Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Describing Your Characters

How do you describe a character? Is it necessary to describe a character’s appearance in detail?

When it comes to describing a character physically, I tend to be of the opinion that less is more, and that the physical descriptions depend on the needs of the story.

These aren’t hard and fast rules, of course. The way you choose to describe your characters will become part of your writing style. One common technique I’ve heard some authors use to describe a character is to describe one physical trait, one behavioral trait, and one thing your protagonist notices. That’s a technique that Terry Pratchett, among others, has used to great effect.

Different genres have different conventions as well. Many romance novels don’t describe the protagonist in detail, so that the reader can insert herself into the scenes.

So in other words, this is very much an “it depends” sort of thing.

Like I said, I’m a big fan of less is more. Unless there’s a specific reason a character’s appearance is important, there’s not a lot of reason to give anything but a basic description.

If you do need to describe a character, either because there’s something unusual about the character or because their appearance is important to the story, I think it’s often best to show that importance by showing the character from other people’s perspectives. In one of our Passionate Pantheon novels, Eunice and I handled it like this:

Two days before the final selection, Savine disappeared. She was not in the great hall at breakfast, nor at dinner when Lija returned, tired and bruised, from the forest.

The day before the selection, a featureless black outline slipped into the great hall. Every eye followed it as it moved along the table and sat down next to Lija. It had the general shape of a person, if someone used a razor-sharp knife to cut the outline of a person out of the world, leaving only a black void behind. The dark shape wore no clothing. When it turned sideways, it sported a thick erection. It turned its head toward Lija, or at least Lija got the impression it was turning its head. Nothing gave dimension to the blackness. Savine’s eyes looked out at her from the inky void. “What do you think?” came Savine’s voice. “I designed it myself.”

“What…” Lija rubbed her eyes. “I’m not sure what I’m looking at.”

The outline moved. Lija felt warm hands over hers. “Feel,” Savine said, placing Lija’s hands on what would be a chest if a void could have a chest. Lija felt soft, smooth fur.

“What is it?”

“Carbon fiber!” Savine said. “I have fur. Each strand has these little carbon fibers growing from it. It absorbs light, see? I did it for the Hunt.” She grinned at Lija. The grin made the blank darkness of her face even worse, because now instead of just a pair of eyes floating in absolute blackness, eyes and teeth leered from the void. “This is my hunting body!”

Lija gulped.
I also tend to believe that the right time to describe a character isn’t necessarily when the character is first introduced, but rather when it’s relevant—that is, when the character’s appearance is important to the plot, the setting, or the way other characters respond to them.

That might be right away—for example, if your character is exceptionally intimidating, exceptionally strong, or is unusual in some other way important to the plot.

A great example of describing characters when and to the degree that it’s relevant is Jack Reacher; in the books (as opposed to the movies with a terribly miscast Tom Cruise), Jack Reacher is huge and physically intimidating, which is important to how other characters react to him. So it’s mentioned early on, because it matters.

On the other hand, with the exception of specific details when they’re directly relevant, Eunice and I literally don’t describe our protagonist in our post-cyberpunk novel until the epilogue, and then only in general terms:

She stands at the edge of the water, a black canvas bag slung over one shoulder. Youthful features, perhaps late twenties, and pretty, with high cheekbones and a long wave of straight black hair. Behind her, the wreck of the Georgina Maersk claws jagged and broken at the rose-colored sky.

Three young men staggering home from some all-night revelry catch sight of her. The shirtless one whistles. Urged on by his companions, he approaches her. “Hey, baby,” he coos in his best attempt at drunken seduction. “You here alone?”

She turns to look at him through blank shark eyes that do not belong in that face. He sees something there, bottomless and old beyond her years, that steals his breath and freezes his heart in his chest. He takes a step back, hands spread wide, then turns away, to the safety of his friends. They tease him for his cowardice. “C’mon, guys,” he says, “let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Other than a scene early on when you learn she’s Chinese and another when you learn she’s five foot four, that’s…what you get.

For the most part, most of the time, a character’s appearance likely isn’t that important to the plot. You can describe the character in a sentence or two, but it’s usually not necessary to do more, unless there’s a compelling narrative reason for it.