Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Physical Description and Character

As I work on my novel revision, one of the things I'm trying to do is to create stronger characters. There are a lot of elements that go into this, but one of the things I noticed is that I have almost no physical descriptions of my characters in my writing (though I do have a lot of scenes showing physical reactions and what they are doing). Does it matter?

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King advises me to include only enough physical description to help readers picture a character. As a reader, I tend to agree. I actually don't like reading too much about a character's appearance. I find it easier to put myself in the character's shoes if I don't have to keep noticing our physical dissimilarities (or put effort into ignoring them). And since I write MG fiction, I'm always being careful not to include too much of any kind of description. For the tiny amount that I do include I'm thinking about:

1. Using other characters. I like having other characters refer to details about the main character (or another character). Of course, these details need to be blended in where they fit with the story, not mentioned just for the sake of mentioning them. (The cliched device of having the character looking in a mirror to describe herself springs to mind.)

2. Showing. The old show vs. tell comes up here again. It's easy to throw in an adjective to describe; much harder, but more effective, to show physical characteristics through what the character is doing or through reactions (e.g., brushing long hair out of their eyes to avoid answering a question).

3. Giving out details bit by bit. I try to avoid info dumps of any kind, including descriptive ones. As a reader, I like the way the character develops in my mind as a story moves along. Part of that is learning more about what they look like, or, even better, what is significant about the details of their appearance the author has chosen to include (e.g., their eyes are the same colour as their grandmother's).

4. Being specific. I figure that if I'm only mentioning a few physical details, they'd better be the most relevant ones. Something that will help readers remember my character and something that helps show their personality, without seeming too unnatural or contrived.

Do you have any tips for writing physical descriptions? How do they affect your reading?


I notice that The Bookshelf Muse has a great post on writing physical descriptions you might want to check out.

The Sharp Angle has some great advice and examples for describing physical appearance.

Darcy Pattison uses Chris Crutcher's Whale Talk to illustrate how to use interesting details to create characters.

Agent Mary Kole talks about character self-description, and you can find some great points discussed in the comments to the post.


  1. For me, it's the small details and the internal thoughts that make a character real. Great links!

  2. Excellent post! I'm at that stage of my revisions where I've got to flesh out characters, the important ones at least. And physically describing them I don't think is the best way to do that. I like the books where I can visualize the characters regardless of whether or not the writer describes them.

  3. I've been evaluating these things too. As I revise I'm looking to see where I need more physical descriptions, but like you, as a reader I like to fill in the gaps myself and don't like tons of physical description.

  4. I'm careful to be sure any description is through the POV of my MC. Would she notice this now, or ever? Then it belongs. Would she not? Then it doesn't. Especially in first person. In third, you can occasionally slip in that her eyes are blue even if she wouldn't think that, but that's still dependent on how close the POV you're using.

  5. Great suggestions, Marcia. POV does make a big difference in how much and which physical descriptions to include.

  6. Interesting post. I'll check out the links-thanks!

    MY latest post is on links to two authors and their books who use 'deep POV,' and I'm trying to make the connection.

    Have a great Sunday!

  7. I like your idea of having other characters notice a character's traits. It seems like a good writing tool to avoid the telling that can sneak into a story. Thanks for the tips.

  8. I love Self-Editing, it's a great book. I noticed in the comments to Mary Kole's post that people were talking about comparisons. That's a great way to get what you need across. "I tried to keep up, but I was so much shorter than the other boys." "His face was more serious than his brother's."


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