There’s a lot of elements that go into writing a book, and each one has their own set of must-haves.
Take character descriptions, for example. Obviously, the easiest way to create a picture in someone’s mind is to list the physical characteristics. Often it’ll be something like; “She was tall, with long black hair and bangs that sat above her blue eyes, clashing with her pale skin.”
Do you create a picture? Sure, but unless you’re from the Nine-Nine putting out an APB for your solve (can you tell I’ve just discovered the TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine?), describing your characters like a police description doesn’t do you any favors.
Instead, try digging a little deeper. Think of new ways to work in height, weight, eye color, etc, and mix up the accurate facts with vivid details. Ones that touch on the five senses and include some of these character description must-haves…
Everyone has an eye color, hair color, and skin tone you can describe, and these are great basics to help the reader envision what you want them to. But people are more than this, and the same goes for your characters. Highlight scars, tattoos, freckles, hair texture, teeth, build, wrinkles, birthmarks, and whatever other real details you can think of (although, obviously, you shouldn’t list all of them, otherwise your book would be nothing more than character descriptions).
Real details also extends to personal touches, such as characters who only wear their hair up, use makeup, or dress in head-to-toe black. Including a character’s accent or high-pitched voice is also helpful. As is describing a character who limps when they walk or a character who can’t talk without waving their hands around. It’s these type of details that create more than just a visual of “blue eyes and blond hair”.
Interesting Word Choices
You want to say your MC has green eyes, go ahead. But what kind of green are they? Muted green? Forest green? Cat green? Or are they really the grayish-blue of lake water after a storm? Take what would normally be a by-the-numbers description and put life into it! Mix colors with vivid imagery and make your word choices interesting.
A man in a white shirt is a description, but “a man whose shoulders hunched in his button-down white shirt, the hem untucked and sleeve edges dirty” takes it a step further. You get a picture of a weary man. Is his shirt untucked and dirty from physical labor or something more sinister? (I really need to stop binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Now you have a complete image and hints of a backstory, one that will make a reader turn the page instead of just learning that in your book there’s “a man in a white shirt”.
A Stand Out Trait
Have you ever watched a TV show where all the male characters have identical dark, long hair, and week-old stubble, and you forget who is who? Not only does this ruin things when one turns out to be the killer and you’re confused about whether he was the dark-haired teacher or the dark-haired waiter, but it makes for boring TV. Now imagine that in book form where it’s even less visual and you’ll know why it’s important to make your characters stand out from one another.
Does that mean you can’t have two characters with brown eyes, or that your MC’s best friend and sister can’t both have black hair? Of course not. What you need to do is give characters with the same physical features a trait that’s different. The sister with the black hair may always style it side-swept across her forehead because of a birthmark she wants to keep hidden. Give similarly described characters a point of difference, just as you would give them different mannerisms or dialogue to set them apart.
Stating a character wears glasses offers no confusion about how they look and gives you a piece of their physical description. But what if instead, you stated: “the glasses pinched at her nose and she pulled them off, wiping the smudged lenses and setting the frames on the pile of unread books gathering dust on her nightstand.” Not only does this tell you the character wears glasses, but that she likes to read and never gets to (don’t we all?). It’s much more insightful than “she wears glasses.”
An Actual Description
As the writer, you know what the character looks like. Either because they’ve been in your head for so long or because you’ve already matched them to a celebrity on your aesthetic board on Pinterest. How they look is so implanted in your mind you may forget to describe them enough, or at all (sadly a true story for me during one draft. Oops). So when you’re writing about your characters, don’t forget to include an actual description, mixing it with the must-haves listed and these two bonus tips…
When To Describe
Some writers will describe a character as soon as they hit the page. Some will drip the description in. Both have their pros and cons. If you stop to describe how a character looks you risk losing the tension of your scene. If you only drip the description in, spacing it too far throughout the book, the reader potentially misses clues or makes up their own mind. They are then startled halfway through chapter 12 when you finally mention the MC has red hair and they’ve been picturing a brunette. Decide what’s the right method for your story and be consistent; giving a full description when a character first appears (briefly to keep up the tension), or putting the key descriptions (hair, eyes, build etc) as soon as possible and dripping in the rest (dress, backstory, insights).
How Much To Describe
Main characters deserve the most description. That side character who served them at the grocery store? Not so much. You can get away with one main descriptor there, i.e; “slim fingers with chipped blue nail polish handed back his change.”
How detailed you want to be with your MC descriptions is up to you. Some writers like to ensure the reader pictures their version of the character and will include as many physical characteristics as they can. Others will prefer to let the reader build the picture, only providing the bare minimum and allowing the reader to fill in the rest. Again, decide what works for you and perfect it.
I hope these must-haves help you out when you need to bring a character to life on the page. If you have any of your own tips, don’t be shy and leave them in the comments.
— K.M. Allan