When you plot out your story – whether it’s outlining it in great detail in a notebook, or just trying to germinate seeds of ideas in your head – you’ll probably have a rudimentary idea what your characters look like.
Usually, their appearance will be commensurate with what role they might be playing, e.g. an action hero might be tall, strong, with a square jaw; a geek might be weaselly and wear glasses; an everyman might be nondescript, (keeping in mind these are stereotypes to give you the broadest idea), etc.
Just as you’ll have an idea what your characters look like, readers will also form an image of them in their heads, extrapolating from the most basic ingredients – name, occupation, the way they talk, the way they act, etc.
Take the following details, for example: the name of Lance Solis, thirty-something, a policeman and divorcee with two kids, one of whom has autism. There’s nothing overtly descriptive here, but from these details you’ll start to imagine what Lance will look like. A picture will form. Of course, given everybody’s unique (and everybody thinks uniquely), readers might even visualise the character completely contrary to what you intend.
There’s been times I’ve read stories and formed images in my mind of characters, only to have the author suddenly insert that the character is, for example, blonde, which makes me stop and pause because I’ve been picturing them as a brunette, (or whatever the case might be).
It’s something to keep in mind when drawing your character and how you portray them.
Now, there’s no right or wrong way to describe them. Some authors opt to effectively dump a ton of information (on you) in relation to the way the character looks (and, possibly, behaves). Take, for example, this excerpt from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News:
- Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
His jobs: distributor of vending machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.
A watery place. And Quoyle feared water, could not swim. Again and again the father had broken his clenched grip and thrown him into pools, brooks, lakes and surf. Quoyle knew the flavor of brack and waterweed.
From this youngest son’s failure to dog-paddle the father saw other failures multiply like an explosion of virulent cells — failure to speak clearly; failure to sit up straight; failure to get up in the morning; failure in attitude; failure in ambition and ability; indeed, in everything. His own failure.
Quoyle shambled, a head taller than any child around him, was soft. He knew it. “Ah, you lout,” said the father. But no pygmy himself. And brother Dick, the father’s favorite, pretended to throw up when Quoyle came into a room, hissed “Lardass, Snotface, Ugly Pig, Warthog, Stupid, Stinkbomb, Fart-tub, Greasebag,” pummeled and kicked until Quoyle curled, hands over head, sniveling, on the linoleum. All stemmed from Quoyle’s chief failure, a failure of normal appearance.
A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.
Some anomalous gene had fired up at the moment of his begetting as a single spark sometimes leaps from banked coals, had given him a giant’s chin. As a child he invented stratagems to deflect stares; a smile, downcast gaze, the right hand darting up to cover the chin.
From the opening (and this goes on), Quoyle is drawn for us so we form an unmistakeable picture of what he looks like (and who he is). Also, given the details, we’re prejudiced into forming an expectation of the sort of story we’ll be reading.
Alternatively, we could seed in the details as the narrative unfolds. Consider this excerpt from Patrick Suskind’s Perfume in describing Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s mother:
- Here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on July 17, 1738. It was one of the hottest days of the year. The heat lay leaden upon the graveyard, squeezing its putrefying vapor, a blend of rotting melon and the fetid odor of burnt animal horn, out into the nearby alleys. When the labor pains began, Grenouille’s mother was standing at a fish stall in the rue aux Fers, scaling whiting that she had just gutted. The fish, ostensibly taken that very morning from the Seine, already stank so vilely that the smell masked the odor of corpses. Grenouille’s mother, however, perceived the odor neither of the fish nor of the corpses, for her sense of smell had been utterly dulled, besides which her belly hurt, and the pain deadened all susceptibility to sensate impressions. She only wanted the pain to stop, she wanted to put this revolting birth behind her as quickly as possible. It was her fifth. She had effected all the others here at the fish booth, and all had been stillbirths or semi-stillbirths, for the bloody meat that emerged had not differed greatly from the fish guts that lay there already, nor had lived much longer, and by evening the whole mess had been shoveled away and carted off to the graveyard or down to the river. It would be much the same this day, and Grenouille’s mother, who was still a young woman, barely in her mid-twenties, and who still was quite pretty and had almost all her teeth in her mouth and some hair on her head and-except for gout and syphilis and a touch of consumption-suffered from no serious disease, who still hoped to live a while yet, perhaps a good five or ten years, and perhaps even to marry one day and as the honorable wife of a widower with a trade or some such to bear real children . . . Grenouille’s mother wished that it were already over. And when the final contractions began, she squatted down under the gutting table and there gave birth, as she had done four times before, and cut the newborn thing’s umbilical cord with her butcher knife. But then, on account of the heat and the stench, which she did not perceive as such but only as an unbearable, numbing something-like a field of lilies or a small room filled with too many daffodils-she grew faint, toppled to one side, fell out from under the table into the street, and lay there, knife in hand.
Whichever your preference, what should be noted are that the details are strong and specific. They’re not simply a bland, ‘blonde, blue-eyed, with a dimpled smile’ – the sort of description that could fit anybody. These (details) are striking and go a long way to personifying the character (and, thus, by extension, the story).
This is arguably the most important aspect of describing characters – finding details that are distinctive. Additionally, they form a framework which both the story and the reader will fill in to produce a whole picture.
Keep in mind when describing characters, it’s not just about appearance. Character description also involves mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, e.g. a limp, a tic, the way a character might hold their right arm cocked (implying an injury). There really is no limit to the way you can physically manifest your characters and use these details to shape them into unique entities.
As an exercise, consider how you’d describe yourself beyond the generics and what quirks, unique to you, might make an impression on others.
Then apply the same logics to your characters.