Readers experience your stories through your characters. To get a reader invested in your story, you need to make a strong connection between the reader and character. One way to accomplish this is to write strong character description. We do that through:
1. Try to be original with your prose
Having a great image of your character is important, but the words you use to convey that image are just as important. You might have a great idea of a unique character in your head, but if you’re expressing it with tired, weak phrasing, your reader won’t be able to see it with you.
Tired language and cliched prose can be annoying and boring to read, so try to use crisp, original language in your character description.
Examples of description cliches:
- “starry eyes”
- “raven locks”
- “crooked smile”
- character evaluating their own reflection
Taking the time to craft compelling language can provide a much more interesting reader experience and make your characters come to life.
2. Space out your description
Spreading description throughout your scene helps with flow and pacing. If you interrupt a scene to drop a load of description, your reader may get bored or lose track of what was happening in the scene.
Instead of inserting an entire character description as soon as they’re introduced, you could try giving a basic description of them right away, then you can include more details as they become relevant to the scene or story.
Examples of basic physical characteristics you could include in the initial description to give your reader a quick picture:
- Skin color
- Hair color
- Anything very obvious (a missing limb, heterochromia, lime green hair)
- Anything relevant to the scene
Examples of physical characteristics you might save for later:
- Eye color
- Clothing quality
- Scars, freckles, tattoos
- Gait, tone of voice, smell
Instead of dropping four or five paragraphs of description, try spreading it out to give your reader time to absorb it and to avoid ruining the pacing of your scene.
An example of this method might look like:
A new character, Bella, walks into the room. We learn that Bella is short with brown hair and plain clothes. She looks like she’s in her mid-twenties.
She introduces herself to our POV character, Micah. Micah notices callouses in an odd place on Bella’s palm when they shake hands.
Bella is here to give Micah campus tour–he follows her outside. In the sun, Micah notices the color of her hair and the way she squints in the sun. She looks annoyed.
Instead of getting the entire description of Bella as soon as she entered the room, it was staggered in a way that was natural for our POV character to observe. This allowed the scene to progress without a huge halt. Spreading description like this allows the scene to keep rolling when a new character is introduced.
We’re also given the promise of more description/characterization later: Why does Bella have odd callouses?
It’s great to give your reader a picture of the character as soon as they’re introduced, but it isn’t ALL necessary immediately. It’s easy to give the basics and save the smaller details for later, spacing it out and keeping the reader interested.
3. Use it to characterize
Make your physical descriptions work double-duty. Don’t just use it to help the reader picture what’s there, but actually use it to show things about the character.
The state and quality of their clothes, how neat their hair is, if they have scars or callouses (like Bella), etc., can show a lot about who the person is.
If their hair roots are grown out, maybe they’ve been really busy lately. If their fingers are chewed up, maybe they have anxiety. If they’re dressed in baggy clothes, maybe they’re insecure or avoiding attention.
You have to write description anyway, so there’s no reason not to utilize that space to characterize.
4. Keep POV in mind
Point-of-view is such a powerful tool and, with newbie writers, is often overlooked. If we’re seeing other characters through out character’s eyes, what we see should be filtered through their opinions and relationship to that character.
Along with that, try to keep the character’s voice in your description. How would they describe those characters? They’re going to describe them differently depending on how close they are with them, if they like or dislike them, if they’re attracted to them, etc. You’d describe your arch nemesis differently than you’d describe your grandmother (unless your grandmother is your arch nemesis, WHICH is something you could convey through how the character describes their grandmother).
Keep POV in mind for every kind of description, including character description. Not only does the way you write physical description characterize the person you’re describing, but it also characterizes whoever is describing them. This can tell your reader things about the dynamic between those characters.
So use crisp, original prose, spread the description out, make it characterizing, and keep your character’s point of view in mind.
Bonus tip: use comparisons to other characters to describe your main character
Like I mentioned earlier, having your character describe their own reflection is tired and overdone. Here’s one method for describing your main character in a close POV in a natural way.
This is a trick I utilize pretty often in my own stories: when I’m writing in a close POV, I slip in my MC’s physical description as I introduce other characters. For example, in Cane Sprouts when the protagonist’s cousin shows up, she describes how his eyes crinkle when he smiles, she says it’s a family trait, then she describes his eye color and notes they’re a little lighter than her own. That told us the POV character’s eye color and that her face crinkles when she smiles without her awkwardly describing herself with no context.
That’s just one example of a way you can work in your main character’s description when you’re in first person or any close POV.