Character description can be surprisingly fraught. We’re told that leaving description out is bad, but doing it wrong seems even worse. How do we write respectable description that tells readers what they need to know, isn’t embarrassingly awkward, and doesn’t make anyone feel objectified or stigmatized?
When I originally wrote an overview of character description in 2015 (PDF), I focused on a smaller set of questions and answers. Now, I’m back with a more comprehensive take. Let’s cover the most important aspects of character description and how to make choices that fit your story.
Does Every Character Need Description?
No, we don’t have to describe every character. In fact, we don’t always have to describe the main character. The key is how much time readers will spend with that character, because description is an investment that only pays off if the character is featured later.
If you’re writing a 3,000-word short story, it may be unnecessary to describe anyone. With that much brevity, readers probably won’t expect any descriptive details, even about the main character. However, you can still describe characters in very short stories if you want to.
On the other hand, many readers of novels expect a description of the main character. For novels, I also recommend describing important secondary protagonists, side characters, and antagonists. Whether you describe minor characters who only appear in a scene or two is up to you.
Which Character Features Should We Describe?
Most character description is completely up to you, but there are two categories of features you should usually specify as soon as possible. If readers learn about these features too late, it will clash with who they imagined the character was, which can create a jarring experience.
- Any feature that is particularly unusual or striking. In most cases, you don’t have to describe clothes immediately, but if your character is wearing a bright orange jumper outside of a prison environment, you’d better mention that. Is your character four-feet tall or seven-feet high? Are they wearing clown makeup? Do they have six arms, fur, or a pair of wings?
- The obvious demographics of the character. That includes race, gender, general age (especially for children), and some disabilities. You don’t need to specify a character is queer immediately, just don’t misgender a nonbinary person. I recommend describing your character’s light skin color rather than leaving your audience to assume the character is white. This puts all of your characters on the same footing, regardless of their race. I have more on describing people respectfully below.
When do readers need to know about these features? Usually when the character first appears in a scene. However, this depends on the narrative style you’re using. For instance, if you’re narrating from the limited perspective of a viewpoint character, that viewpoint character may not notice someone’s striking yellow eyes until they’re up close. If you keep your reader on the same page as your viewpoint character, you’ll be okay.
You also don’t need to describe these traits as long as the reader has some way of knowing them. Names can help set expectations, as can the setting. If your story takes place in Japan, the assumption will be that your characters are Japanese, unless you specify otherwise.
Finally, writers may choose to jar readers to make a point. Tanya Huff has books where she refers to background characters as “the smith” or “the guard” before using she/her to reference the character again. In a number of stories with a first-person narrator, readers learn the main character is a woman later in the story. The purpose of this tactic is to challenge readers’ default assumption that characters would be male. Many readers appreciate this as a learning experience. A few reactionary readers don’t, but do we really care about them?
Let’s look at an example. Below is the introductory description of Flick in The Sword of Shannara.
Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.
Immediately after this, author Terry Brooks specifies Flick is a young man, but it’s too late. After all this description, he’s invited readers to imagine Flick. The weariness and calm exterior with energy underneath evokes associations with experience and maturity. If Brooks simply put Flick’s age first, it would have prevented that detail from being jarring.
Below is a positive example from Skin of the Sea. In it, author Natasha Bowen uses the viewpoint character’s first glimpse of her love interest to fill in the broad strokes of his appearance.
The clouds must have parted momentarily, because a large shaft of light splits the water. I start toward it just as the depths are filled with a great crash, bubbles rising and bursting. As the small pockets of air dissipate, I see it.
Dark brown skin gleaming as it cleaves the layers of the sea.
A boy, a man…no, somewhere in between.
Once the viewpoint character gets closer to him, Bowen describes his eyes.
While keeping readers from having a jarring experience is important in most cases, it’s not the primary purpose of description. The goal of most character description is simply to evoke the imagination in ways that create a strong impression of the character.
What Makes Character Description Evocative?
To make your character description evocative, decide what impression you want to create and then choose a few specific details that bring this impression to life. General adjectives like “beautiful” leave readers without much to go on. Instead, describe features that are considered beautiful, such as sharp cheekbones and full lips.
If you’re not sure whether a descriptor is too vague, ask yourself “what does [descriptor] look like?” Do you have to think about it? If so, your reader would have to think about it too. That means it’s too vague.
Choosing the right details can also matter. By default, writers tend to focus a lot on hair and eye color. Take this piece of underwhelming description from Eragon.
A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.
There’s nothing wrong with covering a character’s hair; that’s a pretty noticeable feature. However, it’s about far more than color. Is the hair wavy, curly, frizzy, spiky, or silky? How long is it? As for eyes, that’s a detail that people don’t usually notice, and it has a highly romantic connotation. Describing the eyes of a love interest can be a good way of building chemistry, but you can skip the eyes unless they’re unusual.
The Shade’s maroon eyes might have been worth describing, but not instead of more significant features. As the big villain of the book, he should have had some description with a little more flair. Also, why is he called a Shade if he has red features?
I recommend describing some features the character can control, because that tells readers more about their personality. Instead of describing their medium-tall height, describe their choice of clothing, hairstyle, or makeup. For instance, if their clothing has grass stains, the audience not only has a visual, but also knows they engage in an outdoor activity. Is their shirt wrinkled or carefully pressed? Whichever you choose, it says something about them.
And don’t stop at their looks. What does their voice sound like? Is their speaking style flat, clipped, or fast? If you have an omniscient narrator or a viewpoint character within smelling range, give them garlic breath, fumes from their favorite cleaning product, or a floral perfume.
What about their behavior? Bring them to life with a jaunty walk, some fingernail biting, or continuous sniffles. These action-oriented details can easily be spread throughout the scene as they come into play, rather than heaping them all up front.
Finally, feel free to use metaphors and colorful language for characters. A character might look hawkish or mousy, or, more elaborately, they might appear as though they just crawled out of their tomb after 100 years. In most cases it’s best to pair this kind of language with a few concrete details. That way, readers have some idea why the character looks like they emerged from a tomb.
Let’s look at an example of character description from Vicious.
It made Sydney shiver in her too big coat and her rainbow leggings and her winter boots as she trudged along behind him. The two looked like ghosts as they wove through the graveyard, both blond and fair enough to pass for siblings, or perhaps father and daughter.
Sydney’s rainbow leggings tell us about her personality while contrasting nicely with the atmosphere of the graveyard. The ghost metaphor helps build that atmosphere while creating an evocative image. Author V. E. Schwab also specifies that her hair and skin color is what makes her look like a ghost.
However, this passage is still missing information readers should know. From this description, we know Sydney is relatively young, but that’s a very rough range. Since she’s trekking through a graveyard in the middle of the night, readers will probably assume she’s an older teenager. As a result, it’s jarring when Schwab reveals she’s twelve and only as tall as a shovel.
As long as you don’t reveal important features later, you don’t have to cover every aspect of a character. Evoking the reader’s imagination means including a few interesting features and letting readers fill in the rest.
How Long Should Character Description Be?
Character description usually ranges from nothing to a couple of paragraphs. The right length for a specific character generally depends on three factors:
- How important is the character? A main character will usually have more description than side characters. Readers know description length corresponds to character importance, so you can use this to set the right expectations. If you want to disguise a big villain as an insignificant side character, consider giving them very little description.
- How interesting and unusual are the character’s features? A character that is highly unique, such as a fairy or alien among humans, should have more description. Readers won’t have as much context to fill in the blank spaces with their imagination, and the character’s appearance will have much higher novelty. In this case, longer description can entertain readers while satisfying their curiosity.
- How long is your description in general? If you use lush description for the scenery and barely describe your characters, it will feel like there’s a big hole where your characters should be. On the other hand, if you barely describe the environment and spend a paragraph on each character, it may feel like you’re overly preoccupied with character appearance. Character description should fit in with the general feel of your narration.
For minor characters, a sentence or two is a fine length for description. That’s usually long enough to cover two or three important features.
- “An old woman, hunched and seamed like a pale walnut, glared down at me.” – Ten Thousand Doors of January.
- “I turn, sweeping my arms through the water in arcs, taking in the deep purple scales and round face of Folasade.” – Skin of the Sea
- “The deputy, a white man in his forties, flicks his notebook closed and puts a hand on his hip, as if to remind me there’s no use in running away.” – Legendborn.
Let’s look at some longer description from Skin of the Sea. This is the grand entrance of a sea goddess, so novelty is high and the character should come off as impressive. Author Natasha Bowen is also very skilled at description, which gives her more leeway to make it longer.
The sea undulates, shifting and flexing almost like a serpent. And then I see it. The tip of a golden crown. It splits the gentle waves, followed by obsidian coils shining with water. The orisa moves closer to the shore as she emerges from the sea. Thick shoulders and onyx skin glow in the sun as she takes a step onto dry land, her dark blue scales shifting to form a white and indigo wrapper with threads of gold throughout.
“Simidele.” Her voice is both rough and smooth, like satin and sand and smoke. Twin combs hold back the mass of her hair, while a veil of milky pearls obscures the middle of her face. The smells of violets and coconut fill the air. She’s so close that I can see the cowrie shells and sharks’ teeth that are woven in among her curls.
If you like putting in lots of description, work on weaving it into your narration rather than putting it in all at once. That will allow you to include more without slowing the story down too much.
How Can We Stay in Viewpoint While Describing Characters?
One of the biggest headaches when describing characters is staying in viewpoint. A viewpoint character doesn’t have much reason to describe themself. However, whether this is an issue at all depends on your narrative premise: the implied explanation for how your story is being told.
Does your narrator know they are telling a story to an audience? This is the case for omniscient narration, a first-person retelling, and it can also be true for epistolary narration. If so, your narrator can simply tell the audience what anyone looks like.*
In Legendborn, author Tracy Deonn uses her retelling premise to describe the main character and best friend, which makes specifying demographics easy.
Alice is Taiwanese-American, short, and wiry, with observant eyes and a semipermanent smirk. Her whole MO is dressing to make a good impression “just in case,” and tonight she chose dark jeans and a polka-dotted blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Under Evan’s scrutiny, she pushes her round glasses up her nose and gives a shy wave.
I’m five-eight—tall enough that I might pass for a college student—and Black. Blessed with my mother’s cheekbones and curves and my father’s full mouth. I’d pulled on old jeans and a tee. Shy isn’t really my thing.
But many, if not most, stories are using the unfolding events narrative premise. This means that the narrator is a viewpoint character who is unaware they have an audience, and events are narrated in a way that reflects that character’s experience. If you are writing in third-person limited, you are almost certainly using this premise. Many first-person works also use it.
In unfolding events, narration is a reflection of what the viewpoint character is currently focusing on. Therein lies the issue with describing viewpoint characters. People have a hard time viewing themselves, giving them little reason to focus on their own appearance. Many writers have solved this by having their viewpoint character look in the mirror, but once too many of us were doing it, it started to feel trite and contrived.
If you’re struggling with this, I have an article just for you: Nine Ways to Describe Your Viewpoint Character. The key is that your character doesn’t have to be looking at something for you to narrate about it. They only have to be reminded of it. Perhaps they’re putting on a disguise, donning a special outfit, or hoping to fit in. This gets the viewpoint character contemplating something that is usually too mundane to think about.
Below is an example from Tiger’s Curse. In it, author Colleen Houck works in description of the viewpoint character using a photo. In this case, the photo is worth looking at in the first place because it features the viewpoint character’s dead parents.
I glanced at my nightstand and the two pictures I kept out. One picture was of the three of us: Mom, Dad, and me at a New Year’s celebration. I had just turned twelve. My long brown hair had been curled but in the picture it drooped because I’d thrown a fit about using hairspray. I’d smiled in the shot, despite the fact that I had a gleaming row of silver braces. I was grateful for my straight white teeth now, but I’d absolutely hated those braces back then.
I touched the glass, placing my thumb briefly over the image of my pale face. I’d always longed to be svelte, tan, blond, and blue eyed but I had the same brown eyes as my father and the tendency toward chubbiness of my mother.
For a side character, it’s worth considering what aspects of their appearance the viewpoint character is likely to focus on. While they may not mentally tick off the basic features of the best friend they see every day, the viewpoint character will focus on the current state of those features. Is the best friend looking tired today? Unusually dressed up? Like they fell in a ditch and crawled out?
Side characters can also take actions that involve various parts of their body, clothes, or general appearance, making it easy to work in a little description of their features. Below is a quick example of using action to specify a character has six arms.
Glastah was waiting with a drink in each hand. He handed one to me and gave the other five to my associates.
It’s also possible to violate viewpoint by skipping description of something the viewpoint character should be looking at. The Witcher book Blood of Elves has a scene where the viewpoint character is woken up from a nightmare by the main character, Geralt. After waking, he continues talking to her, but she bizarrely examines the trees instead of him.
She woke, numb and drenched in sweat, with her scream – the scream which had woken her – still hanging in the air, still vibrating somewhere within her […]
“Ciri. Calm down.”
The night was dark and windy, the crowns of the surrounding pine trees rustling steadily and melodiously, their limbs and trunks creaking in the wind. There was no malevolent fire, no screams, only this gentle lullaby. Beside her the campfire flickered with light and warmth, its reflected flames glowing from harness buckles, gleaming red in the leather-wrapped and iron-banded hilt of a sword leaning against a saddle on the ground. There was no other fire and no other iron. The hand against her cheek smelled of leather and ashes. Not of blood.
At the end there, we get a description of this hand, but not the rest of him. This makes it feel like there’s a hole where the character should be.
How Do We Describe Other People Respectfully?
While I can’t include a comprehensive guide to being respectful to everyone, I can put in a few basics.
Watch Out for Common Issues
- Don’t use food for skin color. Food is for consumption, so using it in description comes off as objectifying. That means no skin the color of chocolate, cinnamon, caramel, or cream. You can describe skin color with simple terms like “brown” or get more elaborate, as in “mahogany.” Just don’t use food. Read our Q&A on specifying that a character is Black.
- Don’t describe the eyes of Asian people as “almond-shaped.” Asian people have a huge diversity of eye shapes. In addition, focusing on their eyes feels othering and reminiscent of many racist stereotypes. To specify a character is Asian, add in some cultural signals. Names often work well for this.
- Don’t use terms for disability or assistive devices that have negative connotations. Awareness of ableism is very low right now, so even common terms used for disabilities are likely to be ableist. For instance, “confined to a wheelchair,” “fake leg,” and “deformed” all have negative connotations, making them stigmatizing terms. Research respectful language for whatever you’re describing. For a list of ableist terms, we recommend Ableism/Language by Lydia X. Z. Brown.
- Don’t describe women in terms of how sexy – or not sexy – they are. Description of women should bring out their unique personalities instead of grading their appearance on a scale from hot to repulsive. Don’t focus on their breasts and butts, and definitely don’t compare their breasts to fruit. It’s okay for the love interest to be attractive, but evaluating her body parts in detail will still come off as creepy and objectifying. See examples of objectifying description or read our article on describing women without degrading them.
- Be gender affirming. If you’re a cis person describing trans and/or nonbinary characters, the most important thing you can do is simply treat them like other men and women, or for nonbinary folks, stick to a neutral presentation. Err on the side of making trans men masculine and trans women feminine. Don’t try to describe features that make them come off as trans. While trans bodies come in all types, right now we should leave the nuance to trans writers. Read our Q&A on showing that a character is trans.
Use Neutral Language for Sensitive Features
Use neutral language to refer to characteristics that are associated with privileged or marginalized people. Do the same for any feature that is inherent to someone’s body or is part of a lifestyle that should be respected. That includes:
- Skin color
- Racial hair features
- Racial eye features
- Body weight
- Size of breasts or hips
- Body hair
- Scars or birthmarks
- Visible disabilities
- Adaptive devices
- Religious apparel
It’s easy to believe that describing marginalized features as inherently beautiful would be respectful, but that’s not the case. Singling out those features that way is inherently othering, and it leads to fetishization, objectification, and exotification. This is why you should avoid using “curvy” when you want to describe someone who is fat.
This doesn’t mean you can’t describe dark or pale skin as beautiful, just don’t describe it as appealing simply because of its color. Instead, describe how this dark or pale skin is also smooth or soft.
If you’re not sure what’s neutral, looking up the origin and history of words can be helpful. If a word originated as an insult about a marginalized group or began as a neutral term for that group that morphed into an insult, it’s no good.
Check for Stereotyping
Knowing what stereotypes affect the group you are depicting is very helpful in avoiding problems. When you describe a character, you can choose whether your description reinforces stereotypes or works against them.
- Does every white woman have caring eyes and a gentle smile?
- Does every Black woman stare flatly at the closest white person before delivering her sassy one-liner?
- When it’s time to describe some scientists, do Asian people enter the story for the first time?
Some writing habits that are good in other situations can lead to trouble. If you aim to make your description of a marginalized group more fun and entertaining, that will very likely result in exotification. Any group of people is normal to themselves; marginalized characteristics don’t exist for entertainment.
When I did a critique of Gemma Doyle’s opening, I copied and pasted all the descriptions of Indians into a list for comparison. The list is below.
- “an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness”
- “The old, blind Indian man smiles toothlessly”
- “turbaned men chatter and squawk and bargain, lifting brightly colored silks toward us with brown, sunbaked hands”
- “Sarita, our long-suffering housekeeper, offers pomegranates in her leathery hand”
- “She breaks into a gap-toothed smile that makes every deeply etched wrinkle in her face come alive”
This is racial stereotyping. On top of that, using disability to make this old Indian man feel exotic is ableist too. If you wrote this kind of thing unthinkingly as you raced to get a draft done, that’s not really your fault. But it is your fault if you don’t audit your description and fix it before your work is published.
For any character that appears in the story only briefly, it’s best to focus description on who they are as an individual rather than any group traits. If the character is important to the story, then you should have time to work in their identity as a person of a specific race, disability, etc. in a more subtle and nuanced manner.
How Can We Describe a Whole Crowd?
Now let’s say you have a whole crowd of people to describe. This works just like environmental description, only with people in the environment.
Start by briefly describing the space or crowd in general. Is the dive bar dark and smoky, or is the arena vast and open to a cloudy sky? What type of crowd is it and how big? You don’t have to cover everything; just touch on what you think is interesting or remarkable. When describing size, use relative descriptors rather than giving specific numbers.
Once you’re done with that, offer a few specific examples of people – or notable groups of people – and what those people are doing. Even if the people have been turned into statues, they’ll be in specific poses or holding specific items.
Below is my sample description of the cantina in Star Wars: A New Hope.
Luke paused at the cantina entrance. Under dimly lit arches, a quartet of bulb-headed creatures played wailing pipes before a bustling crowd from across the galaxy. In a far corner, several furry men howled over their card game. At the brightly lit counter, the bartender poured a smoking spirit for a giant slug. Luke hadn’t even left Tatooine, and he already felt lost.
For more, I have an article on depicting background characters.
All description relies on a similar set of principles. Set expectations for important features, be specific enough to give readers a clear picture, and be true to your narration style. If you practice your description in general, you’ll have an easier time when a character walks through the door.
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