Readers love to read about interesting characters. What makes a character interesting, though? Usually, it’s how you describe them. As a writer, you’ll need to create memorable descriptions of their mental, physical, and emotional state. Here are a few tips on how to create vivid character descriptions.
Go Beyond a BOLO
When the police issue a BOLO, they provide a brief description of a person they want everyone to “be on the lookout” for. That might be a white male, aged 30-45, dressed in blue jeans and a Marlin’s t-shirt. That’s enough to potentially identify a stranger, but as a writer, you need to go way beyond such a mundane report. When portraying your protagonist’s looks, think of unique ways to sketch him. You don’t need to detail every square inch of the person, but point out parts that reveal character or inner life.
Take this example from Booker Prize winner Hillary Mantel’s, The Mirror and the Light (2020), which is the third in her remarkable trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.
The duke’s great hall is like an armourer’s shop and Thomas Howard, batting to and fro, looks more worn and gristly than ever, like a man who has chewed and digested himself.
Mantel didn’t say that Howard was looking “old and tired” or “stressed.” She provided a description that is vivid. The guy looks like he chewed and digested himself. His state is well beyond “stress.” Not everyone can be as succinct and effective as Mantel, but we can try.
Avoid Clichés/Be Specific
It’s easy to write clichés because we’ve all heard them so often that they’re like a record player, going around and round in your mind. (See? I couldn’t help myself.) The cliché was at the top of my brain, which makes it common to put on paper, especially in the first draft. Take care that when you add adjectives to clarify your character descriptions (for instance, what kind of blue eyes did the protagonist have?), you don’t reach for the tried and true. Are her eyes sky blue? Are they the color of the ocean? Or are they the “grey-blue of Advent light”? The more specific you are, the less likely you’ll veer into cliché.
If you’re getting stuck on writing vivid, memorable descriptions in your first draft, either decide to revisit them later or spend time doing a character sketch.
Choose the Revealing Description
In general, you don’t have to provide a lengthy description of your characters all at once. You can instead drip in the information over the course of the story, using the most revealing pieces when they work best for the plot. Remember, a person’s looks, emotional state, and knowledge are not static. They change. The model looks different on the runway than she does after a six-mile run or after she’s been up all night looking for her missing daughter. Slipping in a pointed description can reveal more than a paragraph of generic narrative.
His eyes meet the duke’s: those indented, fiery pits.
Again, pulling from Mantel’s The Light and Mirror, Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk are having a testy conversation.
Note this three-word description of the duke tells us that he’s furious without having to say the word “furious.” The term “indented, fiery pits” also evokes (to me) something sinister, maybe devilish. This man is not only angry, his anger is potentially dangerous. The author is able to evoke quite a lot in three well-chosen words.
Character descriptions will be most vivid when you are specific, avoid clichés, and choose the most revealing accounts. If you do these things while also sharing the descriptions that serve your plot at the same time, you’ll have written memorable characters.