Beyond Tall, Dark, and Handsome: How to Describe Your Characters
The ability to describe is the key to great storytelling, but when it comes to depicting characters, our first impulse is often to go straight to the basics (height, hair color, clothing) and leave it at that. It’s not that those descriptions are bad, it’s just that they provide surface-level characterization rather than truly characterizing.
Dwight Swain, in his book Creating Characters, says, “When your wife says a woman is ‘loud and pushy,’ she defines her far more sharply for story purposes than any description of blue eyes, blonde hair, or pug nose.”
The reason “loud and pushy” is meaningful is because it tells us what is going on inside the character, not just what appears on the outside. And the description tells us not only what the woman is like, but reveals something about the wife who characterizes her so.
Which means when you describe your characters, your descriptions are deeply tied to who is doing the describing. A rambunctious kindergartener will be represented quite differently by a patient grade-school teacher than a cranky principal.
And this is true whether you’re writing a story narrated in first or third-person, because even in third-person we see the world through that character’s eyes.
Remember that the goal in creative writing isn’t to give your readers information, but to give them an experience. Here are some tips that will help you tap into what is significant in your characters so that you can evoke feelings in your readers and make the characters in your story come to life.
Tip 1: Choose a dominant impression
Take inventory of the traits of the character you’d like to describe. Are they lazy, sexy, insecure, irritable? Choose qualities that are particularly noteworthy about the character and actually relate to your story. Think about what the character is like, as much as what they look like. Keep in mind that the earlier you get to these qualities in relation to the character’s appearance in the story, the better.
In J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest, the protagonist has been lamenting his sorry luck with women. On page four, through a third-person narrator, we get more of the character’s perception of himself:
“By this time, he was twenty-eight, growing a pale hairy inner tube around his waist, and already going bald.”
This isn’t an objective description. Stradal conveys the insecurities of the character through the way the character chooses to describe himself.
Tip 2: Convey the attitude of the describer
Pin down the current outlook or perspective of the character doing the describing. Zero in on their state of mind (lonely, curious, offended, prone-to-exaggeration, etc.) at this exact moment in the story. Now write your description through the filter of the consciousness of the character who is doing the describing.
The male point-of-view character in Grace Paley’s short story “The Contest” is a bit of a player. Here’s how he describes his latest kind-of girlfriend:
“A medium girl, size twelve, a clay pot with handles—she could be grasped.”
Clay pot? Grasping? There’s one thing on this character’s mind and it isn’t a chaste afternoon at an ice cream social. In one short sentence we have insight into his sensibilities about women.
Tip 3: Lean into diction
Now’s the time to get picky with your word choices. The trick here is to pin down not only your character’s perception of other characters, but which words will best convey them. Think about how your character might verbalize the description, even if they aren’t speaking aloud. Choose words from their lexicon that will reveal them as a particular person.
Mattie Ross, the formal-speaking protagonist in Charles Portis’ True Grit, uses words like “beast” and “morn” in describing her father on his horse:
“He was a handsome sight and in my memory’s eye I can still see him mounted up there on Judy in his brown woolen coat and black Sunday hat and the both of them, man and beast, blowing little clouds of steam on that frosty morn.”
Portis could have left out the parenthetical “man and beast,” and of course he could have had Mattie say “morning.” But his attention to the particulars of diction allowed him to characterize this unforgettable fourteen-year-old girl.
Tip 4: Go for gesture or bodily movement
If you tend to use static descriptions when you describe your characters, think about putting them in motion so that the reader can see them doing something. Action adds another dimension to your descriptions. It allows you to take physical traits, which may be general, and incorporate them into specific behaviors.
In “The Lunch Lady and Her Three-Headed Dogs,” essayist Sonya Huber writes about her conflicted relationship with her upper arms and describes them like this:
“I raise my arms to write on the chalkboard, and the skin draped over bone and muscle swings in contrapuntal melody.”
Huber isn’t just present in her classroom setting, she’s active in it. And the boldness of putting that upper arm skin in motion takes the visual from good to great.
Tip 5: Try something figurative
This is a tricky one because a bad metaphor or simile can be cringe-worthy. But a good one will delight your reader. A simple comparison can clarify your image, allowing the reader to think, Ah, I know exactly what you mean.
Paulette Jiles skillfully uses metaphor in her novel News of the World during a scene in which kindly Captain Kidd is first assessing the young girl who is to be his charge:
“Her eyes were blue and her skin that odd bright color that occurs when fair skin has been burned and weathered by the sun. She had no more expression than an egg.”
When you describe your characters, with just a little extra work, you might be surprised at how deeply you can get into the minds of your story people, and how much better your reader will connect to them. More than plot, it’s your characters who are going to sweep your readers away into the world of your story.