As a kid, I devoured girly series books like Sweet Valley and Baby-sitter’s Club. In Sweet Valley High, the twin protagonists were always described as having blond hair, “Pacific blue eyes,” and “perfect size six figures.” Unfortunately, I often find myself describing my own fictional characters as if I’m ghost-writing for a Young Adult series. I give height, hair color, eye color, and body shape. But these standard descriptions can sound generic, and they don’t really help the reader picture your characters.
So how can you best describe your characters’ physical features? Learn from others. Here are a few tips, along with examples from some of my favorite writers.
1. You don’t always have to be specific.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the reader never really learns the color of Daisy’s hair or eyes, but does it matter? We can still picture her in our minds: “Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.”
2. Use figurative language.
“I … easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame… The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see her breast, low and full. Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.” -White Oleander by Janet Fitch
3. Describe facial expressions.
“Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.” -“Good Country People” by Flannery O’Conner
4. Make the descriptions match the tone.
In a funny or sardonic piece, for example, your descriptions can be the same: “He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.” -Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
5. Scatter physical descriptions throughout the prose.
You don’t have to give all your description of a character when he or she first arrives on the scene. 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. A first person narrator can give biased opinions about appearances.
“I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor.” -Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
8. Describe clothing and accessories.
“Today Charis is wearing a sagging mauve cotton jersy dress, with a fuzzy grey cardigan over top and an orange-and-aqua scarf with a design of meadow flowers draped around her neck. Her long straight hair is grey-blonde and parted in the middle; she has her reading glasses stuck up on top of her head.” -The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
9. Describe the way characters move or carry themselves.
“She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” -The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
10. Remember that a little description can go a long way.
This might be the most important tip of all. You don’t have to describe a character from head to toe and constantly review what he or she looks like. Just an introductory description and a few well-placed clues throughout the prose will be enough to help readers form and keep a picture in their minds: “She was a fat girl. She was fat all over and she huffed when she breathed.” - “Kindling” by Raymond Carver.