Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
They say first impressions are the most important, and with characters that is definitely true. The way you describe your characters for the first time can make or break peoples' impressions of your characters and your story. So, here are some tips and advice on describing your characters in-story.
Table of Contents
- Give out appropriate amounts of detail
- Remember: perspective can change everything.
- Handle first-person self-descriptions carefully.
- Don't be bossy with your descriptions.
Give out appropriate amounts of detail
Generally speaking, people want to have some idea of what your characters look like - they don't want to go through a story with so little detail that your character might as well be a stick figure. On the other hand, they don't want to be piled under with pointless detail that gets in the way of the story.
A good way to describe a character for the first time is to go with the types of details one would notice upon your first look at a similar person in real life. Details such as hair color, hair texture, skin color, height, and build are appropriate, as well as a basic assessment of the person's apparent mood or attitude. A general (but not highly detailed) assessment of the character's state of wardrobe is fine, too. Any other truly striking features (eg, a long nose, especially large eyes, a missing leg, etc.) are appropriate to describe at this point. It's also a good idea to mention your character's age, apparent age, or to describe something that allows readers to infer the character's general age range if the character's age can't easily be inferred already.
Details that hold personal relevance to the observer are appropriate to describe in more detail than otherwise. For example, if the person being described is wearing a band shirt and the person observing that character is a fan of the band, then it's appropriate to specify the name of the band. If the observer is someone who isn't especially interested in music, then it's more appropriate to simply describe it as a "band shirt."
At this point, people should generally not notice tiny things like, say, a ring of silver around the irises of someone's eyes, or all of the detailing on someone's clothes, or a special symbol upon a piece of jewelry. These are details that would be noticed only with close inspection, or at a later point after the person has already taken in all of the obvious and blatant details.
Remember, if you go into too much detail too early, you risk driving audiences off for two reasons. First, not everyone will have the patience to sit and wade through many paragraphs of detail (that may or may not even be relevant to the story) to get to the juicier bits. Secondly, if a writer goes into too much detail at first go, it's often a sign that the character is a writer's pet, which is an immediate turnoff for many people.
A good rule of thumb is that if it isn't going to become relevant in a narrative way within the next two or three chapters, or if it's not a way to infer an aspect of the character's identity, or isn't used to shape an impression of what kind of person the character is, then the audience doesn't need to know the specifics.
So, something like this?
The woman had flawless porcelain skin with just the faintest sprinkling of freckles across her delicate nose. She had a tiny dark mole accentuated the dimple that formed every time she smiled with her plump lips. She had sapphire blue eyes with a golden ring around the irises, and her hair hung in ebony sheets that caught the moonlight. She wore a black dress that hugged her hips, which were accentuated by the sash around her waist, which was black silk embroidered with golden paisleys. She wore black heels with three straps on each shoe, each held fast with a heart-shaped clasp. Around her slender neck was a golden pendant in the shape of two entwined roses, each blossom set with a tiny pink pearl in the center, and from her ears hung pink pearl drop earrings. Her long, slender hands were accentuated with a golden leaf-shaped ring - an heirloom from her grandmother.
...Well, the audience probably doesn't care that much, and depending upon the situation the description could come off as downright pretentious. What difference does the type of shoe she's wearing make? Are we really supposed to be sold on this character because her eyes are sapphire blue and gold rather than just blue? How many people actually look that closely into someone's eyes at first meet to pick up on details like that?
The woman was fair-skinned with a slender frame, with straight black hair that came down to the small of her back. She wore a simple, but elegant dress along with a gold-embroidered sash about her waist and a tasteful amount of gold jewelry. She greeted him with a warm smile, blue eyes twinkling.
She greeted him with a dimpled smile and twinkling blue eyes, pale cheeks reddened from the cold. She wore an elegant black dress with a gold-embroidered sash about the waist, matching heels, and simple jewelry that indicated wealth without being ostentatious. Her long, dark hair was left loose.
These give us everything we need to know at first glance, and don't sound half as pretentious to boot. Any further details, providing they're actually relevant to the story, can be explored at further depth as necessary.
Remember: perspective can change everything.
If you are describing a character from a specific character's point of view, remember: different people can see the same person in vastly different ways, and even in ways that seem completely contradictory with each other. Rudy might perceive Ollie as cute and charming, but Tricia might perceive Ollie as sickeningly ingratiating. Trevor might find an insect-like alien terrifying, but Pamela might be completely fascinated.
For a hypothetical scenario, let's say we have a 15-year-old goth boy with streaked hair. Here's the same boy described from the perspectives of a few different characters:
He looked like one of those Goffik try-hards, one of those kids who decided to rebel against their middle class mom and dad by replacing their entire wardrobe with overpriced Hot Topic attire. He wore enough makeup and had his hair so brightly-colored that he might've passed as a circus performer.
Here was a guy who knew how to dress himself. His black jeans were artistically torn up and the blue and white streaks in his hair matched the pins on his black denim jacket and the laces on his black Converse. He knew how to apply his makeup, too - the dark lipstick and eyeliner against the white foundation really brought his features into contrast.
The new boy was a fan of goth fashion, I guess. He was all dressed up like Dracula's punk son or something and pretty much made himself up to look like a corpse. If it wasn't for all the makeup he'd layered on, he might've been pretty cute.
(For the curious, the first observer is an older goth who thinks that the youngster is essentially a poser and rebel-without-a-cause. The second is a young person who is impressed by the way he dresses, and the third is a young person who is not impressed by the way he dresses.)
Handle first-person self-descriptions carefully.
Letting the audience know what the protagonist of a first-person story looks like is often tricky business. Just as with third-person descriptions, you need to be careful not to give out too much detail, particularly details that aren't relevant at the moment.
However your character describes xirself will reflect upon xir personality. If your character begins by describing xirself in beautiful or attractive terms and then goes to list xir awesome and exceptional skills, xe can quickly start sounding conceited and arrogant. For example:
I stand 5'4 with a petite figure with just the right amount of curves. I have tanned skin, emerald-green eyes, and full lips. My golden-blond hair falls in ringlets down my back. I'm exceptionally skilled at playing the piano, and my grandmother says that I could go on to play professionally. I also speak French fluently, and I'm well-practiced in martial arts.
Imagine if this was a real person describing xirself to you - that person would probably sound like a braggart!
Following up an infodump of cool traits with the character's flaws doesn't make xir sound like any less of a braggart - it just makes the character sound like a braggart who suddenly realized what xe sounds like, and is now desperately trying to backpedal to avoid sounding like one.
As with any other description, don't infodump people with what makes your character special. Pace that stuff out, revealing it as it becomes relevant. And remember, show - don't tell. The character's grandmother could remind her that she needs to take piano lessons and tell the character that she could play professionally if she wanted, for example.
Likewise, if your character continually describes xirself in flattering terms like so:
He stared directly into my silver-gray eyes...
I twirled my curly chestnut hair around my finger…
I shook my shapely hips...
...That character will come off as being awfully concerned with making sure the audience knows just how sooper-speshul and prettyful xe is, and therefore come off as conceited and vain. Likewise, characters who have to make sure the audience knows the precise details of their outfit (either through text descriptions or linked-to Polyvore images or such) can come off the same way.
Don't be bossy with your descriptions.
I've said it before, and it bears repeating: being told what to think about a character gets annoying fast. It doesn't matter whether your character is supposed to look beautiful, adorable, ugly, or terrifying - if you describe your character's looks and then tell the audience how they should feel about the character, you can come off as pretentious or conceited. Instead, try to describe a few things about your character that the audience might find beautiful, adorable, ugly, terrifying, or whatever you want the character to be and let audiences draw their own conclusions.
He turned and looked at her with a wide, creepy smile and an insane look in his eyes. He was terrifying!
Eh, are wide smiles inherently creepy? I don't think so, and simply saying that a wide smile is creepy isn't going to convince me. And what does "insane" even mean, anyway? (Hint: not what a lot of people think it means.) Let's try this instead:
He turned toward her with a smile that stretched out farther than any smile ought to have, and he stared at her like a starving man looking at a hunk of meat.
...Now we're talking. That right there evokes the Uncanny Valley effect, which is where the creepiness really lies, and the metaphor lets us know that he's looking at her in a predatory sort of way. That's creepy.
Let's make another example:
She looked at him with adorable brown eyes, her mouth pulled up into the cutest little smile.
First, this could potentially make readers with a low tolerance for contrived or forced cuteness want to gag. Secondly, if the audience doesn't already agree that the character is adorable (and they might very well not), they're going to find this all the more annoying. On the other hand:
She looked at him with wide brown eyes, an excited, yet somewhat nervous smile on her face.
This describes a few behaviors that people might find cute, but doesn't insist that the character is unequivocally cute. With no concrete values placed upon the character's actions, the audience is free to think what it wants about the character.
If you're in a roleplay and you try to force a perspective of your character onto someone else's character (ie, describing the other person's character as finding yours cute, attractive, intimidating, etc.), you're powerplaying because you're choosing actions for the person's character that the person didn't consent to. Don't do this.
If you liked this, you might also be interested in:
So You Want To Have An Attractive Character?
Notes & Musings On Writing Cute Characters
So You Want To Have A Powerful Or Talented Character Who Probably Won't Be Perceived As A Mary Sue?
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)
Tips 'N Stuff For Better Character Design
Writing Better Prompts, Starters, & Beginnings: A Few Pointers
Writing Character Profiles & Bios - Tips & Advice
On Showing vs. Telling