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How to Write Amazing Character Descriptions (with Examples)

A good character description is walking a fine line between too much and too little information. Not only that, it's how you deliver the information to the reader that can make or break a good description. So whether you already have a vivid picture of your characters in mind or you don't know where to start, you've come to the right place. Read on to explore character description.

  • What is a Good Character Description?
  • Descriptions for Character Profiles
  • Descriptions in Prose
  • Character Description Examples
  • Tips for Writing Character Descriptions for Profiles

Table of contents

  • Description in Prose
  • 1. Start With a List
  • 2. Edit it Down
  • 3. Get Creative With Surroundings and Movement
  • 4. What Is and What Isn't
  • 5. Adjectives Can Help or Hinder
  • 6. Practice Makes Perfect
  • 7. Description Can Help Reveal the Narrator

A good character description isn't just about describing how a given character looks. It's also about describing the character through the world around them and through their actions. When these factors come together, you can create a vivid description that not only tells the reader a lot about your character's personality but also sparks the reader's imagination. That, after all, is what reading is all about.

And while we'll mostly be discussing character description in prose, we'll also be discussing how character description is important when writing your character profiles. Since character profiles are best utilized before you write your novel, we'll start there.

Creating a character profile can help you when it comes time to write. It can ensure that you know your major characters intimately before you start writing. These profiles are about more than just character description, but for the purposes of this article, we'll focus on the physical attributes, as they're the building blocks for writing descriptive prose.

Think of a profile as a character sketch. You're not trying to get every single detail down, as it's always good to leave room for spontaneity when you're writing your novel . But when it comes to the basics of how the character looks, it can help to nail down the details.

This includes things like eye color, facial expression, height, weight, build, hair color, skin color, any disfigurements or scars, and things like tattoos or birthmarks. This should also include clothing and any other accessories, such as hats, watches, necklaces, and piercings.

You don't have to get fancy with the profile. Just get the information down so you can refer to it later. If you want to go the extra mile, you can write down some varying descriptions of your character as if you're writing the novel. It's often easiest to focus on one physical attribute at a time until you're comfortable. These practice descriptions can lend inspiration when you start writing in earnest.

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Description in your book is a bit different than in your profile. A good description can give the reader a glimpse at the character's personality traits as well as their appearance. There are many different ways to write a great character description, but they all have one thing in common: they're creative and anything but boilerplate.

Many new writers opt for the list-style of description, thinking that less is more. They often look like this:

“He had piercing green eyes, sandy blond hair, and stood a stocky and solid six-foot-two. He had a slight limp and the musculature of a man who works hard for his living.”

While this may be fine for a minor character, it falls a little flat for a major character that you want the audience to know intimately. So for ideas on how to write character descriptions, let's look at some examples from some masters of the craft.

“His present dog was a huge white brute, a mountain dog from the South. He had named it Halina, after his second wife, with whom it shared some personality traits. . . It weighed almost as much as he did and its coat was matted and filthy; it lifted its massive head and watched him with lunatic eyes.”

This description, from Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn , is a great example of how to describe physical appearance. Neither the man nor his dog is a major character in the story, but the description tells you a little about the K9 and its owner in a few concise sentences.

“He did not look like anything special at all.”

This one-sentence description in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated is an excellent example of “less is more.”

“When he did appear his eyes were as brown as I remembered, pupils flecked with gold like beach pebbles.”

This description is from Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn. It's a compelling use of simile to create a picture of a character's appearance in the reader's mind. Note that she doesn't use tired and worn-out similes such as “eyes as blue as the summer sky” or “hair as red as autumn leaves. Getting creative with figurative language can work out very well.

“He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

This description, from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, focuses on the character's actions to tell the reader about him. Or, rather, on a single action: a smile. At the same time, the writer is telling the reader something about the POV character, giving insights into how the narrator sees the character while describing him.

Tips for Writing Character Descriptions in Prose

Most writing teachers and authors will tell you that if you want to write, you need to read. And the descriptions above should be shining examples of why that is sage advice. Reading how the authors you love write character description is key. But I've included some tips you can use when it comes time to write your own masterpiece!

This is where the character profile comes in handy. Not only does it keep you on track (there's nothing worse than realizing you switched a character's eye color halfway through a book) but it also allows you to keep a picture of your character fresh in your mind's eye.

So keep a list handy. Even if it's just the basics, like “black hair” or “brown eyes” and the like, it helps.

One of the most oft-quoted pieces of advice from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is “Omit needless words.” For writers old and new, this advice is sound indeed for writing character descriptions. We've all read a book where the description of a character goes on for pages and pages and we find ourselves asking, “When will we get back to the story?”

This is something to avoid at all costs. So edit your descriptions down as much as possible. Don't use flowery language for its own sake. Instead, try to get your point across to the reader in as concise a manner as possible. You don't have to get into a character's backstory with the description if it will interrupt the flow of the story.

Remember that you want to create a vivid character in the reader's mind, but that doesn't mean that you want to take all of their imagination out of it. Leave something for the reader to interpret, if at all possible.

Description isn't all about a character's physicality. It's also about how the character interacts with the world around them. The way a man sits on a couch or a woman drives a car or a child eats an ice cream cone can all add to the character's description. A sentence about what a couple does while waiting in line at the movies can tell the reader more than a paragraph of straight description.

The way a character walks, the way they gesture when they talk, the way they squint when they're thinking. These are all great ways to add to a character's vividness and depth through description.

Describing a person, fictional or otherwise, can be done by looking at what is there and what isn't there. In fact, sharing what isn't there — what's missing — can be a great way of describing a person. As a writer, this can also help you develop your craft and keep your prose fresh. Whether this is a missing limb, a shirt pocket that has been torn off, or the lack of seeming intelligence on a vacant face, the absence of things can say a lot about a character.

As a rule in fiction, it's best to limit your use of adverbs. And the use of adjectives in character descriptions is no exception. Like adverbs, adjectives can become a crutch that holds back more concise and creative writing. This is not to say that you shouldn't use them on occasion. Sometimes an adjective is just the right kind of word for character description. Just keep in mind that overusing them can lead to reader fatigue and overly flowery language.

This should go without saying, but practicing your description will go a long way to becoming a better writer. When you consciously sit down to write a compelling character description, you can really think about what you want to say and how best to say it.

To do this, choose a character archetype and flesh that archetype out into a full-fledged person through descriptive language. Try writing several descriptions of the same character type, focusing on a few different tributes each time. You can try writing one where you focus on appearance. One on movement. One on how she/he interacts with the world around them. One on clothing. And one on what's missing (if anything). These practices can help you get your head around how best to describe a character in any given situation.

Description can also tell the reader about the POV character or narrator. And if your narrator is also your protagonist, this can be very important. This is because, short of having your character stand in front of a mirror and describe herself, there aren't many easy ways to describe your POV character without taking the reader out of the story. So, a great way to enlighten the reader is to use the way your narrator sees other characters. This can often be in the form of physical comparisons that the narrator makes or insights that they glean from watching/interacting with another character.

Not only does this add to the main character's believability, but it also provides an opportunity for character development as the story progresses. Perhaps your POV character has a bad habit of comparing himself to others he learns to break. Or perhaps he focuses too much on physical attributes to the detriment of seeing who other characters really are.

Whether you're writing a short story , novella, or a 1,000-page tome, you'll want to get familiar with character descriptions. The best way to start this is with a character profile. This will help you with your character analysis, which is great for fleshing out your main character, villain, and even secondary characters that need brief but compelling descriptions.

Once you have the basics of your character down, you can start experimenting with description. By focusing on one major character trait at first, you can develop your own style of description. Then you can incorporate more attributes, sharing only a couple at a time as your novel progresses.

Be concise, creative, and don't forget to look for what is and what isn't there. Use movement, interactions, and gestures to make vivid and crisp character descriptions. 

Dave Chesson

When I’m not sipping tea with princesses or lightsaber dueling with little Jedi, I’m a book marketing nut. Having consulted multiple publishing companies and NYT best-selling authors, I created Kindlepreneur to help authors sell more books. I’ve even been called “The Kindlepreneur” by Amazon publicly, and I’m here to help you with your author journey.

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novel writing describing characters

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Character Descriptions

Writing vivid character descriptions is a struggle many writers face. If you're tired of your descriptions falling flat this guide will help you become a pro once and for all! Plus, there are free worksheets and cheat sheets to help you write character descriptions the easy way!

I couldn’t understand why because I’m a very descriptive writer. Describing landscapes? I got that. Fantasy creatures no one’s ever seen before? You betcha. Medieval cities? I’m a pro.

But when it came to people, suddenly I couldn’t find any words that worked. No matter what words I used, the descriptions fell flat instead of bringing my characters vividly to life.

I didn’t realize then that I was going about my character descriptions all wrong—I thought I just sucked at describing people. Years later, though, I learned that anyone can write a stellar character description, even if descriptive writing isn’t their strong suit!

Any of this sounding familiar? Describing characters is something a lot of writers struggle with, myself included. Though I’ve come a long way since my first feeble (and horrible) attempts, it’s still something I have to work harder at than other types of description.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why people seem to be so tricky to describe, but I don’t want you to face the same frustrations and struggles that I did. You’re not alone, and I’m here to help, friend!

I’ve written this MONSTER guide to answer all of the most frequently asked questions about describing characters I’ve gotten from writers like you. I’ve also created FREE worksheets and cheat sheets to make describing your characters a whole lot easier, so be sure to grab those below! (No email sign-up required!)

novel writing describing characters

What Is the Purpose of Character Description?

I feel like the purpose of character description often gets somewhat muddled in writers’ minds. If I asked you why you want to describe your character in your story, what would your answer be? You would probably say you want to give the reader a clear mental picture of what your character looks like.

That’s a valid reason, but there’s another that is even more important but sometimes gets overlooked.

The main way I use character description in my stories is as a form of characterization. Through descriptive details, I try to reveal the character’s personality so that not only does the reader come away with a mental picture of what the character looks like, but they also get a feel for who the character is.

Before I viewed description as an opportunity to characterize, I was hung up on the description itself. I thought character descriptions had to be beautiful and lush with detail. I felt a lot of pressure to find the right words so my readers would picture my character exactly as I did. I thought because I couldn’t write gorgeous character descriptions, I sucked at them.

But you know what I finally realized? Describing a character is more about characterization than flowery language. Once I realized this, a lot of the pressure I felt toward describing my characters lifted.

When Should I Describe My Character?

Whenever you introduce a new character, you should try to describe her as soon as possible. Why? Because the moment a character steps onto the page, the reader’s imagination will immediately begin to conjure an image.

For example, let’s say I encounter a character named Louise in a story. I immediately begin to picture a brunette woman in a retro dress, bright red lipstick, and fashionable glasses. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the image that springs to mind.

Now, this image may or may not match up to the author’s own personal idea of what she intends Louise to look like. If the author doesn’t give me any details to provide me with a different mental picture ASAP, I’m going to stick with my own version.

If you wait too long to describe your character, the reader will likely reject your description in favor of their own mental image. Let’s say you’re reading a story and you’ve been imagining the heroine as a petite girl with a blonde pixie cut, but halfway through the book you find out she’s actually 6 foot tall with waist-length black hair.

That discovery will be jarring to the reader. Since the read is already familiar with the mental image she had created for the character, she will likely ignore this description and keep imagining her the way she likes. I have done this several times myself as a reader!

To avoid this situation, try to describe a new character as soon as she’s introduced to provide the reader with the mental image you want them to have.

Now, there is one exception to this. If a character is introduced in the middle of an action scene, you do NOT want to bring the action to a screeching halt to describe them. Wait until things have calmed down, and then you can describe them. It’s okay to wait a few pages, I promise.

Which Characters Should I Describe?

You don’t have to give a detailed description of every character in your novel. You should give most of the attention to your main characters, and then add a little detail to your secondary characters.

You don’t need to describe the desk clerk at the hotel, the taxi driver, or the bartender. Some characters are just background extras that don’t have any importance in the story so you don’t want to spend any more time on them than necessary.

If you start describing these types of characters you call attention to them, and you could confuse the reader into thinking they might be important later when really they have no significance other than filler to make your story world feel fleshed out. So let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks on this one, or limit yourself to a brief, simple description like “the burly bartender.”

I also want to point out that there tends to be a difference between how main characters and secondary characters are described. Secondary characters are often more colorful, exaggerated, and quirky. Because they have a small role, they have to burn bright to be memorable. So feel free to get crazy with your secondary characters and have some fun!

How Much Should I Describe?

The amount of character description really depends on the writer and their writing style. Some writers are really good at writing beautiful character descriptions, so they might make their descriptions longer. Other writers have a very to-the-point and less descriptive writing style, so their character descriptions may be very sparse.

I would say a paragraph of character description should be more than enough (with 3-5 sentences being one paragraph). Any more than that might start leaning toward too much, but it’s always a judgment call. A reader can only remember so many details and you don’t want to overwhelm them. Often, less is more.

Funnily enough, I don’t think there’s any danger in describing too little. In fact, some writers intentionally choose not to describe their characters at all. Now, you’re probably thinking, why in the world would any writer want to do this? Good question.

One argument for not describing your characters is to allow the reader full control over how they want to imagine them.

Remember how earlier we talked about readers immediately conjuring mental images for characters? Readers’ imaginations are powerful and very good at filling in the blanks. Some readers prefer to imagine things their own way and not be told how to image them by the author.

Another argument for this tactic is that when a character is left undescribed, the reader will often project their own physical features onto the character.

So if they’re blonde, they’ll likely image the character as blonde. If they’re Asian, they’ll likely imagine the character as Asian. This is why some authors prefer not to describe their heroes—so that the reader can imagine the hero looks like herself, no matter her physical features or race.

It’s a beautiful thought that one character could look so many different ways to so many different readers!

So really, it comes down to personal choice. When you have a specific image in your head of what your character looks like, it can be hard to relinquish control and let the reader imagine them however they want. However, if you want the reader to picture the character a certain way, then by all means provide them with that description!

But keep in mind that no matter how meticulously detailed your description is, your readers won’t recreate your mental image with 100% accuracy (and that’s okay!).

Words aren’t photographs, and that can sometimes be challenging and frustrating. This is why the best advice I can give you is to focus on characterizing with description instead of focusing on writing the most accurate description possible.

What Should I Describe?

Many writers have trouble moving beyond hair and eye color in their descriptions, and I get it. Those two things are the easiest and most obvious to describe. But what else can you say about a character’s physical appearance?

To create an effective character description, it’s all about 1) choosing the right details to convey personality, and 2) choosing the most interesting details. Remember, you don’t need to describe everything. You just need to describe the best things.

For example, depending on which details you choose to focus on, you could convey a wild character (spiked lime-green Mohawk, mermaid tattoo, wearing a live yellow boa constrictor as a scarf), a sloppy character (uncombed hair, wrinkled shirt, crumbs in beard), or a timid character (hunched posture, eyes cast downward, plain/muted clothing).

Notice how I only mentioned a few details but already you probably have a pretty good visual picture of these characters and a feel for who they are. It doesn’t take much! And these types of details tell the reader far more about the character than “he had jet black hair and blue eyes.” Ask yourself what this character is like, and how you can express this visually.

Here are some ideas of what you can describe to get you started:

  • Facial features (face shape, eyes, nose, lips, jaw, chin, brows, ears, cheekbones, facial hair)
  • Hair color, texture, and style
  • Build/body type and height
  • Skin texture (weathered, wrinkled, smooth, hairy, etc.)
  • Skin afflictions (acne, eczema, oily, moles, warts, boils, etc.)
  • Distinguishing features (scars, freckles, birthmarks, tattoos, piercings, etc.)
  • Clothing, accessories, and personal items
  • Voice/accent
  • Gestures, body language, mannerisms

How Do I Describe My Characters? (Tricks for Better Descriptions)

1. Avoid Creating a Grocery List of Physical Traits

Don’t merely list out your character’s physical traits like you’re checking items you need off a list. It will end up sounding like this:

“He was a young man with brown eyes and black hair. He was tall and wore jeans with a red t-shirt.”

Blah! The problem with this sort of description is that it’s completely forgettable and boring. It doesn’t create a vivid image that brings the character to life. It doesn’t reveal anything unique or interesting about him. This description is far too basic; we need to go deeper to create a character that pops off the page. Read on to find out how!

2. Choose Interesting Details

As I already mentioned earlier, you want to choose interesting details about your character that show his personality. Don’t go overboard here—two or three should be plenty. One carefully chosen detail can say far more about your character’s personality than five or ten general details.

3. Use Similes and Metaphors

Using similes and metaphors help to give a more vivid picture and a stronger emotional impression about a character.

For example, instead of “He was tall” a better description would be: “His towering bulk loomed in front of her like a mountain, immovable and impassable.”

The first is just a stated fact. However, the second gives us the feeling that this character is formidable and might pose a problem or obstacle, and the imagery is much stronger.

4. Consider Perception

The description of a character can change depending on who is describing him. For example, a man’s wife will describe him far differently than his enemy.

Consider how your viewpoint character perceives the character being described, and communicate their impression through word choice and the details they focus on.

5. Get Specific

The more specific you can get with your details, the more vivid and interesting your description will be and the more it will reveal about the character.

For example, instead of “He had blue eyes” try, “His eyes were the same turbulent, depthless blue as the sea he had sailed upon since he was a boy.”

The first tells us nothing, while the second suggests the character is dealing with some sort of internal turmoil and also reveals he’s a sailor.

6. Add Movement

People aren’t still-life portraits. When you put your characters into action, it helps bring the description to life.

What is your character doing? Clutching nervously at her purse on a busy street? Tapping her foot as she waits in line for coffee? Hunching her shoulders and ducking her head as she walks through the school halls? Hot wiring a car? Dancing in the middle of the supermarket?

Actions help to reveal the character’s emotions, hint at what’s going on beneath the surface, and characterize her further.  Try to incorporate body language, posture, mannerisms, and other actions into your descriptions.

Let’s Review

Now that you know the why, when, who, what, and how of describing your characters, it’s time to practice writing some descriptions of your own. It’s okay if your descriptions don’t turn out perfect at first—I promise the more you practice, the better you will become!

To help make things easier, I’ve created a collection of FREE worksheets for you to use. You’ll find cheat sheets that list physical details for easy reference and ideas, in-depth description worksheets to help you uncover the most interesting details about your character, and my 5 step no-fail character description template.

Click below to download + print these resources and get started! (No email required! It’s 100% free. Seriously.)

Key Takeaways:

  • Describing a character is more about characterization than flowery language.
  • When you introduce a new character, describe her as soon as possible before the reader creates and grows accustomed to their own image.
  • You don’t have to give a detailed description of every character in your novel, just the important ones.
  • Secondary characters often have more colorful, quirky descriptions to make them more memorable due to their smaller roles in the story.
  • How much you describe is up to you. Some writers choose not to describe their characters at all so the readers can create their own images.
  • You don’t need to describe everything about your character, you just need to describe the best things.
  • Choose details the most interesting details that convey your character’s personality.
  • Ask yourself “What is this character like?” and then express this visually

Additional Resources:

  • 5 Simple Ways to Describe Characters
  • 6 Simple Ways to Write a Physical Description
  • Describing Character’s Clothing
  • Describing Character Mannerisms
  • Master List of Voice Descriptions
  • Describing Skin Tones of People of Color
  • 300+ Words to Describe Skin
  • Great Character Descriptions From Fantasy Books
  • Learn Character Description From the Pros (Examples of Descriptions)
  • Face Claim Directory (Find photos that match your character’s description)

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2 thoughts on “ The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Character Descriptions ”

Hi Kaitlin, great post. I like what you say about choosing physical details based on how they convey personality. Will share with our audience. Thanks for including Now Novel among your additional resources, too.

Thanks, Bridget, I appreciate you sharing! And I was more than happy to include Now Novel, your articles are always great resources! 🙂

Comments are closed.

Aaron Mullins

BESTSELLING BOOKS – AUTHOR RESOURCES

How to Describe People Describing Characters Appearance in Writing Books Stories Authors Guide Descriptive Writing Vivid Memorable Traits Tips

How to Describe People

Unlock the power of words with this guide for authors on crafting remarkable character descriptions . As authors, we understand the profound impact that well-crafted characters can have on a story. The art of describing people goes beyond mere physical appearances; it delves into the intricacies of personalities and emotions that bring narratives to life. That’s why learning how to write physical descriptions of your story characters  is a key author skill.

And to be a great writer ‘ how to describe people in stories ‘ means thinking beyond the basic physical descriptions of height, age, body shape, hair and eye colours. Each of these aspects can show personality and set the tone of a story, so it’s important to learn how to describe a character’s appearance in writing . This writing guide for authors will help you to really bring your unique characters to life and build a clear picture in the minds of your readers, but in a way that doesn’t sound generic and forced.

Bookmark this page and use this handy list of character descriptions to build your perfect protagonists!

Join me as we explore the essential techniques and strategies for authors to master the skill of character descriptions. From creating vivid profiles to weaving character traits seamlessly into your storytelling, we’ll navigate the terrain of effective characterisation and soon you’ll be writing believable characters in your novels.

How to describe people is a list of useful adjectives for describing your story characters, with examples of how to describe their appearance in your story. Words that describe people are used to build physical appearance and reveal character, helping your book to have vivid, memorable characters, through effective character description.

How to Describe a Character’s Physical Features

One tip for writing descriptive characters is to make it match your story. If you’re writing a short story, then you may get away with never revealing some aspects of your character’s physical descriptions, if it isn’t moving the plot forwards. Regardless, you can choose a few key features to emphasise, and perhaps even utilise a well-placed simile to really make the reader’s imagination paint the picture for you.

  • Simile Examples: Her hair was like a flame. She looked as American as apple pie.

When using simile’s and using descriptions in general, it’s important that they match the behaviours and personality of your character, as well as the overall tone of your story, to ensure you are writing believable characters.

To craft compelling character descriptions, you may even want to employ the power of psychology through the use of euphonics to emphasise the perfect description. You can learn more about the importance of euphonics and find guidance on how to use them in  How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide for Authors.

How to Describe People Describing Characters Appearance in Writing Books Stories Authors Guide Descriptive Writing Vivid Memorable Traits Tips

Tips to Describe Characters in Your Writing

So what are some writing tips to slip these character descriptions into our books in a natural way? If you’re writing from a first person perspective, one descriptive writing technique is to have the narrator ‘speak their mind’ regarding particular looks or traits, passing comment on either themselves or another character.

  • First Person Narrator : I’ve always been proud of my soft blonde hair.

Another way to write effective character descriptions is to reveal physical characteristics in a natural way while describing your character’s actions. This can be either physical traits (such as hairstyle) or the way a character moves that gives descriptions of their body type.

  • Describing Actions : She ducked under the archway, knocking loose strands of her high, tight bun. 
  • Describing Actions : His height was accentuated by his stiff gait.

A great tip for characters traits in fiction writing, to prevent writing from sounding like a news bulletin, is to spread the description throughout different parts of your book. Perhaps give them a key feature, then a bit of dialogue, then an action which reveals more. This way, when you’re writing a vivid character profile, the story doesn’t pause to describe the character, the description itself becomes part of the unfolding story. All you need to do is give the readers enough information that they can hold a current picture in their mind.

How to Describe People Describing Characters Appearance in Writing Books Stories Authors Guide Descriptive Writing Vivid Memorable Traits Tips

How To Describe People in Stories

I have provided a list of examples of how to describe people in stories, split by different parts of the body. These are generally the most common descriptions, as full lists would be huge, but they can be a starting point for crafting your own compelling character descriptions.

How to Describe Body Shape

A great characterisation tip for authors is: when describing the body focus on both body-type and posture. What it looks like and how they are using it.

  • Describe Characters’ Body : big, little, large, small, fat, thin, bulky, skinny, plump, lean, fine, chunky, solid, muscular, athletic, flabby, saggy, standing, sitting, reaching, resting, arching, walking, jogging, running, hunching, bending, stretching, leaning

How to Describe Faces

Possibly the most important feature to describe is the face, as it’s able to convey the most emotion and intent of your character. It’s essential that writers and readers get this part of the character descriptions clear in their mind, if they want to create memorable characters.

  • Character Face Shapes : round, square, oval, heart-shaped, triangular, diamond, pear, oblong
  • Describe Character’s Face : fine, full, baby-faced, fresh, chiselled, thin, wide, furrowed, craggy, sculpted, weather-beaten, dimpled, handsome, gaunt, sweet, anxious, boyish, youthful, clean-shaven, intelligent, hard, blocky, angelic, watchful, dubious, impassioned, bestial, rugged, strong, ordinary, unreadable

How to Describe Skin

Complexion is your skin colour and what it looks like. When learning how to describe people in stories, you should practice describing a diverse range of characters.

  • Describe Character’s Skin : tanned, wrinkled, freckled, rosy-cheeked, fresh, smooth, creamy, pale, glowing, rough, leathered, brown, dark, ebony

How to Describe Eyes

When thinking of character description examples for authors, we have to remember that most of our information about the world is received through the eyes. And most of our reaction to the world can also be told through the eyes. Remember to describe colour, shape and expressions in your vivid character profiles.

  • Describe Character’s Eyes : small, large, bulging, deep-set, teary, hollow, sad, gentle, bright, twinkling, warm, sleepy, brown, blue, green, hazel, dark, haunted

How to Describe People Describing Characters Appearance in Writing Books Stories Authors Guide Descriptive Writing Vivid Memorable Traits Tips

How to Describe Noses

Writing believable characters in novels includes going into depth about every aspect of your character. The nose is an excellent body part for creating a unique look and personality for your characters.

  • Describe Character’s Nose : bridge, nostril, flared, hooked, wrinkling, twitching, aquiline, red, puffy, crooked, flat, enormous, pointed, thick, veined

How to Describe Ears

To write effective character descriptions, you can play around with descriptions of a character’s ears, as they receive dialogue, so can convey emotional meaning through interactions.

  • Describe Character’s Ears : pulling/tugging on their ear, covering their ears, tucking their hair behind their ears, hear their pulse, battered, attentive, bandaged, bleeding, buzzing, dainty, elfin, floppy, earringed, pierced, comical, deaf, keen, open
“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” — Leigh Brackett

How to Describe Mouth and Lips

Like the eyes, describing the mouth relates to both shape and expressions, and is a key character trait for fiction writing.

  • Describe Character’s Mouth : full, thin, pursed, puckered, pouting, laughing, smiling, curled, sneer, toothless, gappy, cruel, kind

How to Describe Hair

You can describe hair by its colour, texture and style when describing characters in your stories.

  • Describe Character’s Hair Colour : black, brown, blonde, red, auburn, ash, honey, golden, platinum, strawberry, silver, white, grey, salt-and-pepper
  • Describe Character’s Hair Style : long, short, shoulder-length, ponytail, bun, ringlets, bangs, slick, pigtails, bob
  • Describe Character’s Hair Texture :  shiny, spiky, fuzzy, wavy, parted, neat, cascading, curly, dull, frizzy, wild, straight, shaved, thick, thin, full, fine, bald, dyed, permed

How to Describe Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair

Here are some character description examples for crafting the perfect facial hair.

  • Describe Character’s Facial Hair : beard, sideburns, goatee, moustache, stubble, bushy, shaggy, clean-shaven, smooth, trimmed, whiskers, handlebars, viking

How to Describe People Describing Characters Appearance in Writing Books Stories Authors Guide Descriptive Writing Vivid Memorable Traits Tips

How to Describe Clothing

Whether you’re a seasoned novelist or an aspiring writer, you will know the importance of crafting remarkable character descriptions through the choice of clothing. There’s obviously a huge choice of clothing options available for your character. I always use a character template before I start writing, which captures what each character is wearing. This ensures it fits into my plot, making logical sense in relation to the character’s personality and the situation they find themselves in.

I divide clothing into tops, bottoms, outer, footwear and accessories. I then decide what fabric and other materials each item is made from, as well as patterns and textures.

  • Describe Character’s Style : smart, scruffy, elegant, torn, stylish, rough, relaxed, posh, chic, casual, sharp, disheveled, ripped, faded, badge, worn, new, shiny, soft, knitted, shabby, goth, sporty, wild, over-dressed
  • Describe Character’s Tops : t-shirt, shirt, tank top, polo shirt, jumper, sweater, cardigan, hoodie, V-neck, round-neck, turtleneck, collar, bra
  • Describe Character’s Bottoms : trousers, jeans, pants, boxers, leggings, slacks, jogging bottoms,  sweatpants, overalls, shorts, swimming trunks, knickers
  • Describe Character’s Outerwear : jacket, coat, blazer, dressing gown, bath robe, apron, uniform, costume
  • Describe Character’s Footwear : shoes, trainers, sneakers, sandals, plimsoles, flip-flops, boots, wellies, pumps, heels, socks, stockings, tights, slippers
  • Describe Character’s Accessories : gloves, scarf, hat, baseball cap, bandana, bracelet, earrings, necklace, cufflinks, rings, purse, bag, handbag, glasses, sunglasses, watch, belt
  • Describe Patterns and Fabrics : cotton, acrylic, polyester, denim, tweed, silk, lace, velvet, fleece, wool, leather, stripes, checked, dots, stars, squares, solid block, floral, pastel

I hope these ideas on how to describe people  help you write vivid descriptions and bring your characters to life. They’re just a starting point and you can read many more of them to describe each body part in  How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide for Authors.

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Aaron Mullins ( @DrAaronMullins ) is an award winning, internationally published psychologist and bestselling author. Aaron has over 15 years experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers. He started Birdtree Books Publishing where he worked as Editor-in-Chief, partnered with World Reader Charity and taught Academic Writing at Coventry University. Aaron’s book How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide for Authors has become a staple reference book for writers and those interested in a publishing career. Find out more .

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The Gigantic List of Character Descriptions (70+ examples)

novel writing describing characters

The vast majority of character descriptions are simply lazy.

They recycle typical ideas about hair, eye color, and build, giving you more information about the character’s fitting for a dress or suit than the type of information you need to know them intimately.

The first thing you should do when describing a character is to pick a category that isn’t so overused. Such as trying to describe: 

Describing your character in an innovative way will help retain the reader’s interest. You want your reader to be asking questions about this character, to not only learn something about them but to create mystery. What made them like this? How long have they been this way? Is there someone currently after them or is this paranoia because of a past experience?  Questions like these are what keeps the reader reading. 

Not only physical descriptions are needed. Consider: “How is this person viewed by another character?” Do they seem dangerous, alluring, secretive, suspicious? The way another character views someone else gives insight about them as well. Are they attracted? Repulsed? Curious? 

Another thing to take notice of is the type of person they are, despite their appearance.

  • How do they think?
  • What do they feel?
  • How do they view/react to certain situations compared to how others would?
  • What is their mental state?

Here is a list of examples of brilliant character descriptions to give you an idea and help you come up with your own:

3 Categories: Modern Literary, Literature, Popular

novel writing describing characters

Modern Literary

1. vladimir nabokov, lolita.

” … Her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever.”

2. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

” … in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.” 

3. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

“Phyllida’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.”

4. China Miéville, This Census-Taker

“His hand was over his eyes. He looked like a failed soldier. Dirt seemed so worked into him that the lines of his face were like writing.”

5. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

“And then the hot air congealed in front of him, and out of it materialized a transparent man of most bizarre appearance. A small head with a jockey cap, a skimpy little checked jacket that was made out of air … The man was seven feet tall, but very narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin, and his face, please note, had a jeering look about it.”

6. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

“Mama BekwaTataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left.”

7. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.”

8. A.S. Byatt, Possession

“He was a compact, clearcut man, with precise features, a lot of very soft black hair, and thoughtful dark brown eyes. He had a look of wariness, which could change when he felt relaxed or happy, which was not often in these difficult days, into a smile of amused friendliness and pleasure which aroused feelings of warmth, and something more, in many women.”

9. Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

“He did not look like anything special at all.”

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novel writing describing characters

10. Henry Lawson, The Bush Girl

“ Grey eyes that grow sadder than sunset or rain, f ond heart that is ever more true F irm faith that grows firmer for watching in vain —  She’ll wait by the sliprails for you.”

11. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

“I am an invisible man. 
No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: 
Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.
 I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -
- and I might even be said to possess a mind. 
I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.”

12. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

13. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

“My brother Ben’s face, thought Eugene, is like a piece of slightly yellow ivory; his high white head is knotted fiercely by his old man’s scowl; his mouth is like a knife, his smile the flicker of light across a blade. His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light: it is delicate and fierce, and scowls beautifully forever, and when he fastens his hard white fingers and his scowling eyes upon a thing he wants to fix, he sniffs with sharp and private concentration through his long, pointed nose…his hair shines like that of a young boy—it is crinkled and crisp as lettuce.”

14. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books

“A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.”

15. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“[Miss Havisham] had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker…”

16. John Knowles, A Separate Peace

“For such and extraordinary athlete—even as a Lower Middler Phineas had been the best athlete in the school—he was not spectacularly built. He was my height—five feet eight and a half inches…He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, a galling ten pounds more than I did, which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength.”

17. Ambrose Bierce, Chickamauga

“-the dead body of a woman—the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.”

18. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“…your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

19. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl – a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes – just rags, that was all. He had one ankle resting on t’other knee; the boot on that foot was busted, and two of his toes stuck through, and he worked them now and then. His hat was laying on the floor – an old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid.”  

20. William Golding, Lord of the Flies

“Inside the floating cloak he was tall, thin, and bony; and his hair was red beneath the black cap. His face was crumpled and freckled, and ugly without silliness.”

21. Jane Austen, Persuasion

“Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character: vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth, and at fifty-four was still a very fine man. . . .”

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22. Andrew Lang, The Crimson Fairy Book

“When the old king saw this he foamed with rage, stared wildly about, flung himself on the ground and died.”

23. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“He was commonplace in complexion, in feature, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold, and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant and heavy as an axe… Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy — a smile — not a smile — I remember it, but I can’t explain.” 

24. Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

“His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.”

25. Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

“He followed with his eyes her long slender figure as she threaded her way in and out of the crowd, sinuously, confidingly, producing a penny from one lad’s elbow, a threepenny-bit from between another’s neck and collar, half a crown from another’s hair, and always repeating in that flute-like voice of hers: “Well, this is rather queer!””

26. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

“He had a long chin and big rather prominent teeth, just covered, when he was not talking, by his full, floridly curved lips. Old, young? Thirty? Fifty? Fifty-five? It was hard to say.”  

27. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

“Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too.  I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her.”

28. D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

“But her will had left her. A strange weight was on her limbs. She was giving way. She was giving up…”

29. Henry James, The Aspern Papers

“Her face was not young, but it was simple; it was not fresh, but it was mild. She had large eyes which were not bright, and a great deal of hair which was not ‘dressed,’ and long fine hands which were–possibly–not clean.”   

30. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni Book One: The Musician

“She is the spoiled sultana of the boards. To spoil her acting may be easy enough,—shall they spoil her nature? No, I think not. There, at home, she is still good and simple; and there, under the awning by the doorway,—there she still sits, divinely musing. How often, crook-trunked tree, she looks to thy green boughs; how often, like thee, in her dreams, and fancies, does she struggle for the light,—not the light of the stage-lamps.”

31. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

“Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses…” 

32. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“Though every vestige of her dress was burnt, as they told me, she still had something of her old ghastly bridal appearance; for, they had covered her to the throat with white cotton-wool, and as she lay with a white sheet loosely overlying that, the phantom air of something that had been and was changed, was still upon her.” 

33. Rudyard Kipling, Many Inventions

“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.”

34. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“He was sunshine most always-I mean he made it seem like good weather.” 

35. Hugh Lofting, The Story of Doctor Dolittle

“For a long time he said nothing. He kept as still as a stone. He hardly seemed to be breathing at all. When at last he began to speak, it sounded almost as though he were singing, sadly, in a dream.”

36. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”

37. Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

“He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality, for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing.”

novel writing describing characters

38. Jamie McGuire, Beautiful Oblivion

“Her long platinum blond hair fell in loose waves past her shoulders, with a few black peekaboo strands. She wore a black minidress and combat boots.”

39. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

“His long, long hair wafted around him like black smoke, its tendrils curling and moving of their own volition. His cloak — or perhaps that was his hair too — shifted as if in an unfelt wind.” 

40. M.L. LeGette, The Orphan and the Thief

“A creature–a frightfully, awful creature–was mere feet from her. Its eyes were enormous, the size of goose eggs and milky white. Its gray, slippery skin was stretched taut upon its face. Its mouth was wide and full of needle teeth. Its hands rested on the rock, hands that were webbed and huge with each finger ending in a sharp, curved nail. It was as tall as a human man, yet oddly shrunken and hunched.”  

 41. Amber Dawn, Sub Rosa

“When he did appear his eyes were as brown as I remembered, pupils flecked with gold like beach pebbles.” 

 42. Julia Stuart, The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise

“His hair had been grown to counteract its unequivocal retreat from the top of his head, and was fashioned into a mean, frail ponytail that hung limply down his back. Blooms of acne highlighted his vampire-white skin.” 

43. James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain

“His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial features of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder.” 

44. Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

“I vividly remembered the flat black color of his eyes the last time he glared at me – the color was striking against the background of his pale skin and his auburn hair. Today, his eyes were a completely different color: a strange ocher, darker than butterscotch, but with the same golden tone.” 

45. Brian Malloy, Twelve Long Months 

“Whith her hair dyed bright red, she looks like Ronald McDonald’s post-menopausal sister. Who has let herself go.”     (This is one of my favorites, because I find it ridiculously funny)

46. Joan Johnston, No Longer A Stranger

“Actually, Reb had the same flawless complexion as her sister– except for the freckles. Her straight, boyishly cut hair fell onto her brow haphazardly and hid beautiful arched brows that framed her large, expressive eyes. She had a delicate, aquiline nose, but a stubborn mouth and chin.” 

47. Brian Morton, Breakable You

“Without her glasses Vivian did look a little frightening. She had tight sinewy strappy muscles and a face that was hardened and almost brutal – a face that might have been chiseled by a sculptor who had fallen out of love with the idea of beauty.”

48. Anne Rice, The Vampire Armand

“I saw my Master had adorned himself in a thick tunic and beautiful dark blue doublet which I’d hardly noticed before. He wore soft sleek dark blue gloves over his hands, gloves which perfectly cleaved to his fingers, and legs were covered by thick soft cashmere stockings all the way to his beautiful pointed shoes.” 

49. Becca Fitzpatrick, Black Ice

“His brown hair was cropped, and it showed off the striking s ymmetry of his face. With the sun at his back, shadows marked the depressions beneath his cheekbones. I couldn’t tell the color of his eyes, but I hoped they were brown…The guy had straight, sculptured shoulders that made me think swimmer …” 

50. E.C. Sheedy, Killing Bliss

“He stood, which put him eye to eye with the dark-haired woman whose brilliant, burning gaze poured into his worthless soul like boiling tar, whose mouth frothed with fury–and whose hand now curled, knuckles white, around a steak knife.”  (The author gives a lot of details about the characters emotions, but there is not one specific detail about neither of their appearances. Use this as an example of how physical appearances aren’t always the most important thing.)

51. James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain

“His wiry gray and black hair was dripping with sweat, and his face was the color and texture of old paper. He looked up at me from where he was seated on his bunk, and his eyes were hot and bright and moisture was beaded across his upper lip. He held a Camel cigarette between his yellowed fingers, and the floor around his feet was covered with cigarette butts.”  

52. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

“She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound.”

53. Becca Fitzpatrick, Hush, Hush

“He was abominable…and the most alluring, tortured soul I’d ever met.”   (This isn’t describing him physically, but it is giving insight to how the main character views him)

54. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by  a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes,  glinting like black beetles under all the hair.” 

55. Anne Rice, Violin

“I deliberately thought of him, my violinist, point by point, that with his long narrow nose and such deep-set eyes he might have been less seductive to someone else–perhaps. But then perhaps to no one. What a well-formed mouth he had, and how the narrow eyes, the detailed deepened lids gave him such a range of expression, to open his gaze wide, or sink in cunning street.”

56. Kevin Brooks, Lucas

“As I’ve already said, the memory of Lucas’s walk brings a smile to my face. It’s an incredibly vivid memory, and if I close my eyes I can see it now. An easygoing lope. Nice and steady. Not too fast and not too slow, Fast enough to get somewhere, but not too fast to miss anything. Bouncy, alert, resolute, without any concern and without vanity. A walk that both belonged to and was remote from everything around it.” 

57. Anne Rice, Violin

“And she looked the way he had always hated her–dreamy and sloppy, and sweet, with glasses falling down, smoking a cigarette, with ashes on her coat, but full of love, her body heavy and shapeless with age.” 

58. Kevin Brooks, Lucas

“As we drew closer, the figure became clearer, It was a young man, or a boy, dressed loosely in a drab green T-shirt and baggy green trousers. He had a green army jacket tied around his waist and a green canvas bag slung over his shoulder. The only non-green thing about him was the pair of scruffy black walking boots on his feet. Although he was on the small side, he wasn’t as slight as I first thought. He wasn’t exactly muscular, but he wasn’t weedy-looking either…there was an air of hidden strength about him, a graceful strength that showed in his balance, the way he held himself, the way he walked….” 

59. Iris Johansen, The Face of Deception

“Kinky tousled curls, only a minimum of makeup, large brown eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses. There was a world of character in that face, more than enough to make her fascinating-looking instead of just attractive.” 

60. Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before the War

“Brian Paulson was rake thin, with smooth hair the color of tin and a wet fleshy handshake…. His greeting was a nod and a blink, befitting someone who’d stepped out of the shadows only momentarily.” 

61. Gena Showalter, The Darkest Night

“Pale hair fell in waves to his shoulders, framing a face mortal females considered a sensual feast. They didn’t know the man was actually a devil in angel’s skin. They should have, though. He practically glowed with irreverence, and there was an unholy gleam in his green eyes that proclaimed he would laugh in your face while cutting out your heat. Or laugh in your face while you cut out his heart.”

62. Sam Byers, Idiopathy 

“Now here he was: sartorially, facially and interpersonally sharpened; every inch the beatific boffin.”

63. Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven Boys

“As always, there was an all-American war hero look to him, coded in his tousled brown hair, his summer-narrowed hazel eyes, the straight nose that ancient Anglo-Saxons had graciously passed on to him. Everything about him suggested valor and power and a firm handshake.” 

64. J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

“The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.” 

65. Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove

“People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.”  

66. Frank Herbert, Dune

“…a girl-child who appeared to be about four years old. She wore a black aba, the hood thrown back to reveal the attachments of a stillsuit hanging free at her throat. Her eyes were Fremen blue, staring out of a soft, round face. She appeared completely unafraid and there was a look to her stare that made the Baron feel uneasy for no reason he could explain.” 

67. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

“Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain.”

68. Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

“He had his head in his hands, and his tie looked like it had been put on by an enemy, and was strangling him.”

69. Graham Joyce, Some Kind of Fairy Tale

“Peter was a gentle, red-haired bear of a man. Standing at six-four in his socks, he moved everywhere with a slight and nautical sway, but even though he was broad across the chest there was something centered and reassuring about him, like an old ship’s mast cut from a single timber.”

70. Brad Parks, The Girl Next Door

“…in addition to being fun, smart, and quick-witted—in a feisty way that always kept me honest—she’s quite easy to look at, with never-ending legs, toned arms, curly brown hair, and eyes that tease and smile and glint all at the same time.” 

71. Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before the War

“Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.”

72. Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

“Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.”

73. Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

“I thought she was so beautiful. I figured she was the kind of woman who could make buffalo walk on up to her and give up their lives. She wouldn’t have needed to hunt. Every time we went walking, birds would follow us around. Hell, tumbleweeds would follow us around.”

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26 comments

woowwwwwwwwie

Love the compilation. Thank you for doing this

This is a great compilation! My students are working on writing characters right now, so I’m having them look through your list to see examples of a job well done 🙂 Thanks!

Thanks I’m using these for students to make character drawings from

This is really helpful ! Love it !

Do you have a way, where you could put the characters physical traits in this website?

Thank you for the awesome list. You should add this one; it’s from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, was a man of rugged countenance, that was never lightened by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.” There’s more after, but I thought this was a good description.

And this one: “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering, and somewhat broken voice: all these were points against him, but all of them together could not describe the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing, and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him.”

The quote that stood out to me the most was the quote from ‘The Census Taker’. That quote captured the characters feelings so well. The author was able to compare in self worth by saying it was as dirt, so much so that the dirt was written in his skin. I have never seen self worth and failure described as part of a person’s face.

Thank you. I echo Chris’s comment Wowwwwww and add a few!!!!

Wonderful! Reading these enabled me to rewrite the descriptions for my two leading characters.

Thank you for this, very helpful! I don’t know if this is really related, but I’m writing a story including a mean girl who bullies the main character (also a girl). I’m struggling to write what the mean girl uses to bully the main character – what I end up coming up with is way too mean or unreal, etc.

Blinded by tears, she could hear the haze of pink shout, “See, poor baby cries. Great actress, dear. Why do you waste your talent on us, here?”

great great any book for description of physical appearance in narrative

Great list. And I have one to add. It’s from Michael Moorcock, riding the new wave of British sci-fi back in the 1960s. He’s been a favorite of mine for decades. The passage is from “Elric of Melniboné:”

“It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.”

Thanks for this – very useful compilation for teaching – makes life so much easier! And helps in my writing, to look at expressions and word arrangements… I notice how some writers seem so good in visual description, and some others seem to be much better at character expressions..

wowzers!!! this is so cool!

I planned to just read a few, but I couldn’t stop reading. These are awesome! Thank you.

“Character Description” on The John Fox’s blog is a treasure trove of valuable tips and techniques for crafting compelling characters. The blog explores the art of painting vivid and multi-dimensional personas, adding depth to storytelling. Aspiring writers will find this guide indispensable for creating memorable characters that resonate with readers.

holy MOLY, thank you!

I liked them

wow thanks you have really helped me but can you put something to describe a character that is a tyrant please? that would really help

Absolutely remarkable. So very helpful in every since of the word.

OH HELLL YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

novel writing describing characters

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It’s a guide to writing the pivotal moments of your novel.

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  • Nail chapter endings
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  • Describe a character for the first time
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novel writing describing characters

Tone, Timbre, Pitch: How to Describe Your Character's Voices

novel writing describing characters

One of the biggest challenges in writing a novel is ensuring your characters sound different from one another. You don’t want carbon copy characters who all talk the same. 

After all, reading isn’t a visual medium, so while you can use descriptions to differentiate characters, in the end, your readers are really going to differentiate them in how they speak and act. Your readers are building these characters in their heads, so you want to offer them as many cues to tell them apart as possible. It will make for a better reading experience and ensure your characters are more memorable. 

If this sounds hard, maybe it is a little, but it’s one of those things you’ll get better at with practice. And simply understanding that the concept of differentiating voices exists is already half the battle won. 

The good news is I’m going to help you break it down a little so this challenge feels a little more manageable. In this article we’ll talk about: 

  • Components of voice
  • Different types of voices

novel writing describing characters

Components of Voice

First, let's talk about what the components of voice are. Just to be clear, we aren’t talking about your writing voice, which is a term you’ve likely heard before. Writing voice is about how you as an author express yourself on the page. And you can read more about developing and finding your author voice in this article . 

No, what we’re talking about is literally how a character speaks. As in, what is their literal voice? This is an important distinction for the purposes of this discussion. 

This refers to the “quality” of someone’s voice. Someone might speak in a shocked or enthusiastic tone. Or their tone might be somber or sarcastic. You can imagine how making use of tone can be used to convey not only the mood of your character, but the story itself. 

This is a word that is often used to refer to musical instruments and the sound a particular instrument makes. You can use timbre for your characters as well. Timbre also refers to the specific texture or color of a voice. 

I know that sounds a little out there, but think about descriptions you’ve heard where this might work. His voice was like honey. Her voice sounded like smoke. Their voice reminded me of velvet-soft petals. When you put it like that, see how you can make use of timbre to convey how a character sounds. Even without hearing it, you get a sense of what someone with a voice like spun sugar sounds like. 

This refers to the highness or lowness of a voice. This is a great one used to help describe your character. You can expect that a small child is going to have a higher pitch than a grown man, for example. 

You can also use pitch to convey personality. Someone who is stoic and calm can have a low voice versus someone who’s excited and energetic who has a high voice. Or you can flip those expectations and really mess everyone up. 

This one is probably obvious. Volume is literally how loudly or quietly someone speaks. You can use this to convey character personality—a very confident character might speak loudly while a nervous and shy one speaks quietly. 

You can also use volume to convey the tone of the scene. If things are tense and your character is at risk of discovery by their enemy, then obviously they’re going to be speaking more quietly than a character trying to get the attention of a giant with the purpose of creating a distraction. 

Rate is the speed at which someone talks. If your character is a fast talker, this might suggest they’re impatient or lack good listening skills. Maybe they’re not particularly honest and like to speak quickly with the hopes that people won’t hear everything they’re saying. A fast talker is sometimes a nervous person who wants to get the words out quickly. 

Conversely, a slow talker might be a mentor type who has endless wisdom to share but is in no hurry to get there. A slow talker might be a character who thinks the person they’re dealing with isn’t very bright and is being a little condescending. You can also use slow speech to convey information that is extremely important and your character is taking their time to ensure every detail is accurate. 

The world is obviously made up of so many people from so many places, and that means we all have different accents, whether we’re speaking in our native tongues or not. You can, of course, use an accent to convey where someone is from, their class, or use it to convey the period in history that your story is taking place. 

To convey an accent, you can go the route of simply stating “this person has an upper crust British accent” or you can take it a step further and attempt to write the accent using visual text cues. We aren’t going to go into it in depth here, but there are resources out there on how to write a southern accent or Scottish brogue, for example. 

A word of caution, though. If you’re going the route of trying to write an accent through your dialogue, be mindful that you don’t go overboard. It can be really difficult for a reader to immerse themselves into your story if they’re spending too much effort trying to figure out what the heck your character is even saying. Less is more in this case. 

And finally, be very mindful of the accents you use and how you convey them. Going too far with accents can be at best annoying and, at worst, outright offensive to those whose real life accents mirror the ones you’re attempting to convey. Be careful you're not creating harmful stereotypes or caricatures of the people you’re writing. 

novel writing describing characters

Different types of voice

Below is a list of different voice types and how you can make use of them. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it should give you some ideas on how different voices can be used to demonstrate various personalities and moods. Voice isn’t just about the sound you hear but also the emotion it conveys. 

  • Adenoidal/Nasally - A voice where the sound seems to come through the nose. Often used to convey someone who is annoying. 
  • Appealing - A voice that suggests someone wants to be helpful or useful. Might be used when someone wants to win another person over. 
  • Breathy - A voice that sounds like someone is out of breath. Could be used after intense physical exertion or used when writing amorous scenes. 
  • Brittle - A voice that sounds hard and worn. Could be used for a character who is experiencing their lowest moment or is very angry. 
  • Croaky - A voice that sounds like someone has a sore throat or is having trouble speaking. Could be used for a character who hasn’t spoken in a long time or is ill. 
  • Dead - A voice that conveys no feeling or emotion. Used for characters who want to intimidate or for a character who has lost everything and feels they have nothing else to lose. Also a great one for a villain or evil character. 
  • Disembodied - A voice that’s coming from a source you can’t see. Good for using in ghost stories or for characters experiencing voices in their heads. 
  • Flat - A voice that lacks intonation and doesn’t go up and down. Might be used for a character trying to show no emotion or for one experiencing trauma or sadness. 
  • Grating - A voice that is unpleasant or annoying. Can be used to show an irritating character or even the mood of another character who perceives every voice around them to be grating. 
  • Gravelly -  A voice that is low and rough. Could be used for a grumpy character or during an intense moment. 
  • Gruff - Similar to gravelly, but a bit more impatient. Might also be used for a grumpy character or to convey irritation or frustration.
  • Guttural - This is a sound made deep in the back of your throat and could be used to show a character that is struggling with anger or frustration. Or perhaps arousal. 
  • High-pitched - A voice that is shrill and grating. Might be used on a character that is meant to be annoying or one that is trying to raise an alarm. 
  • Hoarse - A voice that is low or rough, usually due to a sore throat or a long period of screaming. Could be used for a character that has just undergone a long stretch of torture. 
  • Honeyed -  A voice that is sweet and mellifluous. Could be used to convey false niceness in a character or used to show a soft and kind character. 
  • Husky - A husky voice is deep and sounds hoarse, often in an attractive way. A great one for romance novels and romantic moments. 
  • Low - Either a deep voice or someone speaking quietly. Can be used to convey personality through someone who has trouble speaking up or the mood when your characters need to be stealthy. 
  • Matter-of-fact - A way of speaking that is plain and simple. Could be used for a character who’s trying to break a hard truth or is fed up. Also can be used to convey a character’s personality. 
  • Modulated - A voice that is controlled and pleasant to listen to. A good way to show a specific type of character’s temperament. 
  • Monotonous -  A voice that doesn’t change in loudness, pitch, or intonation, making it very boring to listen to. Could be used to convey a dry character or a boring moment for one of your characters. 
  • Orotund - A voice that is loud and clear. Could be used when very important information is conveyed or to show a character who is confident in themselves. 
  • Penetrating - A voice that is too high or loud to the point that it makes you uncomfortable. Could be used to show your character’s dealing with an antagonist or illustrate an overbearing character. 
  • Plummy - A voice that conveys a sense of them being “upper class”. Often associated with a British accent. Could be used to show a snobby or snooty character. 
  • Raucous -  A voice that is loud but with a rough edge. Could be used to convey the personality of a character or the mood of an event, like a party. 
  • Ringing -  A very loud and clear voice—good for the herald who’s come to bear some news. 
  • Rough - A voice that is hard and hard to listen to. Could be used for an evil or angry character.
  • Shrill -  A loud, high, and piercing voice that is unpleasant to listen to. Good for annoying characters or an unpleasant situation for your protagonist. 
  • Silvery - A voice that has a clear, light, pleasant sound. Could be used for an ethereal type of character, like an angel or a faerie. 
  • Singsong - A voice that rises and falls in a pleasing and musical way. A good one for your local bard or a character with a pleasant personality. Or perhaps an annoying character depending on how you frame it. 
  • Small - A voice that is gentle, timid, or quiet. Great for conveying an insecure or scared character. 
  • Smoky - A voice that conveys sexual attraction, sometimes for a mysterious character. Great for your cloaked or hooded character in the shadows or your hot love interest. 
  • Softly spoken - A voice that’s quiet or gentle. Good for a soft character. 
  • Stentorian - Someone who’s loud and severe. A good one to help convey a character’s personality. 
  • Strident -  Another variation of a loud voice, but in this case, it’s also specifically unpleasant. Can also be used to convey a specific character trait. 
  • Taut - A voice that is clipped or strained and can be used to show someone who is either scared or angry. 
  • Thick - A voice that sounds unclear due to emotion. Perfect for sad scenes and powerful moments. 
  • Thin -  A high voice without much substance. Might convey someone who is sick or injured or could be used to show an unpleasant character. 
  • Throaty - A growly type of voice that comes from deep in your throat. Great to use for angry characters or love scenes. 
  • Tight - Similar to taut with clipped words that can be used to demonstrate irritation or anger. 
  • Toneless - A voice that shows no emotion. Can be used for a character who is trying to put on a brave face or an evil character who truly feels no emotion. 
  • Tremulous - A voice that lacks steadiness due to fear or excitement. 

Non-Vocal Communication

Don’t forget that not all “voices” are auditory. You can also make use of body language and sign language to convey someone’s voice. 

Maybe you have a character that cannot speak and only uses hand signals or written notes to communicate. In this case, think about how you can use that to convey their personality and mood. You’ll want to pair that “voice” with their expressions and their body language to get the message across. 

Now that you’ve given unique voices to all your characters, it’s time to read up on other ways to make your characters shine. Check out our resources at DabbleU , where we’re creating new articles every week to help you write your best novel. 

Nisha J Tuli is a YA and adult fantasy and romance author who specializes in glitter-strewn settings and angst-filled kissing scenes. Give her a feisty heroine, a windswept castle, and a dash of true love and she’ll be lost in the pages forever. When Nisha isn’t writing, it’s probably because one of her two kids needs something (but she loves them anyway). After they’re finally asleep, she can be found curled up with her Kobo or knitting sweaters and scarves, perfect for surviving a Canadian winter.

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Describing characters: How to describe faces imaginatively

Describing characters imaginatively is an essential skill when writing fiction. It helps readers to invest in your characters’ storylines and experiences if they feel real. Read on for five tips for describing characters’ faces:

  • Post author By Bridget McNulty
  • 17 Comments on Describing characters: How to describe faces imaginatively

Describing characters: 5 tips for describing fictional characters

Describing characters imaginatively is an essential skill when writing fiction. It helps readers to invest in your characters’ storylines and experiences if they feel real. Read on for five tips for describing characters’ faces:

Describing characters: 5 tips for drawing faces with words

Ready to write great characters? Here’s how to make sure each character feels real and distinctive:

Tip 1: Use gestures more than easy adjectives

Beginning writers will often use adjectives for specific emotions to describe faces: ‘Her eyes were angry’ or ‘his mouth was mean’. Because adjectives that use abstract words for specific emotions don’t show the reader the character’s face, they tell rather than show emotion. Ask yourself: What makes the character’s eyes seem angry? Does she glare, unblinking? Are her brows knitted together? Our faces are mobile and you can use this movement to convey a character’s mental or emotional state lucidly.

Instead of ‘Her face held an amused expression’ think of what makes a face have this appearance and try to describe the visual elements of this amusement. You could describe a slight smile that seems to teeter on the edge of a loud cackle or a single-sided smile, a curled lip that could indicate sardonic, begrudging amusement.

The eyes are elements of character description that budding writers often rely on too heavily:

Tip 2: Avoid descriptions of eyes that are generic and say nothing about your character

face

Description of eye colour is often used in place of eye descriptions that give characters more personality or individuality. ‘He was a blue-eyed surfer’ doesn’t tell the reader much about the character other than the surface physical appearance. Instead, focus on how the eyes can say more about a person: their emotions, passions or attitudes. An example: ‘His blue eyes were often red underneath, whether from the constant irritation of salt water or the countless sleepless nights he spent at the beachside bar, she didn’t know.’

Some common clichés to avoid in describing eyes:

  • Changes of colour designating changing emotions: In real life people’s eyes don’t change colour like mood rings. ‘Her usually blue eyes were now a steely grey’ reads as strange because it doesn’t ring true
  • Overworn similes and metaphors: Similes such as ‘her eyes grew wide as plates’ or ‘his eyes bulged in anger’ are overused and (especially in the case of the former) exaggerations. Sometimes, instead of making faces your first stop for describing emotions, it’s wiser to involve the whole body in descriptions. Bring everything together – posture, voice and movement – so that your characters don’t float through your novel as disembodied, over-animated faces.

Even though facial movement can be effective for describing your characters’ inner thoughts and feelings and outward expressions of these, facial tics should also be handled with care:

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Get a practical workbook with description exercises, examples plus videos to level up your characters.

Tip 3: Aim for natural use of facial tics and expressions

Overuse of facial tics is a common pitfall. Often (in fantasy novels especially) writers use the stock character of a stern female character who raises one eyebrow archly, continuously. Too many characters raise eyebrows to show disdain too many times in too many books. Think about people you know personally – how often do they perform the facial gestures you describe? Raising the entire forehead is far more common an expression of questioning surprise, for example, than raising just one eyebrow.

Other facial tic clichés:

  • Eyes scrunched tight in anticipation of something bad: Again, body language is often stronger than facial description for these scenarios. For example, if a character is expecting a beating, their body is where they will imagine approaching pain and thus it is where this expectation will register first
  • Wrinkling your nose:  Ask yourself how often people do actually wrinkle their noses. Besides the nose being connected to surrounding facial tissue, someone is probably more likely to hold their nose closed when noticing a bad smell, or they might breath through their mouth until the odour has passed

There are other facial tics to avoid. A good exercise to become skilled at describing faces is to watch a TV series or movie featuring good actors and observe and note how each type of emotion or scenario changes a character’s face. Observe colour, movement and anything that is particularly striking or individualistic about a character’s expression. One person’s lip might protrude a little when holding back tears, while another might remain resolutely tight-lipped. These small details enrich facial description.

Tip 4: Be inventive in the similes you use to describe characters

Instead of relying on clichés to describe characters’ faces, think up similes that convey something essential about your characters and mark them as unique. In Charles Dickens’  Great Expectations , the clerk Wemmick is described as having a mouth like a postbox, a ‘post-office mouth’ that is used for sorting and relaying information. The postal metaphor for Wemmick conveys a lot about the character: The mechanical, practical nature with which he goes about his professional life as well as how his working life asks so much commitment of him, even down to affecting his physical appearance.

Be an inventor like Dickens in describing characters’ faces. Think about not just the appearance of their facial elements and structure but how they use them and what causes them to use their features in this identifying way. You can also find more articles on describing character at our character writing hub.

To make your characters’ faces vivid and lifelike, also think about their attitudes to their faces, the features they like or dislike or the care they take (or don’t take) over how their faces appear:

Tip 5: Combine facial description with behavioural description

emotion

One of the useful elements of describing characters and using their faces in description is that you can show cause and effect in a character’s life. A character who is a night owl or is up awake fretting for a long period of time will come to have dark circles under their eyes. Don’t just say that a character has dark circles: Instead show how the character’s behaviour starts to affect the way their face appears.

To illustrate: You could say ‘she had dark circles beneath her eyes’, which suggests tiredness and lack of sleep, or you could say ‘the circles beneath her eyes darkened with each night she stayed up to fill out job applications’. In the latter, direct behavioral cause and physical result are clear.

Another advantage of the latter type of facial description is that it shows readers that characters’ faces, like the rest of them, do not need to be static and mask-like but can and should alter with time according to their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Want to write better characters?  Start creating vivid characters and get feedback on their portrayal from other members of the Now Novel community now.

Image from here , here and here .

Related Posts:

  • Describing characters' first appearances: 6 tips
  • Character posture: How to describe characters' bearing
  • How to describe hands: 6 ways to make characters real
  • Tags character description , how to describe eyes , writing description

novel writing describing characters

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

17 replies on “Describing characters: How to describe faces imaginatively”

[…] Talking about your character: Face […]

Brilliant article! Your post reminds me 13 wonderful and extremely useful tips from Chuck Palahniuk that I’ve recently read ( https://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/stocking-stuffers-13-writing-tips-from-chuck-palahniuk ). Thanks for your precious advice.

Thanks, Selena! Sorry for the delayed response, Disqus didn’t give me a notification for some reason. Love Chuck Palahniuk’s words on writing, thanks for sharing.

I am from Brazil and love your blog.

Thank you, Bruna! Thanks for reading.

Thanks for this! and good ideas.

It’s a pleasure! Keep writing.

My name is Kersten Fitzpatrick, I am a fantasy writer, but I am having trouble putting my characters onto paper. I do good stories but putting my characters onto paper is really hard

very nice and useful article

As a student that loves to write and do his best in everything possible while having to bother as little people as possible this article along with many others have been extremely helpful and am so appreciative that the articles contain accurate and useful information but it is also short so that I can read it without having to worry too much with the time it would take me to learn. Thank you!

Thanks for your kind feedback, we’re glad to help and that you’re enjoying our articles. It’s a pleasure. Good luck with your studies!

Very useful guid! It really helped me to write ideas in my novel! =)

Thank you for this feedback, A.J.! We’re glad you found it helpful.

Boring do better kidding .This was excellent

Haha, ouch, Brooklyn. I’m glad it was helpful, thanks for your feedback.

This was really amusing to me and I learnt true things from this. Thank you.

It’s a pleasure, Goodness. Thank you for reading our articles and taking the time to share your feedback.

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Back to Reedsy Live

Writing Character Descriptions (Workshop)

13:00 EST - Jul 07, 2021

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Shaelin Bishop

Shaelin Bishop is a fiction writer from Vancouver and Reedsy’s video content producer. Her stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, PRISM international, The New Quarterly, Room Magazine, Minola Review, and are forthcoming in CAROUSEL.

So first of all, we're going to talk about what a character description actually is. It might seem fairly self-explanatory at first; it's a description of a character. But, it's not just a description of what a character looks like. It's also our visual introduction to a character.

What is a character description?

Character description can, of course, include what a character looks like. Most of the time when you're describing a character, you're probably going to include some amount of detail about their appearance. But it can also include things like their body language, their mannerisms, their demeanor, their facial expressions, their clothing, or even a scene or a conversation they’re a part of.

And it's often these things in conjunction with what a character looks like that really give us an impression of a person. If we just get a few physical traits there's not really much to read into, but it's all those other things alongside what your character looks like that'll create a more memorable impression of a character.

And usually, that's the goal when you're writing a character description, right? You want to create a vivid sense of what the character looks like. And you also want the reader to be intrigued by this character and want to know more about them. 

Why are they important? 

Not all authors decide to describe their characters and not all characters need to be described. So you don't need to write a character description. There are going to be plenty of cases where you just feel like it's not necessary. Maybe the character is too minor or they just appear briefly. Maybe stylistically, you feel like you just don't need to describe your characters. Some authors just don't physically describe their characters. But, if you use them properly, they can be a really useful tool.

They can help the reader paint a mental picture of the character. I tend to prefer to describe my characters because I know that, as a reader, I like to have a visual sense of what someone looks like. I'm the kind of reader who struggles to imagine what a character looks like if the author has not described them. So then I spend the entire novel just seeing a vague blur, and I have no idea what this person looks like. And so the scenes don't look as vivid to me because I can't picture the people in them. That’s why I also try to incorporate character descriptions into my own writing.

They can also provide deeper insight into a character. It's not just about what the character looks like; it's introducing the character in a way that tells us more about them that maybe we wouldn’t otherwise be able to notice. And we'll talk about some of those things in a moment.

Many writers will have heard the phrase show don't tell. It's pretty classic writing advice. It means that rather than blatantly explaining things to a reader, it's usually richer when things are described. So rather than telling us, “this character is intelligent,” we’d want to see the character being intelligent and doing intelligent things on the page. And you can use character descriptions as a form of showing in a lot of cases. 

So we can learn about the character being described, of course, but we can also learn about the character who is doing the describing. 

Say you’re writing in the first person and your main character is describing their neighbor: we can, of course, learn about the neighbor, what the neighbor looks like, and maybe a few things about the neighbor, but we can also learn about the main character based on how they see them.

Someone's clothing, the way they present themselves, their body language, really anything about them can show us aspects of their personality or lifestyle. Maybe they're carrying something around that can tell you something about their job or their hobbies.

So, not only is a character description more than just what a character looks like, but the language being used to describe them can also add to the descriptions themselves.

Make your descriptions work harder

When character descriptions fall flat, it's usually because they're not working hard enough in the narrative. I think they can be a slightly controversial aspect of writing; some writers just aren't a fan of them. They can be seen as kind of vain or indulgent, like, oh, you don't need to know what people look like. But, if you make your descriptions work harder within the narrative and use them to their full potential, they can be useful tools.

Plain descriptions are not interesting

I think drawn out, but plain descriptions usually aren't that compelling and are what tend to give character descriptions their bad reputation. If every character is just described as ‘here's the character, they have brown eyes and green hair’, there’s nothing interesting about it to grab the reader’s attention. It’s just a list of facts that aren’t that compelling. So of course, let's talk about how we make them do more.

I would say that character descriptions are as useful as setting descriptions. I think it's not that controversial to describe the setting; that's usually seen as pretty standard setting the scene. But, for some reason, character descriptions are sometimes seen as controversial, even though people are usually the most compelling thing in a story. And they're usually the most compelling thing in a scene, so why not describe them? You want to ask yourself what you can show about your character — other than what they look like — through a description.

Highlight something interesting

One really good way to do that is to try and highlight something interesting. You want to make the reader want to know more about this character.  If there's nothing really memorable in a character description, then it won’t do much work in your story. Trying to hone in on something interesting will be a lot more impactful. 

For example, maybe they have an interesting physical trait . Maybe there's just something interesting about the way they look, like an interesting tattoo or hairstyle. Maybe they have an interesting way of moving and their body language is quite interesting. We'll talk about active character descriptions in a second, but if you can describe your character in a moment when they're doing something interesting, you can do a lot of character building.

Maybe they're dressed in an interesting way - someone's clothing can reveal a lot about them. Maybe they're holding something peculiar that’ll make a reader want to know more. If they're walking down the street with something bizarre, like if you saw someone walking down the street and they were just carrying a giant toad, you’d want to know why that person is carrying this strange amphibious animal down the street.

The importance of language

Naturally, language is going to be very important in your descriptions. It's not just about saying interesting things, but it's also how you say it and using language that is conducive to the character. When you're describing someone, you want to use language that makes sense for that character. So we're going to look at three sentences that are all describing the same trait. 

She had grey eyes, like the blade of a cutlass. 

So the implications here from this simile are that she may be sharp and violent, or maybe she’s clever. I think that that one is a bit more abstract. There's not a direct link between those two things, but personally, it's how I would interpret it. If I read that description, I would think maybe she's clever or cunning. 

She had grey eyes, like the belly of a salmon.

This is the same trait and could even be the same character, but what implications do we get from this? From this, I get that she’s naturalistic and down to earth because of the mention of an animal. But, I also think resourceful. This isn’t directly stated, but to me, if I read that sentence, I would think maybe this is a resourceful character who can take care of herself.

She had gray eyes, like the buttons of a flute.

So again this could be the same person, same trait, but what do we get from this? From this, that she’s artistic and sweet because the flute is an instrument that sounds quite sweet. But to that, I also get the implication of innocence from the whimsical nature of flute music.

So you see that we can change the impression you’re giving of a character quite a lot based on the word choice. Here, we have the same trait of gray eyes, but with a different simile to describe it and that description can change how we feel about the character being described as well as the narrator giving the description. If this was first person, maybe we're also learning about the main characters' world and why they might make certain word choices. 

One question people often have about character descriptions is how do I integrate them into the narrative? I think we've probably all seen and maybe even written a description of a character describing themselves by looking into a mirror which is something you should avoid. One good strategy is to make it more active. Only showing a character’s static traits can feel quite passive and become repetitive.

Here’s one that I wrote which just isn’t that interesting: 

The gardener had long red hair and brown eyes. She wore overalls and work boots. A thin scar cut across her face. She had narrow features, and usually wore her hair in a ponytail.

Maybe this is a very interesting character. Maybe she's a very interesting person, but I don't really get that sense from this description. I'm not really that interested to learn more about her from this and the writing itself is not that interesting. The sentence rhythm is very repetitive. So what if we made it active and the character was doing something while she was being discussed?

Here’s a description that makes the character sound a little more interesting:

The gardener wiped the back of her gloved hand on her forehead, and a crumble of dirt dusted the lashes of her brown eyes. Her clothes — overalls and work boots — were clotted with mud, and sweat pearled her narrow nose and thin cheeks. She tossed her gloves to the ground and unwound her red hair from its ponytail.

I think this is slightly more interesting writing because she's actually doing something so seems more dynamic. How often are we just standing there in the void? Usually we're out there living our lives, being active. Here, she is actually doing gardening, which makes sense because she is a gardener. And so we're able to get more variety in the sentence structure. Rather than just a list of traits, we're seeing the character in action and we're also getting to see her in her world. 

Perspective

So I think I mentioned this a little bit earlier but the importance of perspective in a character description is that what makes a character description interesting is often the perspective of the narrator. And I think this will be shown well in the example that we're going to look at in just a second.

But if a character is describing themselves, you can learn about their view of themselves through that description. And it’s not just about how they perceive themselves physically; it can also reveal their sense of themself as a person. Or if they're describing another character, we can learn about their relationship with this person. Maybe it's a character that they have an existing relationship with, or maybe we can learn about their initial impression of them if it's their first time meeting.

So this is an example of making your character descriptions work harder; we can learn about both people involved through the description. If there were two characters in this scenario, or even if there's just one, your narrator's biases and perspective is just as compelling as the objective details. To be honest, it's probably even more interesting; probably more so than just what someone looks like. The interesting thing is how the characters feel about each other.

Do’s and Don’ts

Do show the character doing something interesting. That'll just give you more to work with. You'll probably have more interesting sentence structure. 

Do use interesting language. If the language is dull it’ll lead to a weak description. I think I've probably read books before where I could tell the writer was a little scared to describe the characters. There would be beautiful sprawling descriptions of the setting and then the characters would be described very simply. You would barely even notice that the characters were being described. 

You should give the same amount of care to the language of a character description as you give to describe anything else you want to describe.

Do describe your characters beyond their objective physical traits. What can you learn about your characters by how they behave, or move.

Don't want to have the character describe themselves by looking in a mirror. This is a big cliche. It's probably the biggest cliche for writing character descriptions. Of course, all cliches can be subverted but, if possible, I would avoid this.

Avoid using purple prose. I think purple prose is usually common to a lot of character descriptions. If you don't know what purple prose is, it's basically just over-embellished prose that doesn't actually add anything. Like it's complicated just for the sake of being complicated rather than being good writing. Authors prioritize the complexity rather than the effectiveness. Purple prose, which usually sounds pretty melodramatic, can be magnified in a description of a character. Say you were describing someone's eyes as ‘glittering, amber orbs.’ Usually, if you're using the word ‘orbs’ to describe eyes, you might be veering into purple prose if you’re using too many adjectives.

Don't give a simple list of facts , especially for more important characters. It can be okay if it's just a character who appears briefly, you want to quickly describe them and just want to say something quick about what they look like. But for more important characters, if you actually want to make good use of the description rather than just give a quick list of objective facts.

Examples of character descriptions

So now let's look at some examples. I'll admit it was actually kind of hard to find examples for this lecture, because, although I can kind of remember which books had good character descriptions, I could not remember where they were in the book. And so I spent a lot of time flipping through books that I know have good writing and trying to find the districts of the characters, but I did end up finding three.

The Girls by Emma Cline

So the first one that we're going to look at is quite good. It’s not a super crucial character, but I think it shows some interesting thoughts from the narrator. This is from The Girls by Emma Cline.

Helen, a girl who seemed close to my age, though maybe it was just her pigtails. She was pretty in the youthful way of hometown beauties, snub-nosed, her features accessible, though with an obvious expiration date.

Character Descriptions | The cover for Emma Cline's The Girls

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

This is one of my all-time favorite novels; it features two characters and mostly focuses on their love story. And so this is a description of a love interest, which I think tends to lead to pretty perceptive, pretty romantic character descriptions because the characters are intrigued by each other physically. And I think that this is a really great example of picking out really interesting details.

She was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. […] Saeed noticed that Nadia had a beauty mark on her neck, a tawny oval that sometimes, rarely but not never, moved with her pulse.

I think that that line is just so lovely - noticing that she has a beauty mark. Picking out a physical trait about the characters is standard for a character description, but then a narrator goes on to notice that it rarely but not never moves with her pulse. This shows how perceptive this character is in watching her which implies attraction. And I think it's just a very lovely detail. 

Astra by Cedar Bowers

So this one is a slightly longer description. It actually just came out last month. This novel is structured so that every single chapter follows a different character, but they're all about their interactions with the main character, Astro. So it's about Astra and how other people see her through their interactions with her throughout her life. So this is from very early on in the book when the main character Astra is pretty young, maybe around 10, and the narrating character is also a child. It goes:

The girl grins, shimmies over the windowsill, and then drops silently to the carpet. She’s wearing the same brown corduroy dress she had on yesterday. And Kimmy notices that her legs are covered in bruises and bug bites, and her ragged hair looks as if it has been sheared with a bread knife. When she tucks a chunk of her near-black bob behind her ear, Kimmy really notices her scars: the tissue tight and shimmery. She’s like a character from a book. Like Gretel or Tinkerbell or Little Red Riding Hood. Brave. Courageous. This girl wouldn’t blink if she ran into a wild animal, or a witch, or worse.

So this is very clearly from the perspective of a child and so we get this really interesting contrast of how this child, with very little life experience, sees this other child who is very intriguing and bizarre to her. She's covered in bruises and bug bites, her hair, it looks like it's been treated with a bread knife. She's someone kind of odd and the main character is young, she doesn't really know how to interpret the bizarreness of this character quite yet. So I think this is very effective in using the voice of the narrative.

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How an Author Perfects her Dialogue

Kiley reid’s new book  come and get it  lets the characters speak at the top of their game..

Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s  Political Gabfest  podcast. Recently, David Plotz talked with Kiley Reid about her new novel,  Come & Get   It , and discussed how Reid gets her dialogue to sound so real.

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: I do think what makes your writing so singular and so distinctive is that you have an incredible ear. And I’m envious of it, as someone who’s been a writer for some of my life and never had an ear like that. How do you listen? How do you create these voices in your head?

Kiley Reid: It’s a bit of a game. Because as I’m sure that you’ve done, if you’ve transcribed anything because you’ve recorded something, you very quickly realize that we do not speak chronologically. We go off on tangents, we say, “um,” and “like,” and “oh my gosh.” And there’s a lot of things that we’re doing in between the things that we’re actually trying to say.

So, while I’m writing, getting hyper-realistic dialogue is really important to me, but it becomes a game of doing [two] things: One, it’s showing characters, for the majority of the book, at the top of their intelligence, showing their best selves—what they  think  is their best self. And number two, it’s making sure that their best self still isn’t grating to a reader.

When I’m doing interviews with students and getting inspiration, they may say ‘like’ or ‘um’ in the thousands. And so, I want to include some of those likes or ums, but I also don’t want to make fun of those students. This wasn’t a satire this time around, but I want to make it true. So, there’s a lot of give and take there.

I also think just being a writer, you need to put yourself in the position of being a listener and writing down something exactly the way you heard it. That’s the kind of things that I like to read.

Why do they have to be at the top of their game? Why is that important?

I think it’s important to be a democratic and generous writer. Otherwise, you look like you’re making fun of your characters. And I think every character can be interesting depending on the different light that they’re in. And I’m just not really super interested in fiction that says, look at these dumb kids. Especially because they’re not dumb. I want to see them at their best. And then later when they make mistakes, those mistakes hit a little bit harder.

I also feel like there’s a conjuring act here. Because as you said, I guess you wrote it in Iowa; you have lived in Philly; you’ve lived in Ann Arbor since you were in Fayetteville. But you’re conjuring up people who are just mostly Southern, and certainly are the kind of students who would be at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. How do you get back to them when you’re not with them?

I do a lot of interviews when I’m writing. And this time around I had a research assistant, and that was incredibly useful. I probably formally interviewed about 30 people and then maybe 20 others on top of that, just making sure I was getting things absolutely right.

So, I interviewed some old students, some of my friend’s students, people who went to Arkansas, people from Chicago, baton twirlers. I interviewed a number of people.

And people always ask me, “How do you get people to tell you things?” I’m sure you know people just like talking about themselves. And people were very gracious to me, and I’m really thankful for that.

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Richard Osman – he is standing outdoors with light shining through blurred trees in background, and is wearing a dark jacket, black jumper and black-rimmed glasses; he has a short greying beard and swept-back light brown hair

Richard Osman to publish first novel in new crime series

We Solve Murders introduces a new detective duo – but the author has not abandoned his Thursday Murder Club characters

A new crime series by Richard Osman called We Solve Murders has been announced, after the huge success of his Thursday Murder Club novels.

The beloved elderly sleuths from the Pointless presenter’s bestselling series are taking a break for now. “I put them through quite a lot in the last book, The Last Devil to Die, so I’ve given them a year just to relax, kick back, rejuvenate. But they’ll be coming back in 2025,” Osman said.

We Solve Murders by Richard Osman.

In the meantime, We Solve Murders, which is published this autumn, will introduce the father-in-law and daughter-in-law detective duo Steve and Amy Wheeler. The title references the name of the detective agency the pair set up, after Amy, a private security officer, discovers a dead body and a bag of money while working on a remote tropical island. Steve has retired from the police and runs a small investigations agency in a New Forest village where “he’ll do the odd insurance job or finding a lost dog”.

“But if he never sees another murder, I think he’d be very happy,” Osman said, describing the new book to the Guardian. Amy is in her 30s and Steve in his 50s, “so, for me, very young,” he joked. But the fact that Steve is retired appealed to him, he said, as he was interested in the way that just when you think you know what the next stage of your life looks like, “life often has other ideas for you”.

Starting a new series was “nerve-racking”, Osman said, but necessary: “I hope to be writing until I’m 90, and that would mean I’d have to do 40 Thursday Murder Club books, so probably I need to write about other worlds.”

The cover of the new book features a cat – Steve’s beloved pet, Trouble. “Anyone with a cat at home, wherever they are in the world, whatever time they’re having, they always go, oh, I’d quite like to get back to the cat,” Osman said, explaining that he and his wife, Ingrid, always wondered if their cat Liesl missed them when they were on holiday. Throughout the novel, Steve “essentially just wants to leave the trouble of the world behind and get back to the cat called Trouble”.

Osman will continue this series in tandem with the Thursday Murder Club books, which he plans to keep writing “for as long as people want to read them”. When writing about Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, “I just find myself being entertained by them,” he said. “So I’m not about to kill any of them off.”

That said, he is enjoying developing a new cast of characters, and doesn’t rule out embarking on other series in the future. “I would always do something that’s crime or mystery based, but I hope I’ve got all sorts of things ahead of me.”

Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series has sold 10m copies globally, and all four books in the series so far have broken UK sales records. The first Thursday Murder Club novel is being adapted into a film by Stephen Spielberg’s company. We Solve Murders is due to be published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 12 September 2024.

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  4. 15 Examples of Character Descriptions by Great Authors

    To write great character descriptions, you must study the masters. Looking to examples set by great authors can help inspire you and provide direction for your writing. Deliberate Practice is also critical in developing your skills.

  5. Character Description Examples: Create People, not Caricatures

    1. Describe characters using appearance When you describe how a character looks, think about how appearances hint at personality. In Margaret Atwood's Booker-winning novel The Blind Assassin (2000), for example, Atwood's narrator Iris opens the story remembering her sister Laura's death.

  6. How to Write Vivid Character Descriptions

    Think about a character's interests. Characters are much more than their physical appearances. Much can be revealed about a person by thinking about the things that interest them. "A teen girl who is obsessed with Harry Potter and K-pop" is a more evocative character description than simply "a teen girl with blond hair and brown eyes." 4.

  7. 6 Ways to Write Better Character Descriptions

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  8. Character Writing: Complete Guide to Creating Your Cast

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  9. How to Write Engaging Character Descriptions

    Character descriptions are the key passages in novels that describe a character, from the way he or she looks, acts, or speaks. It sounds easy to describe someone, but it's a skill all writers must work to develop. How to Write a Compelling Character Description

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    Ask yourself what this character is like, and how you can express this visually. Here are some ideas of what you can describe to get you started: Facial features (face shape, eyes, nose, lips, jaw, chin, brows, ears, cheekbones, facial hair) Hair color, texture, and style. Build/body type and height.

  11. How to Describe People

    From creating vivid profiles to weaving character traits seamlessly into your storytelling, we'll navigate the terrain of effective characterisation and soon you'll be writing believable characters in your novels. How to describe people is a list of useful adjectives for describing your story characters, with examples of how to describe ...

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  13. How to Write Better Character Description

    Describing characters can be pretty hard, but it's necessary for creating a complete image for readers. As a writer, you want to paint a clear image for your readers, but at the same time, you don't want to add too many unnecessary details. It can be very tempting to overly describe a character showing exactly how they look from top to ...

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  17. The Gigantic List of Character Descriptions (70+ examples)

    The Gigantic List of Character Descriptions (70+ examples) - Bookfox He got up and sat on the edge of the bedstead with his back to the window. "It's better not to sleep at all," he decided. There was a cold damp draught from the window, however; without getting up he drew the blanket over him and wrapped himself in it.

  18. Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Nose: Character Descriptions for your Novel

    There are many schools of thought on writing character descriptions in your novels. Some people are of the "blank slate" variety offering up almost no physical descriptions and letting the reader decide. While others are more into the "give every detail" until their character might as well be a drawing on the page. Most writers fall somewhere in between that spectrum.

  19. Tone, Timbre, Pitch: How to Describe Your Character's Voices

    Small - A voice that is gentle, timid, or quiet. Great for conveying an insecure or scared character. Smoky - A voice that conveys sexual attraction, sometimes for a mysterious character. Great for your cloaked or hooded character in the shadows or your hot love interest. Softly spoken - A voice that's quiet or gentle.

  20. Describing Characters: How to Describe Faces

    Tip 1: Use gestures more than easy adjectives. Beginning writers will often use adjectives for specific emotions to describe faces: 'Her eyes were angry' or 'his mouth was mean'. Because adjectives that use abstract words for specific emotions don't show the reader the character's face, they tell rather than show emotion.

  21. Writing Character Descriptions

    Don't want to have the character describe themselves by looking in a mirror. This is a big cliche. It's probably the biggest cliche for writing character descriptions. Of course, all cliches can be subverted but, if possible, I would avoid this. Avoid using purple prose. I think purple prose is usually common to a lot of character descriptions.

  22. 10 Tips for Writing Physical Descriptions of Your Characters

    Instead, scatter brief descriptions throughout multiple scenes. No doubt many of your favorite writers do this. 6. Describe actions that reveal physical characteristics. "As we'd been talking, she'd pulled [her hair] into a high, loose bun with shorter pieces of hair falling around her face.". - Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. 7.

  23. Author Kiley Reid on How to Write Realistic Dialogue

    So, while I'm writing, getting hyper-realistic dialogue is really important to me, but it becomes a game of doing [two] things: One, it's showing characters, for the majority of the book, at ...

  24. Richard Osman to publish first novel in new crime series

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