I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve always felt that one of the most incredible aspects about writing is coming up with the characters. This person exists only in your mind, and then they’re breathing on a page, forever tangible. You’re practically creating life. If you’re lucky, you could create a character that becomes beloved far beyond the pages of your work, the type of character that people relate to, connect with, and stay in love with forever (like Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, or Elizabeth Bennett).
Because of the pressure behind creating this kind of character, sometimes that initial description can be pretty hard to nail. Sure, personality and actions are the most important aspects of a character, but physical description is arguably just as important—this is what your reader will be picturing throughout the rest of your story, so you have to make sure you get it right from the start. And there’s something about describing a human being – creating one from scratch, or worse, creating one based on someone that I actually know—that always just makes me feel so incredibly awkward.
In real life, people don’t get to choose how they look. Sure, they can pick what clothes they wear or how they style their hair, but almost everything else is out of their control. In literature, on the other hand, a character’s physical description is a tangible extension of their personality, so choosing a description becomes a game, one where you get to take advantage of common conceptions about appearance to help your reader make assumptions about your character’s personality right off the bat. On the flip side, you can use these conceptions to your advantage by turning them into a “red herring,” implying that your character is one way because of how they look, then tricking your reader by suddenly revealing that this stereotype is wrong (for example, giving a secretly villainous characters freckles or dimples, which commonly indicate sweetness or innocence in literature). Here are a few common concepts about physical traits that you can use to piece together the puzzle that is your characters’ appearances.
1. Hair: Hair is actually arguably one of the most immediate indicators of personality in literature, so a good description can help establish your characters’ inner qualities very quickly. For example, it’s no secret that characters with red hair almost always have wild, fiery personalities. Correlations between other shades of hair and personality aren’t accurate 100% of the time, but black hair sometimes corresponds to angsty, bold personalities (like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or the male protagonists of pretty much every anime ever), brown hair is one of the most common hair shades in the world (so it’s great for protagonists that you want to be instantly relatable), and hair that is dyed weird colors is an instant indicator that your character is quirky, eccentric, or otherwise unique and interesting. Making your character have either messy or polished hair is another quick and easy personality indicator. Messy hair often corresponds to a carefree, possibly eccentric personality, while smooth, polished hair often correlates to more competent, professional characters. Apparently nothing says “I have my life together” in literature like sleek hair.
2. Scars, piercings, or tattoos: An air of mystery and edginess. Stories about how the character got said tattoo or scar also work as great developmental opportunities during low-action “response” scenes in books as well.
3. Eyes: Or more specifically, eye temperature. Have you noticed that you can always tell a lot about a personality based on whether the initial description of their stare describes it as cold, warm, or blazing? Eye color can also play an important role in establishing personality: brown eyes have been scientifically shown to be considered more trustworthy than blue eyes, and gray eyes often correlate in literature to a dreamy, whimsical personality (like Anne Shirley).
4. Glasses: Instant indicator of intelligence or quirkiness, whether or not that is necessarily true of a character.
5. Nose: This one might be the easiest. Get one adjective about your character’s nose right, and you could fill in all the blanks of their personality. Is it hooked? Probably villainous, or at the very least, a mean headmistress at a boarding school. Crooked? Probably untrustworthy. Upturned? Condescending and snobby. Pinched? Cold and uptight personality. The possibilities are endless.
Of course, no amount of physical description can ever replace real personality. Those shine through in your characters’ actions and inner dialogue. However, nailing these descriptions from the start will not only help your reader establish a more instantaneous connection with your character, but it will also help you develop a clearer idea of who exactly you’re working with. All of which will, in turn, make it much easier to imagine how a character will act, plus help you to write them and their actions even better. Happy writing!
Taylor Simonds is an Orlando-based professional editor and writer. She is currently a contracted manuscript editor for Write My Wrongs and a staff writer for CollegeFashion, and has previously worked in writing and editing for Anaphora Literary Press and MuggleNet. She is a fan of all things literary and is never without a book, but in her free time she can most often be found wandering Disney World, vintage shopping, or working on her first novel, which she wishes would just finish itself.