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Writing

6 Ways to Write Better Character Descriptions

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

Great character descriptions will make any piece of writing come to life helping build a believable world for your reader. Populate your stories with perfectly flushed-out characters, and the reader will stick with you until the end.

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What Is the Purpose of Character Descriptions?

Ideally, your main characters will be distinct enough to be memorable, but for all those minor characters who are emerging in your novel, it’s good practice to provide hints that will help the reader distinguish who each character is, so they can remember their various story arcs. This doesn’t have to be exhaustive; lead the reader with just enough to get them started and they can fill in the rest.

4 Examples of Memorable Character Descriptions

What characters stick with you long after the book is finished? What do you remember about them?

  1. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the character Old Bailey blends in with birds on his rooftop by wearing a coat of feathers.
  2. The infamous scar—and the story behind it—on the forehead of a young wizard was a recurring baseline throughout JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
  3. Charles Dickens creates a cast of diverse, ghostly characters in A Christmas Carol through physical description: the ageless, white-robed Ghost of Christmas Past; the jolly, rosy-cheeked Ghost of Christmas Present; and the foreboding, silent, black-robed Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
  4. In Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, the descendants of powerful gods are identified by (and persecuted for) their bright white hair.
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When to Introduce Character Description

The first time the character appears is the most natural moment to cement them in the reader’s imagination. From the point of view of a first-person narrator, first impressions will define what they think of them, and whether or not they can be trusted.

That being said, a character can be slowly revealed to a reader through the course of the story. It may help your plot move forward by keeping some aspects of a character’s description from your reader until you feel it’s time to tell them. Perhaps the protagonist is coddled by their peers for reasons unknown to the reader until the part of the character’s story where they become handicapped and wheelchair-bound.

6 Things to Include in a Character Description

Give characters a quirk to make them unique and memorable—and thus easily recognizable. That includes anything from physical description to body language to habits and mannerisms.

  1. Physical quirks: Do your characters always wear a signature piece of clothing? Or walk with a limp? Maybe they’re perpetually grinning or are losing their hair.
  2. Verbal style: Characterize someone by their loquaciousness, verbal tics, or total silence.
  3. A memorable name: If it feels right, move your character out of “Jill” territory and into something different: like Gaiman’s heroine from Neverwhere, Lady Door Portico.
  4. Extended metaphor: When a character’s looks are described as fox-like, this imagery can echo throughout the novel through their movements or behavior.
  5. Past event: Sometimes a minor character is best known by a single life event, such as “the girl whose family died” or “the widower.”
  6. Last appearance in the story: Easily reference a character by reminding the reader of the last time they saw them. “She recognized the man from the piano store.”

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How to Describe Characters

Think Like a Pro

The Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you everything he's learned across 26 video lessons on dramatic writing.

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Begin where your characters appear most clearly to you. Don’t be afraid to create characters you know nothing about. It’s perfectly fine if a character is smarter than you or knows more about a specialized topic than you do. Research what that character would be like. Go out and meet someone like them and begin to create a character based on that.

Begin by building out a character’s physical appearance:

  • Eye color: Do they have something conventional like blue eyes, green eyes, or brown eyes? Or perhaps something rarer, like gold, or gray?
  • Hair color: Do they have blond hair, or does it have more of a ginger hue? Instead of dark hair, is it black hair, brown hair, or a mixture of both? Perhaps they dyed their hair, wear a bad wig. Do they wear their hair down, or in a ponytail?
  • Facial features: Do they have freckles or scars? What does their nose look like? What shape are their eyes?
  • Facial expressions: Expressions can either be misleading or genuine. Are they a smiley person? Stoic?
  • Body type: Consider how they move in the world. Are they short, tall, round, lanky, muscular, or gaunt?

Then, color in their personality traits:

  • How does their voice sound? Do they laugh often? Never?
  • Are they generally optimistic, or pessimistic?
  • Do they take pride in how they look? How do they show it?

6 Thought-Starters for Writing Better Character Descriptions

Editors Pick

  1. Instead of writing a plain, physical description, try viewing the character through a creative lens, or a single odd feature—a nickname, for example. What did she do to earn it? Does it refer to her appearance? Her attitude? How does she feel about it?
  2. Choose one event from your character’s backstory and elaborate on that. For example, your hero has a back injury from an accident while he was in the navy. Does he move differently now? Do people treat him differently? What are the psychological repercussions of the accident?
  3. Choose a trait in your character and list the ways that it’s expressed. If your sidekick is nervous, he might bounce his knee when he’s sitting, pluck at his sleeves, or startle easily.
  4. What space has your character created for themselves? This can be offstage: a bedroom, an expensive car with all the right gadgets, the perfectly-stocked kitchen, a private office. Describe your character in that space.
  5. Go to a busy, public place where you can observe other people. Choose one person and invent a few details about them. What’s their name? Why are they there? How do they feel? Now write a one-page description of them. Find one detail that will make them distinct for a reader. Show their thoughts, but try to blend it in with the world around them. Don’t be afraid to make their inner world completely different from their appearance or surroundings.
  6. Pretend a blind person is describing your main character after having met them. How would they explain your character using the other senses? How sympathetic would your character be toward their blindness? Would they be thoughtful, clumsy, rude?

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