What to Describe
I have a very clear picture of what certain characters are supposed to look like in my head: but these pictures only contain certain traits. For example, I know that Sarah is tall and dark-skinned with straight black hair, but I have no idea what shape her chin is or how large her feet are. I know Alex has dimples and a squarish face, but I have no idea how far apart his eyes are or what his ears look like. Some of those traits are important, because they either reprisent something to that character (Sarah’s hair) or I reference them often (Alex’s dimples).
My rule of thumb is this: describe things that either relfect the characters’ personalities or that are important to the characters themselves. Leave the rest of it to your readers’ imaginations.
Some people say you should leave as much about the main characters’ appearances to the readers’ imaginations as possible, because then it’s easier for people to imagine the main character like themselves or how they would want the main character to look. I say absolutely not. Yes, you want to cater to your readers, but not to the extent that your character’s individuality disappears. There are some (spectacularly successful) books out there that do this, and on top of it, erase the character’s personality so the readers can insert their own. Yes, they are successful, and yes, people like them, but…they lack a certain something. If you really want to do something like that, no one is going to stop you (and you might hit the jackpot), but…it makes me a bit nauseous.*
Now I want to take a minute to talk about race. Lots of people are going to white-wash your characters unless you explicitly tell them not to. It sucks, but it happens. One classic example of this is the Hunger Games movies: everyone got all upset that Rue and Cinna were black. This was incredibly stupid, because it says in the books that Rue is black, and Cinna’s physical characteristics are barely described at all.
Because people can be stupid, if someone’s supposed to be a certain race, you have to make it clear. You can say it outright (Character A thinks Character B looks like Race X) or be more subtle (Character B has this list of physical traits that suggest they are this race), but you almost always have to be heavy-handed. HOWEVER, you have to be careful: certain descriptions are offensive to certain people. Do some research beforehand and make sure the traits that you’re describing (and the way that you describe them) are okay.
How to Describe
Ways you can introduce a character description into the narrative:
- Have Character A see Character B and describe them.
- Have the character think about their own appearance because of something going on in their life (Sharon recently broke her nose, she thinks about what it will look like once it’s healed vs. what it looked like before she broke it).
- Relate them to the people surrounding them (Character A had pale skin and blue eyes, just like most of the people standing around in the crowded room).
- Have them stand in front of a mirror and tell the reader what they see. This is a cliche, but it’s still something you can use.
Quick note about the mirror thing: almost every writing cliche or no-no can be put to good use as long as you do it creatively enough. There will always be loopholes and tricks you can use to make things less heavy-handed. Don’t just have your character study themselves in the mirror because you need to describe them or because it’s something they do everyday: give them a reason for it. When you look in the mirror, why do you do it?
The cardinal rule for character description is this:
DO NOT say everything all at once. Don’t give us a long-winded list of skin, hair, and eye colors; jaw, nose, and brow shapes; height, weight, and shoe-size. Your readers will get bored, fast. Sprinkle bits and pieces here and there. It’s okay if we don’t know the main character is 5’2″ until chapter six. It’s okay if we don’t know someone has long hair until halfway through the book. It can be hard to hold back that information when you have it, but if you spread it out it will sound much more natural.
* Seriously, though? You don’t have to listen to me. This is just advice, it’s not a rule you have to follow. I might not read your book, but I’m just one of billions of people on this world.