Writing: Physical Character Description

An oft asked question by writers is, “How much character description do you like?”

Here’s a bit of advice:  Don’t bother asking it.  Save yourself a migraine.  For every person who replies, “I love a very detailed description.  I want to see the character as painted by the author.”  You’ll get another person who says,  “Ugh.  Give me little-to-none.  I like to envision the character the way I want.”

Some readers prefer none, others medium, others love a full Rembrandt.

You can’t please everybody.

Decide how much character description you like.   Then, study how to handle it with a deft touch.

First, let’s look at things to avoid:

1. The “laundry list” :  Mary Sue was really beautiful.  She was five feet eight inches tall and weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds.  She had long blond hair and cornflower blue eyes.  Her lashes were long and thick.  Her brows were thin and arched.  She had peaches and cream complexion, a small perky nose, and pouty lips.    Zzzz………….

2. Purple prose: “long raven hair that fell down her back in silken ripples”, “azure eyes that sparkled like glittering stars- blue as the shiniest sea.”

3. mirror technique- This refers to protagonist sitting down in front of their mirror and studying their reflection as though they’ve never seen themselves before.  In fact, the paragraph usually begins that very way:  “I sat down in front of the mirror and studied my reflection.  My eyes were large and soft brown.  My curly brown hair was horribly frizzy….”

4. waiting too long to describe a character.  If Sarah Collins first appears on page 5- don’t wait until page 40 to describe her.  By then, readers will have imagined her appearance by themselves.  If one has envisioned her as small, petite with red hair it will jar them to discover she is a tall brunette.

So how does one use a deft hand?

Here are some examples from different novels that utilize different techniques:

1. James Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain was master of spare prose.  This is Frank’s first sighting of Cora:  “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” -This not only gives the reader a pencil drawing of Cora, it adds insight to Frank’s character.  The mashing them in part indicates roughness and brutality.

2. From Wilkie Collin’s, The Woman in White. Here is a very detailed description:  “The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache.  She had a large firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing resolute brown eyes, and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.  Her expression- bright, frank, and intelligent, appeared- while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.”  If Cain’s sketch was a line drawing, here we have an oil painting.

3. Anne Bronte’s, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. “Mrs. Graham darted upon me- her neck uncovered, her black locks streaming in the wind.

“Give me the child!” she said, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vhemence, and seizing the boy, she snatched him from me, as if in some dire contamination were in my touch, and then stood with one hand firmly clasping his, the other on his shoulder, fixing upon me her large, luminous, dark eyes- pale, breathless, quivering with agitation.”

Here, Anne Bronte breaks up the physical description of Mrs. Graham througout the action.   Anne actually reveals very little regarding Mrs. Graham’s appearance.  We don’t know her height, body type, etc..  Anne instead pinpoints on specific elements.  Mrs.  Graham has dark hair and eyes, and pale skin.    From her behavior, one clearly pictures Mrs. Graham with a strong, intense look about her.

What are some of your favorite physical character descriptions from books?  Whether they be raw, medium, or well-done.  Serious or humorous.  What authors brought their characters’ appearance alive to you? Please give examples!


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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What do I like in character descriptions? Well, it depends on the book really – on a lazy sunday afternoon, I like to read peaceful jane austen stories – the intricate descriptions of the person, their wardrobe and their ‘carriage’ simply transports me to that era and I can almost hear the horses on the cobblestones (I’m sorry – i dont have my books here – so cant give you examples)
    When I have mid-week crises, I like to read PG Wodehouse, who simply remarks caustically on the person and their form – and lets that describe their personality, even. Egg-headed-ness, red hair, paunch bellies, thin as a stick -ness (:D) – so I like the description to be light – if the literature is light.

    So in your context, Victorian, I like detailed descriptions – I think that’s characteristic of that era, rather. Don’t you?
    Incidentally, the most detailed book I ever read was called Ivanhoe. Have you read it?

  2. Hello Aarabik! 🙂

    Yes, I think detailed descriptions are very fitting for the Victorian time period. That’s why in my own WIP, I chose to incorporate a medium amount of description. (character and setting). I want to transport my readers back in time. On the other hand, I don’t want too much so people start snoozing. Therefore, I sprinkle bits about rather than lump.

    Most of all, as you said, I believe it depends on the individual book and how the author handles it. For instance, I usually don’t like loooooooooong, drawn out descriptions, yet there are a few authors who do it wonderfully. So that’s why I say it’s all in how it’s handled.

    I haven’t read Ivanhoe, yet. My “to-read list” gets longer and longer every day. Did you enjoy it?

  3. Well I tend to keep them short, no more than three sentences (and that may be two sentences to long). Hair, eyes, height and maybe clothing. Depends on the situation and if something in particular jumps into mind and I want the reader to notice that.

    I have to say that this is an excellent blog and it now sits comfortably on my bookmarks under “Stories”.

  4. I like to do a little describing but keep lots to the imagination of the readers

  5. Excellent ideas and suggestions.

    I wrote a memoir and my husband’s comment, upon first edit, was that I had given deep, and vivid descriptions of the land, see and air, but not of the institution in which my father was housed, for example, nor the people.

  6. Hello Ralfast 🙂

    Awww. Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. I’m really glad you enjoy the blog. I’m having tons of fun with it.

  7. Hey there Colby! 🙂

    I’d say from the examples I gave- my style would be a combo of Anne B. and Cain. I’m not into writing very detailed descriptions a la Wilkie Collins, either. But I wanted to include his to show how a talented writer can do such- if they wish.

  8. Hello Jennifer,

    Thank you! Glad some of the ideas were helpful to you.

    Sounds like your husband is one of the readers who enjoys very detailed descriptions.

    Did you purposely focus on describing nature but not the house and people for stylistic purposes?

    I remember one story I wrote. My parents (upon receiving a revision in which I’d edited out some description) said, “This is even better than before. It flows beautifully.”

    Whereas my sister said, “Uhm…it’s still really good. But why did you cut out all the description? I loved it! You should put it back.”

    Another example of how you can’t please everybody. Even family. lol

  9. I’m more of a minimalist myself. Often I’ll get 10,000 words in and realize I never described my MC. But I like the idea of the reader painting there own picture based on his actions and the reactions of other characters to him. And I hate the laundry lists!

    Your examples of well-handled descriptions were really great. I love the first one! Kind of inspires me to take another look at my WIP.

  10. Hi there Rachel,

    Thanks! I tried my best to find 3 different styles that all worked in their own way.

    If you haven’t read, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”- run out and grab yourself a copy. There’s nothing in there that’s unnecessary. Reading it is better than most non-fiction how-to-write books.

  11. I’m in the middling area of description. I want the gist of it, but my eyes glaze at too much description in anything. Spend more than a paragraph on the location and I start skimming. Maybe I’m just ADD or LOOK! A pretty butterfly!

    Psst, I’m adding you to my blogroll. Looooove the blog and I’m such a whore for all things 19th Century!

  12. Hi there Mary,

    Awww….thanks so much! 🙂

    And I have a thing for murder! So if I can figure out how the heck to add blogspot blogs to my blogroll- I’m definitely adding yours!

  13. Great post, as always!

    I guess I’m a minimalist, too, as a writer, but as a reader, I like all different amounts of description, depending upon the author and the era.

    Also, if there *is* a generous amount of description, I’d rather it be about the character than the surroundings.

    As for getting a blogspot blog on your blogroll, go to your wordpress dashboard, and, across the top under your blog title, go to “manage”, then “links”, then “add new”. Put in the blog name, the url, and save.

    When it’s not a wordpress blog, you have to add it manually. I just figured it out myself.

    (hey there, Aarabik! : )


  14. Emily,

    You rock as usual. Thanks so much for explaining that to me. Much appreciated!

    And glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  15. Interesting question. As a reader, I think less is more on the character description front. Otherwise, it just irks me for some reason. I don’t mind knowing hair color and vague allusions to build, etc., but when it starts getting purple “inky hair, violet eyes”, etc., I start getting bored.

    I don’t do much character description myself, as far as vital statistics go. I don’t keep character sheets or anything like that. I don’t know their birthdays, ect. If there was a need to know it, I ususally find one of the characters tends to blurt it out, LOL.

  16. Hey Jen,

    Thanks for commenting. I’m enjoying reading everyone’s different writing processes when it comes to this.

  17. Insert curtsey here. : )

    Glad I could help.

    Em : )

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