Even when a story is plot driven rather than character-driven, you still need to give the reader a good idea and sense of whom those characters are.
This requires describing the characters, and this will include a description of both their appearance and their nature.
Rightly or wrongly, a physical description of a character or person can help to establish an opinion of that character in the mind’s eye of the reader, not only in terms of how they appear, but also with regard to how they want to be seen.
In this article, we’ll be discussing how to write a physical description of a character, including both their build and their attire.
We’ll then follow this up with how to write character description as a means for giving deeper insight to the minds of the characters themselves.
And without further ado, let’s get straight to it.
How To Write A Physical Description Of A Character
Arguably, the gender of a character can construct an impression of the character that will set up expectations of the reader about how the character will behave.
For instance, the reader may expect a male character to be more daring and possibly even violent, whereas they may expect a female character to be more timid, shy and easy going.
Playing into the reader’s expectations can then help with the impact of the story on the reader whenever they come to a crossroads, or when things come to a head.
To describe a character’s gender, you could simply refer to them as “he” or “she”. Or you could give them a name that’s distinctly male or female. Or you could describe their attire (more on that shortly).
Just as gender can help to assert an image of a character, so can the character’s build.
For instance, a male character who is tall and well-built may give off a more intimidating feel than one who was short, scrawny, and boy-like in stature.
Using a tough and well-built character can help to make fight scenes have a more realistic feel if they come out on top every time.
But a character who is rather weedy in build is more likely to shock the reader when they gather the courage to beat their challenge.
You can also describe a character’s posture. Do they hold their head up high, or do they hunch like they don’t want to be seen?
The age of a character is usually considered a defining characteristic. Youth generally implies naivety, while age implies wisdom.
But rather than just come out with the character’s age, it may be more fitting to give clues about the character’s age instead.
For example, you could describe a child holding a toy, or holding a parent’s hand. Or for someone who’s old and wise, you could describe wrinkles and a more weathered appearance.
How a character dresses can also tell the reader a lot about them…
If a character were to dress impeccably without so much as a hair out of place, this can be seen as an indication of them seeking approval or respect, or it could imply that they are vain or shallow, valuing looks above other matters.
In contrast, a character who is unkempt gives a completely different impression to the reader. If they really don’t care how they look to others, do they care about anything else?
How you describe a character’s attire depends very much on the story’s setting. If you are going for a historical story, you will have to do some research first.
Whereas if your story is set in the future, or in an alternate timeline, you can really have some fun with the character’s attire.
For description of attire in modern day, you should already have an idea of what clothes and accessories are considered sporty, casual, and smart. And in turn, what this means for the reader’s impression of the character.
How To Write A Description Of A Character’s Personality
Playing To Stereotypes Vs Contrast
As hinted at earlier, character description is a great way to lead the reader to think of the character in a particular way.
For instance, a bulky man with a hard jaw would lead the reader to expect more masculine qualities in the character’s personalities.
While, a character who is scruffy and is seen rolling a joint may be seen by the reader as a character with low standards.
A female character who looks flawless head to toe gives the impression of someone who likes to be in control, and makes for an excellent femme fatale.
As the writer, it’s up to you whether you’re going to give the reader what they will come to expect, or whether you will use stereotypes and character description as a red herring that will make the climax of the book even more impactful.
And don’t forget the power of movement. A character can exhibit anxiety through nervous ticks. And when they walk, do they stroll languidly, or with determination and purpose?
Show, Don’t Tell
The wrong thing to do when it comes to character description is to simply give their height and describe every last item of their clothing. It isn’t riveting.
Instead, you can depict many aspects of a character in a quicker, more concise manner, such as “He stood, head held high, to reach his full 6-foot as he tightened his tie in its Windsor knot.”
In short, the more detail you include in the character descriptions, the stronger the image the reader will have of the characters.
What you need to consider in particular is how the character description will set expectations in the reader’s mind about what the character is going to be like and how they are going to act.
And as the writer this gives you the opportunity to either revel in the extremities of the character and their personality, and deliver what the reader expects, or alternatively to surprise the reader with characters that defy traditional stereotypes.