Having compelling characters in your novel can be the difference between a good story and a great one, igniting a reader’s imagination with every turn of the page. Some of the most memorable fictional characters have lasted the test of time because of how the author described them.
From Heathcliff to Fagin, from Scarlett O’Hara to Matilda, the way these characters look, move, behave, and interact with others and their surroundings make them larger than life, leaving a lasting impression because they feel so real.
In this article, we’re going to look at the fourteen questions every writer should ask themselves when planning on describing their main characters.
Use this guide as a checklist and learn how strong character descriptions can bring your book to life!
How To Write Compelling Character Descriptions
When it comes to writing character descriptions, many people instantly think of physical details. Yes, it’s often important to show what your character is wearing or what colour their hair is, but real people are made up of more than just a police lineup description.
To reveal character traits beyond a physical attribute you need to go deeper. When you understand your character’s flaws, needs, fears, ambitions, childhood, and past and future goals, you can unearth a richer and more believable person.
This involves looking at each non-visual medium as well as the surroundings of that character and how they influence them, their behaviour, and their persona.
Why Are Character Descriptions Important?
A professional writer knows that character description is incredibly important. Without character development, your story is just a plot that no one will care about.
A reader connects not with the adventure, but with the person embarking on it. They’re not invested in the love story but in the two people experiencing it. They don’t care about how someone was murdered as much as who was murdered and who did it.
When a reader empathises with a character, that story becomes so much more important. When a reader roots for the hero, or hates the villain, they will keep turning those pages.
An author gets just one chance to make an impactful first impression, to include the right details to make their characters jump off the page – so make sure you make each character unique!
Let’s discover how you can do that by asking yourself the following questions…
14 Questions To Ask Yourself When You Describe Characters
Here are the first fourteen questions any writer should ask themselves when developing their characters and describing them to readers. Feel free to add even more, but if you don’t know the answer to any of these then your reader may struggle to imagine what each character is like.
And remember, you can describe a character in many different and original ways, even if you completely leave out physical appearance – if a reader knows enough about them they will fill in the blanks. That’s the magic of storytelling!
1. What Is Their Background?
This question is very important.
In Dickens’ Oliver Twist, an orphan boy joins a street gang of young London thieves. Dickens knew Oliver came from an affluent family originally, so ensured the boy’s characteristics were gentle, a little meek, and his physical attributes fine and elegant.
Dickens then provides the perfect foil character in Oliver’s new pickpocketing friend, The Artful Dodger, who is described very differently. We know Dodger is from the rough streets of Victorian London by the way he talks, dresses, moves and behaves.
This is a wonderful description of The Artful Dodger!Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again.
2. Can You Include A Foil Character?
When you have two characters, try and make them opposite to one another – these are called foil characters. Foil characters are very useful in literature as they enhance and highlight the main character’s traits by showing the reader opposite ones.
For instance, if you want to emphasise how mean a character is, then have them go shopping with someone who’s overly generous. Likewise, show how quiet and insecure someone is by having them recoil in horror as their companion booms and shouts and draws attention to them.
3. How Old Are They?
How a child sees the world is very different to how an adult does.
In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the protagonist is a very young girl who is incredibly clever. She’s everything a ‘good’ child should be and very advanced for her age. We can see that through the way she dresses (with a red ribbon in her hair), her habits (she loves to read and go to the library alone), and her resourcefulness (she can’t carry all the books by herself so takes a toy trolley to put them in).
In contrast – once again, those helpful foil characters – her parents are everything a ‘bad’ parent can be. They don’t cook proper meals, insist their children eat in front of the TV, and barely pay any attention to them (and when they do it’s to critique them); they continuously put looks and money above their children’s educational needs.
The age of a character not only determines how they dress and the way they speak, but it can also influence how they act. If you want to portray a child as being cruel, they may pull another child’s hair or call them names. If you want to show an adult in the same way (like Matilda’s nemesis, Mrs Trunchbull) you may show her not sharing her special chocolates and scaring the children who she’s meant to be looking after.
Likewise, those attributes may influence their physical descriptions. As Roald Dahl said himself in his book, The Twits:
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.The Twits by Roald Dahl
4. What Are Their Physical Features?
Physical descriptions are the easiest way to paint a picture of a character – but they’re also the least imaginative.
For example, the physical characteristics of a character may be:
- Hair colour – brown hair, black hair, blonde hair etc.
- Eye colour – brown eyes, green eyes, blue eyes etc.
- Build – tall, short, slim, overweight, muscly, average build (whatever that means) etc.
But, unless the eye colour is vital to the storyline (in my own book, The Path Keeper, Zac’s eye colour plays a fundamental role in the entire trilogy), using up half a page to describe how they look is boring.
When describing bodily features and other details, try to think of very specific characteristics such as perhaps a scar, the shape of their nose, chewed fingernails, or hair that has greying roots. Although stay away from stereotypes, especially when it comes to race, ethnicity, and other minorities.
Likewise, don’t have them staring into the mirror contemplating their looks so the reader knows what they look like. Men, take note, no woman ever thinks about the size or shape of their breasts!
Let’s take a look at Dickens again and his character in Hard Times, the boastful, self-important Mr. Bounderby.
Here’s a bad example of how he could be described, using just physical attributes:
He was six foot two and weighed 250 pounds, with brown hair and dull blue eyes. His suit was made from rough tweed and his leather boots looked expensive. He worked in a bank and his laugh was very loud.
Not very evocative. It sounds like you’re giving the police a description of the man who ran off with all your money.
This is how Dickens actually describes Mr Bounderby:
He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him.Hard Times by Charles Dickens
5. What Are They Wearing?
Clothes say a lot about a person. Not just in terms of whether they are dressed formally, casually or in a uniform, but also in how they wear their clothes.
Do they have a button missing? Are their trousers ironed with a crease down the centre or are they crumpled? Are there clothes old and worn, or new and from designer brands?
What about their shoes? Is a woman wearing heels to do something that would be better suited to trainers? Does a man wear his expensive suit accessorised with odd colourful socks?
In Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning novel The Blind Assassin, the narrator Iris begins the story thinking back to her sister Laura’s death.
Laura’s troubled personality shines through in Atwood’s descriptions of her clothing:
I could picture the smooth oval of Laura’s face, her neatly pinned chignon, the dress she would have been wearing: a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours – less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in.The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
6. What Is Their Job?
When it comes to showing, not telling, a job can really help describe a person (as in the case of the banker above).
If a novel opens with a nurse tending to a sick child and then stopping to pet a cat on her way home, it’s highly unlikely she’s going to be cruel and uncaring. There’s no need to say ‘Kate was a very patient and kind woman who loved children and animals’ if you’ve already demonstrated that by her profession and actions.
Likewise, a gardener will enjoy being outdoors and a sailor will be comfortable out on the ocean. Or, to make things more interesting, you could have your gardener scared of worms and your sailor unable to swim!
7. What Makes Them Unique?
A character’s personality is determined by how they move and act, as well as how they look. Give them a quirky personality and some character traits people won’t forget in a hurry.
If I write about a woman who collects buttons, which she then leaves behind on the body of every man she murders, you will probably have a very distinct idea of what she looks like. In contrast, a woman who lives in a hut in the forest, breeds ferrets, and makes her own clothes, will look, move, sound, and behave very differently.
8. How Do They Move?
Physical attributes determine how a character moves, and body language says a lot about a person.
For instance, if a teen character is awkward with long legs and arms, they may lope, amble, or bump into things. If someone is young and healthy they may run everywhere. If they are older, or unwell, they may move slower or more deliberately.
9. How Are They Feeling?
You can describe a character’s face and body language, or you can tell the readers what they are thinking and feeling. Facial expressions are a great way to determine what that character is like.
For instance, a man with creases around his eyes from smiling a lot, is going to be a very different character from one who has deep furrows on his forehead from being constantly angry.
I don’t recommend you focus on skin colour, but if the character is white then describing pale skin that’s clammy at the touch may indicate they’re unwell, or that they don’t get out of the house much.
10. How Do They Interact With Their Surroundings?
The people in your book don’t live on a blank page; all characters inhabit a place – the setting of your book. How they interact with their surroundings says a lot about their character.
If the book is set in the jungle, the character who is scared and over-reacting is going to be a very different type of person to the one who is fearless.
Surprise your readers. Maybe the muscly man is scared, and the older lady wearing a floral dress is the one who fights off the killer snakes.
Consider other sensory details.
Does your character like the smell of flowers, or does it remind them of their abusive grandmother? Or do they prefer the scent of bleach because they have a cleaning addiction that stems from their sad childhood? What about the food they eat, the sounds they pick up, and the way they see the world?
Be creative with how they react to the environment.
11. What Do Other People Think About Them?
It’s always fun to have a character perceive themselves one way, and then demonstrate how they’re perceived by others.
Write character descriptions that are contradictory. If you have an obnoxious character that’s despised by everyone he works with, have him think he’s the smartest, most helpful person in the office. If you have a child who doubts their ability at school, have them be the teacher’s secret favourite.
In Emily Brontë’s, Wuthering Heights, the protagonist Heathcliff is a contradictory mix of wild ways and gentlemanly expectations. You can see that juxtaposition in the way the author describes him:
But Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman, that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire.Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
12. What Do They Think Of Those Around Them?
I am yet to meet a more fascinating character than Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in the novel Perfume, by Patrick Süskind.
His extreme olfactory powers mean that he experiences the world through his intense sense of smell. Everyone around him has a pungent, overbearing odour, while he himself has absolutely no scent at all. This in turn results in him hating all human beings.
People left him alone. And that was all he wanted.Perfume by Patrick Süskind
That line alone tells you everything you need to know about how others perceive him and how he perceives them.
Think about how your characters view their friends, colleagues, family members, children and partners.
13. How Do They Behave?
How a character treats others is extremely telling of their values and personality.
In Joanna Harris’ book, Chocolat, the main character Vianne describes a customer in her shop as:
His face is small, delicately featured. He is the kind of man who breaks biscuits in two and saves the other half for later.Chocolat by Joanna Harris
No eye or hair color, no clothing or job description. None of that is needed. We know exactly what kind of man he is by the physical description of ‘small’ and ‘delicate’ and his precise actions.
14. Are They A Cliché?
It’s too easy, when describing a character, to have them fit a specific (and unoriginal) mold. Is your hero tall, dark and handsome? Is your teenager surly and distant? Is your old man cranky and bigoted?
In Jonas Jonasson’s book, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, the main character is not only full of adventure and hope – but he’s 100 years old. And nothing like you would expect an old man to be!
People could behave how they liked, but Allan considered that in general it was quite unnecessary to be grumpy if you had the chance not to.The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Describe A Character’s Appearance?
When describing a character’s appearance, only focus on the details which are relevant to the story. So if your character’s going undercover and wearing a short blonde wig, it would be useful to know that their hair is usually long and brown, so their disguise is likely to be somewhat effective.
Remember, your character’s description goes beyond just what they look like. You can let your readers know a lot about a character by how they:
- Interact with others
- Interact with their surroundings
As well as their backgrounds, their values, and how others see them.
What Are Six Ways To Describe A Character?
There are six key ways to describe a character:
- Physical appearance
- How they speak
- How they move
- How they treat others
- Unique tics and character traits
- How they interact with their surroundings
Great Character Description Matters
Good character description matters. Whether you are writing a novel, a short story, or even the blurb of your book – descriptive details in your writing will help your reader’s imagination and bring your characters to life.
I hope this article has given you inspiration for your characters and helped you imagine them beyond their dark hair and green eyes. The joy of being a writer is that once you have imagined your characters in depth, after that they should write the rest of the book for you.
As author William Faulkner once said:
It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.William Faulkner
Have fun catching up with your book cast!