Seven Big Tips for Describing Characters
by James Thayer
Readers remember a novel’s characters long after the plot has been
forgotten. We still love Lonesome Dove’s Augustus McCrae,
but who can remember all that happened to him in Larry McMurtry’s
840-page novel? We still love Oliver Twist, but we have only a
sketchy memory of all the ordeals Dickens put him through.
A vivid physical description helps make a character memorable. Here
are some techniques to make your characters stick in readers’ minds.
1. Don’t forget the description.
This seems like a
no-brainer, but sometimes writers—even otherwise good
writers—entirely forget to tell the reader what a character looks
like. All characters should be described, except those in the story
who are not in fact characters but are part of the setting, such as
the cabbie driving by and the children on the distant playfield.
Generally, anyone who speaks deserves to be described.
2. More important characters deserve bigger descriptions.
If the reader never sees the bellman again, there’s no need to
describe him this fully:
Sarah rushed toward the door, six packages precariously in her arms,
from Bloomingdales, Saks, and even a light-blue Tiffany box. The
doorman held the door open for her. He was wearing pants with satin
stripes and a big smile. His coat had a military cut, with brass
buttons, epaulets, and red piping along the collar. His patent
leather shoes threw sparks of light. His name was Terry—no one knew
if it was his first or last name—and he had a gangster’s flat nose,
and eyes as shallow as paint. He was always preposterously
cheerful. Sometimes his ancient father stood near him, held up by a
cane, basking in the reflected glory of his son’s uniform. Sarah
nodded her thanks and moved quickly to the elevators.
This is a lot of wasted space to describe a fellow whose only
purpose is to hold open a door once.
But there’s another reason a walk-on, walk-off character shouldn’t
be described this completely: when a character is fully described,
the reader expects to see him again. A lengthy description
foreshadows the importance of the character. At the end of the
novel, the reader is going to ask, “Hey, what happened to the
3: Periodically remind readers of a character’s appearance:
These reminders later in the novel usually shouldn’t be a laundry
list (He had blond hair and bags under his eyes, which often
work fine the first time the reader sees a character), but rather
passing references (She ran her fingers through his straw-colored
4. Give the reader something to see.
Janet Burroway offers this description of a character, which she
calls “an all-points bulletin:” My father is a tall, middle-aged
man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually
wears khakis and oxford shirts. This description will be
Instead, offer the reader a vivid image, something that will stick
in the reader’s mind. Watch the masters do it.
H.G. Wells in his famous short story “The Red Room”: “He supported
himself by a single crutch, his eyes were covered by a shade, and
his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying
yellow teeth.” Will we have any trouble remembering this
fellow, with the weird lower lip and the rotted teeth? Not likely.
And here is Arthur Golden in Memoirs of
a Geisha: “I long ago developed a very practiced smile,
which I call my ‘Noh smile’ because it resembles a Noh mask whose
features are frozen. Its advantage is that men can interpret it
however they want.”
How’s this for a memorable image, from Jean Shepherd in
A Fistful of Fig Newtons?
“Big Al was wedge-shaped; pure sinew, gristle, and covered
with a thick, bristly mat of primitive fur. Numerous broken noses
had reduced his nostrils to blow-holes.”
William Gibson in Pattern Recognition:
“On his left sits Dorotea Benedetti, her hair scraped back from her
forehead with a haute nerd intensity that Cayse suspects means
business and trouble both.”
Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist describes one of those
“long-limbed, knock-kneed, shambling, bony people.”
Who can forget Billy Bones in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the
inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow – a
tall, strong, heavy nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over
the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred,
with black broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a
dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and
whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old
sea-song that he sang so often afterwards;
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of
rum!” in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been
tuned and broken at the capstan bars.
But the writer might protest, “My character isn’t a pirate or a
geisha or a football player. My character’s appearance isn’t as
memorable as these examples.”
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
The writer is the god in the novel’s universe. A character will be
memorable if the writer makes him memorable. Add a scar, a
wall-eye, a limp, a broken nose, a gold tooth, or a cheap wig.
There’s no need for a character to have all his fingers or all his
teeth. Add acne pits, dime store perfume, or ear hair. Tall, dark
and handsome is forgettable. Hunched, pale as candle wax, with a
greasy comb-over, and a hairy mole on the cheek is memorable.
Of course, the hero of the novel shouldn’t have ear hair—unless you
are Beatrix Potter—but how about a widow’s peak, or a chin with a
cleft, or a mysterious signet ring? How about crazy red hair
that falls in ringlets, or a bracelet made of a dozen one carat
diamonds? Or a silly saying, such as Scarlett O’Hara’s “fiddle
dee-dee.” Heroes are allowed to be memorable, too.
5. Don’t go overboard.
Easy to say, harder to
judge. Ford Maddox Ford said a writer should describe things
as if they were before your eyes on a brightly lit stage. But
spending too many words describing the character will bore the
reader. Here is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Jay
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It
was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance
in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It
faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and
then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your
favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be
understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself
and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at
your best, you hoped to convey.
depiction works well—everything works well—in
The Great Gatsby.
Still, a 100-word description of a smile is too long for most
6. Avoid summary words:
Characters should almost
never be described as handsome, gorgeous, beautiful, ugly
or other words that summarize the quality of their features.
These summary words tell the writer’s impression of the features,
rather than setting out specific information. The reader can’t
draw a mental picture from beautiful.
When using summary words, the writer is asking the reader to do the
work of imagining the characters. Most readers won’t do the
work, and the character will live in the reader’s mind only as a
vague notion, easily forgettable.
Physical descriptions should be specific and vivid: blue
eyes, a doughy face, a moonlike face, a bump in his nose, swept back
hair, a lofty forehead, thin and bloodless lips, silk-fine hair, a
willowy body. Paint the picture for the reader.
Be aware of fiction’s stereotypes.
is a poisoned word these days. But in fiction, stereotypes are
as strong as ever. Almost invariably, the reader expects a
character with a big chin to be stubborn. The writer doesn’t
have to say, “Maria had a large chin, and she was stubborn.”
Maria had a large chin is enough.
character with a small chin will be viewed by readers as weak.
A cleft in the chin means playfulness. A high forehead equals
thoughtfulness. Big ears mean stupidity, and so does a mouth
that hangs open, and small ears mean pugnaciousness. A flat
nose means the fellow is a gangster. Low eyebrows mean
cunning, and so do deeply set eyes. Soft hands mean idleness,
and rough hands mean honesty. Red hair means impetuousness and
trouble. A big Adam’s apple means the fellow is a hick.
So if your character has deeply set eyes, low eyebrows, and a flat
nose, the writer doesn’t have to say the fellow has the personality
of Machine Gun Kelly, because the reader already knows it.
These stereotypes are useful shortcuts, but they can also pose
difficulties. If your character’s default expression is one
with his mouth hanging open, it hardly matters how many physics
problems he solves to find the wormhole for his spaceship to leave
the galaxy, the reader isn’t going to buy it.
So when describing a character, give the reader something to
remember. It’s called the Add a Scar Technique.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing