3 Essentials of Effective Character Descriptions

footprint-71137_1280Imagine this scenario: You’re working on that all-important first chapter. You have all your resource files open on your computer, or perhaps printed out and spread on the table beside you: timelines, plot points, character notes, setting details.

You pen the opening paragraphs, setting the scene while avoiding too much description. You add a dash of dialog, a little action. Your main character is on the scene and you know exactly what she looks like, because you’ve written pages of description. You might’ve even written up a nifty character interview. Heck, you know everything from her favorite nail polish color to the contents of her backpack.

It’s time to paint her picture for the reader…and you have no idea where to start.

You know you’re not supposed to include an information dump in the opening pages. You also know that you need to create some kind of mental image for your reader. Preferably in a way that flows naturally, without bogging down the scene.

This is where a lot of people get stuck. You could throw your hands up in despair–or you could apply these 3 guidelines for flowing key information about your characters into your story. Which brings me to my first point…

Tip #1: Find the right place for character description.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the need to cram everything important into the first few pages of your first chapter, take a moment to step away from the keyboard. (Seriously. Stand back!)

Now: What is the most important thing you want your opening to do? How will it pull your readers into the story? Description isn’t the most exciting way to draw readers into your novel, so most books won’t begin with a close look at the character’s appearance. It gets woven in, piece by piece, as the story unfolds–and those opening pages might not have any description at all!

Instead, you might start your story by showing your main character’s actions or reactions. You might begin in the middle of an important conversation or memory. You have lots of choices. The point is that you don’t have to do everything in those opening pages. You can focus on world-building or getting the action rolling or creating the right atmosphere–and let description wait.

Tip #2: Focus character description  on a few “defining details”.

Once you decide where your character’s description fits into the narrative, your next step is to choose a few defining details that paint your character in broad strokes. That lengthy character description you wrote earlier? It’s a great starting point, but you need to pare it down to the essentials.

Check out this description of main character Meghan Chase, in Julie Kagawa‘s novel The Iron King.

The morning before my birthday, I woke up, showered, and rummaged through my dresser for something to wear. Normally, I’d just grab whatever clean-ish thing is on the floor, but today was special. Today was the day Scott Waldron would finally notice me. I wanted to look perfect. Of course, my wardrobe is sadly lacking in the popular-attire department. While other girls spend hours in front of their closets crying, “What should I wear?” my drawers basically hold three things: clothes from Goodwill, hand-me-downs, and overalls….

I finally slipped into cargo pants, a neutral green T-shirt, and my only pair of ratty sneakers, before dragging a brush through my white-blond hair. My hair is straight and very fine, and was doing that stupid floating thing again, where it looked like I’d jammed my finger up an electrical outlet. Yanking it into a ponytail, I went downstairs.” —The Iron King, Julie Kagawa

Talk about focused description! Although the author spends two paragraphs on Meghan’s looks, she really focuses on two key details, Meghan’s clothing and her hair. (By the way, that description doesn’t appear until page 3 or so of the book.)

Tip #3: Write character descriptions with purpose.

You’re probably thinking, okay, but how do you decide which details count as “defining”? One way to do that is to look at where your character’s key emotions and personality traits intersect with his or her appearance.

Discover your character’s defining details at the intersection of PERSONALITY and PHYSICALITY.


If you look at the above passage again, you’ll see that the narrator–Meghan–has specific reasons for mentioning those particular details. The author could have written something like this:

Meghan gazed into the mirror, taking stock of her appearance. Her hair was straight and very fine, pulled back into a ponytail. She had a straight nose and even teeth, but her eyes were her best feature, an emerald green that people always thought must be from colored contact lenses.” [NOT from The Iron King]

This version has a longer laundry list of details–but why is Meghan thinking about her appearance? Looking into the mirror is an overdone technique for wedging description into the narrative. Although there’s presumably a mirror in the scene Kagawa writes, it’s never mentioned.

Instead, we know exactly why Meghan mentions her clothes: She wants to impress a boy, and her wardrobe is sadly lacking in the boy-impressing department. Every detail about her clothing speaks to that point. At the end of her description, we’ve got a clear picture of what she’s wearing not only at this instant, but at almost every other instant: clothing that’s well-worn, serviceable, and probably second-hand.

Tip #4: Write character descriptions with attitude.

By the time Meghan actually reveals something about her physical body, she does so with actions and inner dialog that convey her attitude clearly: FRUSTRATION. ANNOYANCE. IRRITATION. She could have simply described her hair as “straight and very fine;” instead, she frames it all with the fact that it’s “doing that stupid floating thing again, where it looked like I’d jammed my finger up an electrical outlet.” We learn that Meghan wears her hair in a ponytail because the author shows her yanking her hair into that ponytail.

(By the way, did you notice that Meghan has a reason for commenting on her hair, too? It’s bugging her–which provides the excuse the author needs to have the character noticing her own hair.)

Here’s one more awesome example of an author weaving character description seamlessly into the story, from Veronica Roth‘s young adult novel, Divergent:

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.

When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot….I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention–not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection, I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose–I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.” —Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

In this case, the description does appear in the book’s opening. This is how the book begins: with the main character getting her hair cut. It works, even though Roth uses the “looking into the mirror” trick, perhaps because it has a surprising twist. Tris (the main character) isn’t just gazing at herself in the mirror. She’s sneaking a look. She hasn’t looked in a mirror for three months–which immediately makes the reader wonder why not?

This description is focused: we learn the color of Tris’s hair (dull blond) and the shape of her face, eyes, and nose. That’s it.

It all has a purpose: This description introduces readers to a world where people aren’t allowed to look into mirrors whenever they want.

And it has an attitude: Tris is curious and uncertain and maybe just a bit rebellious. After all, she does sneak that verboten look in the mirror….

Your turn: How do you weave character description into a story? Please share in the comments!

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know - www.cherylreif.com

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]