her head like dandelion fluff. Caro—long-faced and five-foot-ten—feels like a lurching, dour beast in comparison, despite her still-slender figure and still-ginger hair. That hair is cut in the same relatively expensive, relatively stylish, shoulder-length coif she’s sported for more than twenty years, because why mess with success and introduce another variable to be monitored and adjusted into a life full of more important things to monitor and adjust?

  6. Here's how the heroine of my sci fi series, a singer, introduces herself near the beginning of Book 1. She's with an alien whose spaceship has just crashed on her hillside.

    I lay there in the dark talking to her. I asked her questions. Where are you from? Why did you come here? What happened? What was your life like? How old are you? I got no response, of course. Wasn’t sure she was still alive.
    I told her my entire life story. I confessed many things that I’d never revealed to anyone else. Including myself.
    How I was strong and self-assured on the outside, but inside? Not so much. How I’d come to the road less traveled, but had stayed on the freeway.
    How I had dumped the only guy I’d ever truly loved because of my stupid music career, and all my tours. How I often studied myself in the mirror, standing sideways, wondering if I should bother trying to keep myself slim and in shape, or whether I should let it all go and enjoy my cheeseburgers. How I knew I could never go for Clay, even though I knew he had a big crush on me, and he’d be a damn good catch for an aging chick like me.
    How I’d never even tried to publish the songs that were the most important to me because I didn’t think they were marketable, and instead churned out all these maudlin ballads. Which of course made me a shitload of money, and allowed me to buy my dream property here on the coast, psychically as far as possible from La La Land. But which left me with this empty hole here near the core of my being.
    I began to hum this one melody I’d written years before, and had never performed in public. It was my internal anthem—the music for my secret self.
    My alien companion, lying in the dark covered by a horse blanket, in a tiny, squeaky voice, hummed along with me.

  7. I purposely held off describing my main character in my sci-fi book until chapter 3, because the premise of the story was someone waking up with no memory of who or where he is. The only clues are he is a cadet on a starship.

    Most readers will imagine a younger male (which is correct), but the details aren't revealed until he looks at himself in a mirror, so the reader makes the discovery at the same time he does:

    Staring back was a young man, about twenty-five, black hair cut short on the sides and squared flat on the top. He recalled this was the standard style for first year students, so all cadets were required to copy. After that, more personal leeway was allowed in the regulations. He took his fingers and rubbed the light brown skin of his chin but felt no evidence of growth or stubble.
    Tammon tried to examine the figure looking back as nonchalantly as possible. Skin richly tanned, and he recalled that was slightly darker than the natural color. He had an average physique, the muscles in his chest and arms pressing against the fabric of the uniform. His eyes were a very dark brown, dark enough that it blended in seamlessly with the pupil. Other than that, there was nothing else warranting closer study.

    --------

    Hopefully, this creates a memorable "Ah-ha" moment to be shared between the character and the reader.

  8. You are right on the nose here, Lori. It's a good idea to remember that the things we notice about someone immediately is not what always sticks with us. I remember looking out of my classroom window at the new intake of pupils arriving. One of them I didn't like the look of, but when I got to know her, she was lovely.
    In some of the critiques I've done I mentioned that the reader had no idea about the MC until several pages in. In one, I was picturing someone totally different from what the author had in mind. It's then very difficult for the reader to change what they have initially pictured.

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