Posted on

Character creative writing description

11 Secrets to Writing an Effective Character Description

Are your characters dry, lifeless husks? Author Rebecca McClanahan shares 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through effective character description, including physical and emotional description.

The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.

Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us.

Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range. You’ll take an in-depth look at Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress who will give you character development techniques and tips along with practical advice for weaving emotion into scenes. Create characters readers will love and develop a strong point of view for your fiction book today!

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see.

As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond. Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become. Try putting her at a gay bar on a Saturday night, or in a tattoo parlor, or (if you’re up for a little time travel) at Appomattox, serving her famous buttermilk biscuits to Grant and Lee.

6. In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her. In addition, Flaubert describes the book that held her attention during mass and the images that she particularly loved—a sick lamb, a pierced heart.

Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses, never getting away from the stuffy schoolroom atmosphere, she gradually succumbed to the mystic languor exhaled by the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers. Instead of following the Mass, she used to gaze at the azure-bordered religious drawings in her book. She loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus falling beneath His cross.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.

What items would your character pack for a weekend away? What would she use for luggage? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle? An old accordion case with decals from every theme park she’s visited? A duffel bag? Make a list of everything your character would pack: a “Save the Whales” T-shirt; a white cotton nursing bra, size 36D; a breast pump; a Mickey Mouse alarm clock; a photograph of her husband rocking a child to sleep; a can of Mace; three Hershey bars.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff. Which items is she practically giving away? What has she overpriced, secretly hoping no one will buy it? Write your character’s Last Will and Testament. Which niece gets the Steinway? Who gets the lake cottage—the stepson or the daughter? If your main characters are divorcing, how will they divide their assets? Which one will fight hardest to keep the dog?

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

The earlier “all-points bulletin” description of the father failed not only because the details were mundane and the prose stilted; it also suffered from lack of movement. To enlarge the description, imagine that same father in a particular setting—not just in the house but also sitting in the brown recliner. Then, because setting implies time as well as place, choose a particular time in which to place him. The time may be bound by the clock (six o’clock, sunrise, early afternoon) or bound only by the father’s personal history (after the divorce, the day he lost his job, two weeks before his sixtieth birthday).

Then set the father in motion. Again, be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

… 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.

Notice the strong verbs Robinson uses throughout the description. The mouth “bowed” forward; the brow “sloped” back; the hair “hovered,” then “sprouted”; the hem “swept” the floor; hats “fell” down over her eyes. Even when the grandmother’s body is at rest, the description pulses with activity. And when the grandmother finally does move—putting a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes, laughing until her shoulders shake—we visualize her in our mind’s eye because the actions are concrete and specific. They are what the playwright David Mamet calls “actable actions.” Opening a window is an actable action, as is slamming a door. “Coming to terms with himself” or “understanding that he’s been wrong all along” are not actable actions. This distinction between nonactable and actable actions echoes our earlier distinction between showing and telling. For the most part, a character’s movements must be rendered concretely—that is, shown—before the reader can participate in the fictional dream.

Actable actions are important elements in many fiction and nonfiction scenes that include dialogue. In some cases, actions, along with environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words the characters speak. Writers of effective dialogue include pauses, voice inflections, repetitions, gestures, and other details to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. Journalists and other nonfiction writers do the same. Let’s say you’ve just interviewed your cousin about his military service during the Vietnam War. You have a transcript of the interview, based on audio or video recordings, but you also took notes about what else was going on in that room.

As you write, include nonverbal clues as well as your cousin’s actual words. When you asked him about his tour of duty, did he look out the window, light another cigarette, and change the subject? Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? If his ancient dog was asleep on your cousin’s lap, did he stroke the dog as he spoke? When the phone rang, did your cousin ignore it or jump up to answer it, looking relieved for the interruption? Including details such as these will deepen your character description.

11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

The novels of Milan Kundera use little outward description of characters or their actions. Kundera is more concerned with a character’s interior landscape, with what he calls a character’s “existential problem,” than with sensory description of person or action. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas’s body is not described at all, since the idea of body does not constitute Tomas’s internal dilemma. Teresa’s body is described in physical, concrete terms (though not with the degree of detail most novelists would employ) only because her body represents one of her existential preoccupations. For Kundera, a novel is more a meditation on ideas and the private world of the mind than a realistic depiction of characters. Reading Kundera, I always feel that I’m living inside the characters rather than watching them move, bodily, through the world.

With writers like Kundera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …

Later in the book, when Agnes’s sexual relationship has led to pregnancy, then to a life-threatening abortion, she describes the farm in quite different terms.

It was August, high summer, but there was something definite and curiously insubstantial in the air. … In the fields near me, the cattle were untroubled, their jaws grinding the last of the grass, their large, fat tongues drinking the clear brook water. But there was something in the air, a sad note the weather played upon the instrument of the bone-stretched skin. … In October, the leaves would be off the trees; the fallen leaves would be beaten flat by heavy rains and the first fall of snow. The bony ledges of the earth would begin to show, the earth’s skeleton shedding its unnecessary flesh.

By describing the farm through Agnes’s eyes, Schaeffer not only shows us Agnes’s inner landscape—her ongoing obsession with sex and pregnancy—but also demonstrates a turning point in Agnes’s view of sexuality. In the first passage, which depicts a farm in winter, Agnes sees images of beginnings and births. The earth is curved and full like a woman’s fleshy body. In the second scene, described as occurring in “high summer,” images of death prevail. Agnes’s mind jumps ahead to autumn, to dying leaves and heavy rains, a time when the earth, no longer curved in a womanly shape, is little more than a skeleton, having shed the flesh it no longer needs.

Enter your email below and receive a free video tutorial, “7 Surprising Approaches to Character Development,” presented by former publisher, Charlotte Robin Cook!

How do you write good character description? 5 techniques

In classic stories, characters often step off the page from their first introduction, fully realized. How do you write good character description that reveals enough to hook readers? Try these 5 techniques:

  • Post author

In classic stories, characters often step off the page from their first introduction, fully realized. How do you write good character description that reveals enough to hook readers? Try these 5 techniques:

1. Give character description via action

Writer’s who are still developing their craft often give ‘laundry list’ description. This is where a character’s physical attributes appear in a list, such as:

‘She had green eyes, long, tawny hair, a scruffy tracksuit that was stained, and a loud laugh.’

This may not be terrible, as far as descriptions go. Yet when you introduce every character using a list of what attributes they have, we start to see the author’s presence behind the story’s stage curtains.

One way to vary your character descriptions is to drop in descriptive details during actions. For example, for the same character above, we could write:

She looked up from dusting fallen lunch off her scruffy tracksuit, and gazed across the university cafeteria, towards where I was sitting, trying not to stand out. In that moment I noticed how piercing her green eyes were.

Here, a narrating character’s in-the-moment perception of another character’s actions drops in descriptive elements. It also, at the same time, reveals a little about the observer.

Framing description relevant to a person’s actions make us notice the writer’s device a little less. Actions sweep us up in the scene. Description becomes incidental to what’s going on. This makes it stick out as a storytelling device a little less.

2. Use figurative language such as simile and metaphor

Figurative language such as simile (comparing objects using ‘like’ or ‘as though’) and metaphor (stating two unlike objects are the same) is effective for describing subtle precise qualities and appearances. For example:

His dopey expression made him look as though he was always half-sedated.

Her thin, uptight mouth was a door on a latch, poised to shut fast at any sign of trouble or disagreement and stay that way ’til the coast was clear.

The first example (simile) conveys a character’s sleepy, befuddled appearance.

The second (a metaphor) gives us associations by stating one thing is another. The stand-in object (the latched door) tells us something about the first, the character’s mouth (in this case, the image suggests a mistrustful and conflict-averse person).

Write stronger description

Get a practical workbook with description writing exercises plus helpful videos.

3. Use physical details for personality, not only visuals

A common feature of amateur writing is to over-rely on describing eye and hair colour.

Using these physical details doesn’t tell us much about a person, beyond personality elements revealed by details such as what sort of haircut the person has. (For example, a quirky, avant-garde hairstyle could suggest a creative, edgy or bohemian personality.)

Examples of facial description with personality

Consider these character description examples:

Her peroxide job has gone wrong, so that her hair has turned a strange yellow colour, standing out in angry spikes from her head. But more than this, something has changed inside her, which you can see from a long way off. She seems to burn with a luminous white light. Her face is knotted and anxious, bunched in on itself, and it takes her a long time to notice him.

Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room (2010), p. 149

Two of the boys wore glasses, curiously enough the same kind: tiny, old-fashioned, with round steel rims. The larger of the two – and he was quite large, well over six feet – was dark-haired, with a square jaw and coarse, pale skin. He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992), p. 18.

Each of these examples gives an idea of character, of who the people are.

Galgut’s example describes his narrator’s volatile friend whom he travels with in India. The description gives clues to her personality. Her changeable nature (frequent hair dyeing), the intensity of her emotions (‘angry spikes’ and her seeming ‘to burn’). Her face is ‘bunched in on itself’ and ‘knotted and anxious’. The overarching, immediate effect is of a troubled, vulnerable and scattered person.

Tartt’s character description conveys the world her characters inhabit. As classics students, they have a love of the old-fashioned. Tartt also uses shadowy suppositions (one ‘might have been handsome’) to layer personality over immediate appearance. Her descriptions show how mannerisms, facial expressions, and personal tics modify the raw physical facts of people’s appearances.

4. Combine physical descriptions with movement and gesture

A big part of how to write good character descriptions is understanding how physical appearance combines with movement, habits and tics. For example, a character may be beautiful, but roll theirs eyes constantly. This gives them a sullen, negative appearance that limits others’ awareness of their beauty.

In English, we have urban slang terms such as ‘resting bitch face’ (to describe someone whose neutral facial expression looks mean). These suggest how small details such as the faces we often make can shape our impressions of people. Sometimes accurately, sometimes misleadingly.

Movement and gesture in physical description can thus surprise readers. People aren’t always what they first appear. A very elderly lady seated at a restaurant table might surprise the reader when she stands up and strides across the room. We’re surprised by the strength and energy that gives her the aura of a person thirty years younger.

Think of what movement can suggest about characters. The example above could indicate, for example, that the lady was a professional ballet dancer for 30 years. Her description shows she has good posture and other physical benefits of years of dance with her. Her movement itself tells a story.

5. Use character description to reveal the observer, too

Good character description often tells us about more than the person described. It tells us something about the viewpoint narrator doing the describing, too. For example, it could tell us:

  • Whether the narrator is judgmental, critical, or kind
  • The nature of the observer’s interest (for example, whether they like or dislike the person they describe, or even have romantic interest)
  • How observant they are and what their focus is (what do they pick up on, and what do they miss?)

Examples of character descriptions that describe observers

Consider these examples where one character’s description of another reveals a little about the describer:

My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what that expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860-61), pp. 7-8

The waitress had a black dress and a white cap and eyebrows plucked to thin curves, and a red mouth shiny as jam. She called my father Captain Chase and he called her Agnes. By this, and by the way he leaned his elbows on the table, I realized he must already be familiar with this place.
Agnes said was this his little girl, and how sweet; she threw me a glance of dislike. She brought him his coffee almost immediately, wobbling a little on her high heels, and when she set it down she touched his hand briefly.

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2001), p. 103

How character descriptions reveal the narrator

In the first example, the lead character of Dickens’ famous coming-of-age novel, Pip, describes his sister. The way Pip describes Mrs Joe reveals the retrospective insight he’s gained with age. It also reveals his wry, subtle sense of humour about the past.

Pip’s description reveals his younger self’s relative ignorance (he doesn’t understand the expression ‘to raise by hand’). It also reveals he is aware of how mean his sister was, letting everyone know raising him was such a chore.

Yet while Pip describes Mrs Joe’s tough, somewhat unloving character, he does so with characterful wry humour, too. For example, in how he jokes that Mrs Joe also ‘raised [her husband] by hand’ because she would hit both him and Pip. This mix of honest reflection and making light of the situation suggests the wisdom, forgiveness and perspective that may come with age.

Iris’s description of getting a soda with her father in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin conveys the perspective of a child in the process of losing her innocence. Her description of the waitress’s over-familiar gestures shows a child’s dawning realization of adults’ (mis)behaviours.

Atwood shows Iris at a moment when she is recognizing the double-ness of people’s words and actions (the waitress calling her ‘sweet’ to butter up her father, while covertly also looking at her with dislike). The scene is just as revealing of the process of Iris’s ‘growing up’ as it is of the characters she describes.