A while back I wrote a post on effective descriptions. However, on revisiting it, I realized that I specified quite a few descriptive cliches that make for weak descriptions but somehow neglected to discuss what writers can do to get descriptions right.
This is the post about how to write a description that captures your character.
What a Description Should Accomplish
Effective character descriptions do several things. Not only do they tell readers what your character looks like, but they can also provide valuable clues about the character’s personality, internal state, recent activities, and relationship to the point of view character. (More on that last one in next week’s post). Additionally, a strong description can shape the reader’s perception of the character—the manner in which the character is described can draw the reader’s attention to specific information about the character, and can offer emotional cues that let readers know if a character is supposed to be attractive, suspicious, annoying, and so forth. Better yet, a good description can give these emotional cues without explicitly telling the reader how to feel.
The first thing to think about when crafting a description is what you want your description to accomplish.
- How do you want readers to feel about your character?
- What information do you wish to impart about your character?
- Are there any particular things that you want associated with your character?
Knowing what you want out of the description can help you direct it accordingly.
Components of an Effective Description
The main thing that you need for an effective description are specific, concrete details. This means pinpointing a couple of important, noteworthy physical features of the character and singling those out. Make it something that’s particular to the character and that the reader is able to visualize. If it’s a little unusual, all the better.
An effective description might also give the reader a sense of the character being described. If the character is wearing a beat-up leather jacket, that sets up expectations. You can use, play with, or completely subvert these expectations. But the fact that the character is wearing it both tells the reader how to visualize the character, and informs our understanding of her.
No, Eye Color Doesn’t Count
It’s not that you can’t describe a character’s eye-color, ever. It’s that knowing that a character has forest green eyes doesn’t help the reader imagine them. We’ve got a pair of disembodied eyes and a bad writing cliche, but there’s not a lot of real information being conveyed. This is especially true if everyone’s eyes are getting this sort of description.
Similarly, there are a lot of cases where all that readers are given is hair and eye color. This is okay for ancillary characters (although giving these characters a specific detail or two can do a lot to flesh out your world), but for major characters this isn’t enough. First because there are only so many combinations, and eventually they start to blend together. Second because neither one of these things tells us much about their personality (unless the hair is dyed, maybe). Third because it feels like reading a stack of driver’s licenses.
“Good God. What am I supposed to describe, then?”
I’m glad you asked, stilted rhetorical device. If you’re stuck on what you might be able to describe, here are a couple of jumping off points.
Notable Facial Features
Sometimes giving a couple of specifics about the person’s features helps readers piece together their face, or at least gives them a guide for filling in the blanks. If your character has any unusual features—a noteworthy mouth, nose, ears, etc.—those could be worth remarking on.
How does this person carry themself? Height and body type can be a part of this, but it extends to their bearing and comportment. If someone’s slouchy, that tells us something. If they hold their head up high, that tells us something too. Specific body language could also be lumped into this category—fidgeting, standing incredibly still, giving too much or too little personal space, etc. Focusing on what a character does with their body helps the reader visualize them while also giving a sense of their physical presence.
The emphasis here is on choices. Clothing is a choice and it says something about the character who decided to wear it, whether it’s a pair of $500 designer jeans, hospital scrubs, or the only halfway decent button-down shirt that they own. Clothes choices can clue the reader in on their financial situation, personal tastes, occupation, or recent activities. Make-up can also be worth noting on, since the decision to wear (or not wear) make-up has a lot to do with personal preference.
Wardrobe choices can also include hair style. Hair color usually doesn’t tell us a lot because, as mentioned, unless it’s dyed there isn’t much character agency involved. However, hair style is indicative of personal choices. Is it neat? Messy? Intricately styled? (And yes, facial hair counts as hair.)
Interesting Items or Possessions
As an addendum to wardrobe choices, if the character has something noteworthy on their person (like a piece of jewelry or badass weapon), that might bear mentioning. It doesn’t necessarily help us visualize the character, but it might suggest something about them, or provide a concrete detail to associate with them. This is especially true if that object is a trademark of theirs; something specific to them that they are often seen with, and that the reader is meant to associate with them.
Scars, Tattoos, Markings, etc.
The body itself can be a document. People acquire all kinds of markings as they go through life, whether it’s tattoos, battle scars, surgical scars, stretch marks, piercings, or any of a dozen other ways that bodies can be inscribed. All of these things tell a story, and suggest things about the character’s past. Even if we never learn what, these things suggest that the character has had a past.
If you’re writing in a setting where almost everyone is scarred, tattooed, and so forth, a character lacking these markings might be equally notable.
How is the character holding up? Their personal condition could include their hygiene (clean, unwashed, covered in dirt), the state of their clothing and hair (smooth, rumpled, slept-in), and their physical well-being (scraped up, bleeding, sick, tired, well), among other things. This might provide information about what they’ve been up to, how well they’re coping, or how well they take care of themself on a daily basis, in addition to providing visual cues that help readers imagine the character.