Deciding when to describe your character’s physical appearance can be tough. Do you do it right away, when they are first introduced? Do you wait until they look in a mirror? Do you list the physical characteristics all at once, so it’s over and done with? Do you constantly tell the reader how she flips her long, dark hair over her shoulder so they don’t forget what the protagonist looks like?
Here are ten tips, with examples, for how to include character descriptions in interesting ways.
1. When using a list to describe a character's appearance, provide additional information about the character.
“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair and bright-green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Sellotape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead which was shaped like a bolt of lightning.”
—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
This paragraph, in less practiced hands, could have been written: “Harry was small and skinny, with black hair and bright-green eyes. He wore glasses and had a very thin scar on his forehead.” That would be fine. But Rowling goes further by giving readers more information about Harry than just his appearance. In addition to learning what Harry looks like, we find out that a) his aunt and uncle don’t care enough about him to buy him new clothes when they are obviously wealthy enough to do so; b) not only is Dudley the favourite, but he’s bigger than Harry, giving him more power over his cousin; c) Dudley beats up Harry on a regular basis; and d) Harry doesn’t care much for his own appearance but likes his scar.
Inserting background information about your character along with a physical description will make it much more interesting and memorable.
2. Insert opinion and bias.
“Do I look Grisha to you?” Grisha were beautiful. They didn’t have spotty skin and dull brown hair and scrawny arms.”
—Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
First person or third person limited narrator is particularly good for this. You can insert opinion into your character descriptions, like in this example from Shadow and Bone. The main character, Alina, doesn’t think she is pretty and describes herself in her own thoughts to prove it.
3. Describe how other characters see the protagonist.
“Baba always said I took after Mama, not him. I’d never believed him. I looked at my straight nose, large round eyes, and full lips—yes, those were from Mama. But Mama had been the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, while I… I’d grown up in a house full of men and didn’t even know how to act like a girl.
“Finlei used to tease that, from behind, I looked exactly like Keton—reedy as a boy. The freckles on my face and arms didn’t help either. Girls were supposed to be delicate and pale. But maybe, maybe all this could work in my favor.”
—Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
Describing the protagonist can be tricky, especially if the story is written from first person or third person limited perspective. A common method is describing what your character sees as they look into a mirror or a lake, but that gets old quick. In Spin the Dawn, Elizabeth Lim’s protagonist reflects on what family members say about her appearance. I know I’ve had my fair share of “Wow, you look so much like your mom,” so this method is realistic and can be relatable. It doesn’t have to be a family member doing the commenting, either.
4. Use simile or metaphor.
“The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.”
—The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Using vivid imagery to describe your character’s traits can be compelling, but you might want to stay away from similes that are overdone, like “black as a raven” or “a nose like a hawk.”
5. Describe clothes and accessories.
“The thiefmaster looked quite convincing in his nobleman’s suit. It was as rich a costume as Vin had ever seen—it had a white shirt overlaid by a deep green vest with engraved gold buttons. The black suit coat was long, after the current fashion, and he wore a matching black hat. His fingers sparkled with rings, and he carried a fine duelling cane. Indeed, Camon did an excellent job of imitating a nobleman.”
—Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Clothes can say a lot about a person—how wealthy they are, what their vocation is, what their personality traits are. Brandon Sanderson’s description of Camon from Mistborn is interesting because Camon is a thief but he’s good at pretending to be something else.
6. Use the narrator's tone to your advantage.
“He really was pretty, impossibly so, with large, almond-shaped eyes and a sculpted mouth that looked good even twisted into a sneer. His skin was a shade of porcelain white that any Sinegardian woman would have murdered for, and his silky hair was almost as long as Rin’s had been.”
—The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
When describing other characters from the narrator’s perspective, go beyond purely descriptive. What does the narrator think about the appearance? Try to write more than “She thought he was handsome.” Describe him as handsome and how the narrator feels about it.
In this paragraph from The Poppy War, Kuang could have left the description at “He really was pretty, impossibly so, with large, almond-shaped eyes and a sculpted mouth.” But she goes on to comment on the character’s sneer, which gives the distinct impression that Rin does not think much of this guy, even though he’s good looking. Notice how Kuang gets that across without writing, “Rin didn’t like him.”
7. Include facial expressions and mannerisms.
“The pitying look made Sophie utterly ashamed. He was such a dashing specimen too, with a bony, sophisticated face—really quite old, well into his twenties—and elaborate blonde hair. His sleeves trailed longer than any in the Square, all scalloped edges and silver insets.”
—Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Go beyond what a character looks like by describing facial expressions and mannerisms. This section from Howl’s Moving Castle is gripping not just because of Howl’s appearance, but also because of the way he’s looking at Sophie and the way that Sophie is reacting to his expression. His elegant attire doesn’t hurt, either.
8. Make the character's appearance relevant to the action.
“I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag.”
—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Katniss is preparing to go hunting in this scene from The Hunger Games. The addition of motion can add a lot to a scene. Rather than describing your character while they’re standing still, try having them move.
9. Use appearance to contextualize the character.
“A tall, curiously pale young woman stood over the rabbit, Her night-black hair, fashionably bobbed, was hanging slightly over her face. She wore no makeup or jewelry, save for an enamelled school badge pinned to her regulation navy blazer. That, coupled with her long skirt, stockings and sensible shoes, identified her as a schoolgirl.”
—Sabriel by Garth Nix
Appearance, including clothing and accessories, can give the reader information about the character and their setting. A beehive haircut suggests the 60s. A suit and tie suggests an office job. Several scars suggests an eventful, perhaps violent, backstory. In Sabriel, the main character’s appearance marks her as a student at a private school.
10. Include physical characteristics when describing the character's actions.
“Blowing a red curl out of her face, Scarlet set the crates down and kicked the potatoes back to their spot beneath the shelves.”
—Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Scattering physical characteristics throughout the narrative this way doesn’t slow down the pacing with a long list. You don’t even have to do much more than this, as readers can fill in the rest with their imagination.