Learn how to describe your characters well with our essential advice
All fiction needs characters. Well-crafted characters are what readers will remember about your story long after they’ve forgotten the plot elements. So it’s worth investing time and effort working out how to describe a character and make them come alive in the reader’s mind. But how do you bring your characters to life? What’s the best way to go about writing a character description? Read on for our top tips on writing character descriptions that leave an impression on your readers.
The worst way to describe a character is to tell readers what they look like.
The obvious temptation for new writers is to give readers a physical description of their characters.
Jem was tall and broad with brown eyes and short dark hair.
The new writer wants to create an impression of their character and is using physical appearance to do so. But what does this tell us about Jem? Nothing at all. We are offered no insight into his character, personality, dreams, flaws, motivations, needs, wants or desires. It is the same as in real life: it is what is revealed of someone’s personality that creates an impression, not what colour hair or eyes they’ve got. This bland introduction to Jem means that the only thing we initially know about him is the least important thing: what he looks like. Unless this has some bearing on his character development and the story’s plot progression, it’s just not very interesting. Instead, why not introduce Jem in a way that reveals something significant about him? It might only take a tiny tweak. Jem had kept the sportman’s posture of his youth tells us much more about him: in nine words, we’ve been shown that he’s an older man, used to play sports and has taken care of himself. Already we’re starting to get to know him.
What do readers need to know about the character when they first meet them?
Now that we’ve been introduced to Jem, what do we need to know about him? Think about it in the context of your story. Let’s imagine that Jem is a retired policeman who is married to Myriam, and keeps fit and active on a golf course where (in the early pages of your crime novel) he discovers a mangled corpse. These are the things your readers need to know about him early on in the novel. You could just write that description but it’s boring. Try to incorporate these essential pieces of information into writing that builds up a picture:
Jem was just about to text Myriam and let her know he’d be popping into the clubhouse for a drink with the Friday regulars when he spotted a ball in the long grass. He jogged over to retrieve it and took a step backwards. In all his years with the Force he’d never seen a body so deliberately mutilated.
Everything we learn about Jem in these sentences helps to build a picture where all the elements are connected to the unfolding narrative.’
Drip-feed information to gradually build up a picture.
Info-dumping is always to be avoided in fiction writing, and that goes for character creation as well. Your reader does not need to know everything about Jem all at once. It’s much more effective for the reader to be progressively fed scraps of information about Jem to build up an intricate picture of his character. As none of the characters in your fiction should be two-dimensional, a novel-length manuscript gives its writer the opportunity to assemble complex characters over a lengthy period. You might introduce a section about Jem’s former police career to reveal that he made an error of judgement that impacted on his confidence, giving the reader a whole new understanding that solving this case in retirement will heal a twenty-year wound. Perhaps you could show different sides of him, at home, at work and with his golf mates, to give readers an insight into how he interacts in particular contexts. Rather than bombarding your reader with a barrage of information about Jem that they won’t take in all at once, and don’t yet care about because they don’t know him, introduce him carefully and let them get to know him gradually and they will be fascinated to find out more about him.
Relate the character’s exterior and interior lives.
Physical description can only go so far in giving readers an insight into your characters. The way to really spark readers’ interest is to reveal something of your character’s interior life. But how to do this? What a person does can be very telling, and imply the reasons for them doing it.
Jem slopped two fingers into a tumbler. He was never much of a drinker before the business with Siddy Cohen, but these days he had to smuggle the Jameson bottles out of the house.
Look at the verbs: slopped and smuggle. These have been chosen to show an aspect of Jim that’s messy, and something furtive about his drinking. Your verb choices will do a lot of the work for you in relating character to action. The rest of the description relies on the precision of the nouns that have been selected. The tumbler shows there’s a value for him in using the right glass, not just any old receptacle. Same with the whiskey: Jameson is a choice brand. The tense phrase the business with Siddy Cohen suggests the lingering effect of whatever it was that happened. And throughout this description there is, vitally, a space for the reader to come in and interpret what has been written. Piecing together clues to build up a picture is one of the joys of reading, and a good writer never forgets this.
Focus on specific details and what they tell us about the character.
Everything you say about your character should be there for a purpose. Any detail that you reveal about your character needs to add to what the reader knows about them in the context of the story. So if you tell a reader that Jem was wearing the same shirt two days running, it’s a tiny detail that tells the reader something about him, his life and the circumstances he’s in. If you said he changed his shirt for the second time that day, would that create a different impression? If his fingernails are black with dirt, we’d see him differently from if he’d had a manicure. Using specific details rather than vague ones reinforces believability. If Jem eats baked beans, scrambled eggs and four slices of bread every morning, it’s more revealing about his character than if you told readers he liked a hearty breakfast.
Create images that leave an impression of the character.
Even though it’s a mistake to focus on physical description as a way of revealing character, there will be times when it’s necessary to describe something about their appearance. But rather than baldly stating what they looked like, use carefully chosen words – an appropriate adjective, a persuasive verb, perhaps metaphor or simile – to create a picture or impression of the character. Jem’s sturdy tweed coat felt like a barrier between him and whatever it was that was waiting for him on the fairway tells the reader not just what Jem was wearing, but how it made him feel in the face of danger. He pushed his thinning hair away from his forehead and sighed when he remembered how the lads on his division used to call him Curly reveals character and backstory as well as appearance.
How do they express themselves physically?
How does your character move around in the world you have created for them, and what does it say about them? Do they walk slowly? Talk quickly? Are they argumentative? Sociable? Friendly? Reserved? Introverted? The life and soul of the party? Respectful of other characters? The way people move physically and interact with others can be very revealing of what they’re like as individuals. Think how you can show this to readers. Jem was the first to stretch out his hand in greeting demonstrates a character being proactive and sociable. If his fingers tap on the table this might convey restlessness or fidgeting. If he always sits in the quiet corner we can assume he prefers to be left alone. Everything that your character does will demonstrate something about them to the reader. An added gift for the writers is that it is quite usual for people not to be conscious of how they express themselves physically. Showing this to the reader gives the writer a chance to reveal elements of the character that the character themselves may not be aware of.
What revealing quirks or mannerisms do they have?
Taking this a step further, does your character have any identifying behavioural quirks? For instance, a person with a beard might stroke it when they’re thinking. Someone might wave their hands around to express themselves. Or pull their lips back from their teeth like an angry dog to show displeasure. It can be telling for characters to have a mannerism or quirk that makes them instantly recognisable, but be careful, if you use this device, to use it with care. Don’t overdo references to it – if the character snarls or sneezes or twitches or whatever it is every time they put in an appearance, it will quickly become irksome for the reader. For instance, Myriam’s ability to solve clues might be signalled be her fondness for cryptic crosswords. But if she is doing the crossword every time we meet her, it becomes a cliché. Always remember, too, that any character in your fiction should not be signalled by the kind of shorthand that a quirk can represent. It can add to your portrayal of a character but a good, rounded character can never be reduced to a quirk of behaviour.
Don’t describe – demonstrate.
The best way to bore a reader is making them plough through a lengthy passage of description, and this is just as true when it comes to characters as to anything else in your novel. Your skill as a writer is in showing the reader without spelling it out in screeds of description. If you need to show what someone looks like, find a way of showing it. The blue coat was warmer but Myriam preferred the green one for the way it set off her eyes not only informs us that Myriam has green eyes and is wearing a coat to match, but that she’s slightly vain about her appearance.
Action reveals character.
Another aspect of demonstrating rather than using description is that showing your character in action is the best way to show what the person you are writing about is like. Readers are more likely to be involved with writing that moves the storyline along at the same time as increasing their understanding of the character. Jem wasn’t going to let the odd twinge of arthritis get in the way of completing 18 holes does the work of telling your readers about Jem’s stubbornness and refusal to give up his golf despite the fact that he’s getting a bit creaky with old age. His joints snapped as he bent over the corpse but he ignored the pain. There was a job to be getting on with makes even more of an impression of a person who carries on despite physical limitations.
Put them in a setting that says something about them.
Your characters’ surroundings will give readers clues about who they are. What kind of house or flat do they live in? In what kind of area? What are their furnishings like? Do they socialise in a pub, club or café? All these lifestyle options can be used to reveal something about the way your characters live, which in turn shows something about who they are. If Jem and Myriam have the same furniture they bought when they first got married, it says something different than if they upgrade their living room furniture every few years. If they live in a suburban semi their lifestyle will reflect a different picture than if they live in a gated retirement complex.
What about their inner life?
Just as it’s interesting to explore who your characters are in relation to the world around them, it’s important to give them an inner life: thoughts, emotions, viewpoints, interests. A character’s inner life can be a way of connecting them to their backstory, and it will emphasise or throw into relief the qualities that make them who they are. A lot of authors reflect their characters’ inner lives through their relationship to the arts: what books, music, art or films they love – because this is a way of showing the richness of their inner life and inner resources. Human beings have many facets to their lives and characters, including layered inner lives, and your fictional characters should have a similar multi-dimensional quality in order to make them truly satisfying for a reader.
How do they interact with other characters and what does it show about them?
Interpersonal dynamics are very revealing, and how characters react to each other tells readers a lot about them. If Myriam dreads Jem coming home from the golf course it will create a very different impression of him for readers than if she looks forward to seeing him. If the other people in the clubhouse are pleased to see him, it shows him in an altogether different light than if they see him as the club bore. As a writer you can use the way secondary characters in your novel view your lead character to enhance readers’ insights into what they’re like. You might use this device to contrast how someone sees themselves with how they really are (ie, life and soul of the party/unfunny loudmouth) or to foreground something about them that will later be significant.
What impression do they create?
Be aware, as a writer, that everything you put in words about your character will generate an impression for the reader – and that impression will build up over pages and chapters. It is up to you how your readers see your character at any point in your narrative. Readers can only see your character through the images you furnish them with. So it’s your job to provide them. You might, at the beginning of your story, want readers to have a strong impression of your character – if so, show them in action in a way that reveals the side of their character you’re aiming to get across. Perhaps later, you might want to reveal their hidden depths. This might be the time for them to reflect on something in their past, or listen to music that reveals a hitherto unseen facet of their personality. You can time your revelations of different aspects of your character or insights into their backgrounds and motivation to occur at pivotal points in the narrative. This acts as a way of controlling the impression your character creates for your reader.
There isn’t – or should not be – anything random about the act of creating a character for your reader. But there will be, inevitably, the issue that your writer’s knowledge of your character will deepen as you become more involved in writing their story, and get to know them better. Being aware of the extent to which your reader’s appreciation of your story will depend on your understanding of your characters and how you get it across will help you not just with character creation but also with plotting and structure. Why not try the following exercise?