Your Character’s Appearance
How do you introduce your character’s appearance? What’s the right way to let your reader know what your character looks like? Have her catch her reflection in a mirror?
“Cynthia brushed her flowing blonde hair and wondered if her eyes were more blue-green or green-blue.”
Ah, no. The old look in a mirror is a terrible way to relay your character’s appearance to your readers.
Character appearance is more than how they look. Will your reader remember the color of your character’s eyes? Probably not. What he will remember is the way he hunches because he’s self-conscious of his height. Or how she sits poker-straight because her granny drilled her in proper posture.
How your character looks is more than her hair or eye color. It defines their personality and how they feel about themselves. A character’s appearance shows their interests, social status, emotions, self-esteem, and how they react to the world about them. Their appearance deepens their world and enhances their personality.
No one is perfect
Celebrities without makeup and hair-dos (with few exceptions) look no different that everyone else. We all have a feature we hate or want to change. Why should your character be different? Does he think his nose is too big? Does she hate her freckles? Is she, like Ella in the Cinderella book I’m writing, 6’2″ tall and considers herself a freak in her family, especially in comparison to her petite sisters? The way your character hides or enhances a feature tells a lot about their thoughts and emotions. Their feelings connect with what your reader may feel about themselves.
How do you introduce your character’s appearance?
Let’s return to the mirror analogy. Instead of Cynthia stopping to look at herself in the mirror, shatter the object. Pick up pieces and scatter them throughout the story. Maybe Cynthia catches her long blonde hair in a rubber band before she goes jogging. Does her jogging or using a rubber band instead of a crunchie tell you something about Cynthia?
Here’s how I describe my character, Annie, in my upcoming WWII psychological drama:
“He tousled my hair as he passed me into the washroom our grandfather had tacked onto the side of the house when he’d installed running water. I would have returned the gesture, but he’d cut his hair, the same light brown as mine, as close to the scalp as was legal.”
In two sentences I’ve relayed not only the color of her hair, but her relationship with her brother and the setting of their old farmhouse.
A secondary character can reflect on another’s appearance, but how do you describe how a character looks when you’re writing in first person point of view? Here’s how I described Annie’s eye color:
“Her brown eyes, identical in color to mine and Donny’s, wouldn’t meet mine.”
How does she think of herself? By attaching emotions to her appearance, the reader gets a peek into her thoughts. When Annie is invited to visit her future in-laws, her self-doubt and feeling out of place shows in this passage:
“I ran a quick hand over my black wool skirt. If it was good enough for church this morning, the Smiths’ would have no reason to find fault.”
How many times is the heroine blonde with blue eyes? Or the hero an ex-Navy Seal with abs of steel? Or the vampire is seven-hundred-years-old but not looking a day over thirty? Instead, write against stereotypes. Why can’t the hero get a little pudgy and go on a diet? Why can’t the heroine have a scar or dirt under her fingernails? By upending stereotypes, you’ve breathed fresh breath into your character and piqued your reader’s curiosity.
What needs to be described?
Consider the following, but don’t think it’s necessary to include all of these attributes. As a reader, I’m not as interested in the hero’s eye color as how much his eyes light up at the sight of his children.
- Eyes. Eyes are the window of the soul. They not only come in many colors, but shapes. Are they baby blue or cobalt? Are her eyes wide-set or squinty? What about his eyebrows?
- Hair. Blonde (for a woman) or blond (for a man) Short? Curly? Spiky?
- Voice. Gravel? Wispy? Chatty? Sharp?
- Height? Weight? Build? How do they carry themselves?
- Gender or sexual orientation
- Race or ethnicity
- Lifestyle. Swinger? Biker? Tired housewife?
- Social status. Poor? Wealthy?
- Physical scars
- Tattoos (tribal?)
- Quirks, tics, and gestures. Does he run his hand through his hair when upset? Does she chew the end of her hair when nervous? Little tics like these tell the reader more than a basic description.
For more descriptions of facial and body descriptions, go here for an excellent list.
Your character’s appearance will change
As the story progresses and your character’s personality changes as part of his overall arc, his appearance changes as well. If he started out as submissive and afraid to take a risk, he may gain strength and self confidence. If she closed herself off to intimacy and relationships, she will change as she learns to trust again. I once wrote a character who came from an abusive marriage. As she learned to step into the world again and trust, her hairstyle evolved from pulled back and tightly braided to loose around her shoulders. The effect was subtle to the reader but showed her emotional growth.
Don’t go overboard in defining your character’s appearance. Focus on one or two traits. Do you want to saddle your heroine with a 6’2″ frame, red hair, freckles, a limp, and a scar? Forgo the caricature and make her relatable to your reader.
What if you can’t picture your character?
Find an avatar. Scour sites devoted to celebrities. Steal from friends and family. Go people watching.
I steal traits and appearances from celebrities. For instance, in my WWII drama, Annie’s future father-in-law is a bastard to her. Money and social status rules his decisions. She has neither. I used John Barrymore as my avatar for Stephen Smith.
Keep images of your avatars. When your writing is blocked, pull out an image and think about how the person in it would react. Does something in the tilt of their head or the quirk of an eyebrow give you a clue? Do you see pain in their eyes? Devilment? Keep multiple images or recall how the actor reacted in a specific role he played.
Create a Book of Wonder or Pinterest board
Long ago, my writing group created Books of Wonder for each of our books. We scrapbooked our characters and settings. Now, we have Pinterest, and I create a specific board for each book. Here is the board I created for Brilliant Wreckage. It contains images of actors, book cover ideas, sources for mental illness, and settings.
In describing your character’s appearance, remember:
- No laundry lists of features
- No cliches
- Sprinkle the descriptions throughout the book like shattered glass
- Connect with your readers with emotional connections of the character’s appearance rather than physical.
As always, blessings,
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