Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Nose: Character Descriptions for your Novel
There are many schools of thought on writing character descriptions in your novels. Some people are of the “blank slate” variety offering up almost no physical descriptions and letting the reader decide. While others are more into the “give every detail” until their character might as well be a drawing on the page. Most writers fall somewhere in between that spectrum.
There are a variety of factors that determine how and why you might want to describe your characters. In a lot of cases, it might simply come down to personal preferences: some people don’t really care what a character looks like while others want to know everything.
I fall into the latter category and personally have a hard time getting into books where there is little to no physical description of the characters.
And that’s fine—there is no right or wrong answer here. I’m sure some people read about flowing black hair and emerald green eyes and roll their own eyes, wishing the author would just get on with things.
But if you’d like to include more physical descriptions of your characters, we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll go over:
- The benefits of writing character descriptions
- Tips for writing character descriptions, including avoiding stereotypes
- Types of physical descriptions you can use
- Words to help get you thinking about descriptions for your characters
Benefits of Writing Character Descriptions
So let’s start with why you want to include character descriptions in your books. As I stated at the beginning, you can still choose to only use description minimally and often still get the same effect as using more description might.
Helps to establish character identity
Character descriptions are a key tool in helping your reader understand who your characters are and what they might be like. By including details about their physical appearance, personality traits, and behavior, you help create a strong sense of individuality for each character, which makes them easier for your readers to remember and keep track of throughout the story.
Increases reader engagement
When readers have a clear picture of your characters, they often become more invested in the story. By providing vivid descriptions, you create a connection between your reader and your characters, which can make the reader more invested in what happens to them. Describing characters isn’t really any different than describing the world they live in.
Creates character development
Character descriptions can also help you track and show character development throughout your story. As characters change and evolve, you can reflect these changes in their descriptions, such as going from a polished, put-together person who turns unkempt and slovenly as they fall on hard times.
If you're writing a story set in a fantastical or imaginary world, character descriptions can be used to help establish the look and feel of the world. By including details about the clothing, weapons, or other objects that characters use, you can create a rich, believable world that helps fully immerse your reader.
Adds depth to dialogue
Character descriptions can also help you add depth to the dialogue between characters. By providing information about how each character speaks, uses gestures, and carries themselves, you can make dialogue feel more real and convincing.
Enhances the overall writing
Finally, including character descriptions in your writing can help to elevate the overall quality of your writing. By giving the reader a strong sense of who the characters are and what they're like, you can create a more immersive and engaging reading experience.
Tips for Writing Character Descriptions
If that’s enough to convince you to start writing some more character descriptions for your book, then let’s look at a few tips on how to include them.
Start with the basics
When writing a character description, begin with their physical appearance, including their height, weight, hair and eye color, and any distinctive features. Make sure you also include information about their age, ethnicity, and any scars or tattoos, or anything else of note.
Show, don't tell
Rather than simply telling your readers what your characters look like, show them through their actions and behaviors. For example, if your character is tall, describe the way they move and carry themselves (and have to duck to get under a doorway). If they have curly hair, show how it bounces when they walk. This helps your character feel more real and three-dimensional to your reader.
Include personality traits
Physical appearance is important, but it's the character's personality that makes them truly memorable. Think about what makes your character unique and how they interact with others. Consider their motivations, values, beliefs, and quirks. Are they shy, confident, or somewhere in between? Do they have a strong moral code or are they more of a rogue? By giving your character a well-defined personality, you'll make them more relatable to your readers.
Use sensory details
When describing your characters, try to incorporate other sensory details. This makes descriptions more vivid and engaging for your readers. For example, if your character is wearing a particular outfit, describe the fabric and the way it moves as they walk. If they have a unique scent, mention it. By using sensory details, you'll give your reader a deeper sense of who your character is and what they're like.
Show character development
As your story progresses, your characters will change and evolve. Make sure to reflect these changes in their descriptions. For example, if your character starts out shy and reserved but becomes more confident as the story progresses, make sure to show this change in the way they carry themselves and interact with others.
While it's important to give your characters vivid and well-defined descriptions, it's also important to avoid going overboard. Overloading your readers with too much information can be overwhelming and make your characters feel flat and one-dimensional. Focus on the details that are most important to the story and the characters themselves.
It's important to be consistent with the physical descriptions you give your characters throughout your writing. Take lots of notes and keep track of these details. Inconsistencies in a character's appearance can be distracting and can take away from the overall quality of your writing.
Always keep the purpose of your physical descriptions in mind. If a character's appearance is not central to the story, then you may only need to give a basic description. On the other hand, if a character's appearance plays a significant role, you may want to go into more detail. Different genres, like romance, rely more on physical descriptions (since attraction and relationships are a thing) than other ones like thrillers or mysteries, where a person’s appearance is less relevant or might give away unintentional clues.
This is a really important one, so it gets its own section. When you’re describing characters in your writing, it's essential to avoid using stereotypes and clichés. Stereotyping can perpetuate harmful beliefs and contribute to discrimination and prejudice.
What are stereotypes?
Stereotypes are oversimplified and exaggerated generalizations about groups of people. They are often based on cultural, racial, ethnic, or gender biases and can be harmful to both the individuals and groups they target.
When used in character descriptions, stereotypes can reduce complex, multidimensional individuals to one-dimensional caricatures, which can and historically have been insulting and offensive.
Stereotypes can also limit the diversity and creativity of your storytelling. By relying on common or predictable character traits, you miss the opportunity to explore new and unique perspectives. This can make your characters seem flat, predictable, and uninteresting.
Tips for Avoiding Stereotypes in Character Descriptions
Do your research
Before you start writing, learn about the cultures, races, ethnicities, and genders your characters represent. This will help you understand the nuances of their experiences and perspectives and avoid relying on stereotypes.
Develop complex characters
Create characters who are more than just their cultural, racial, ethnic, or gender identity. Give them unique interests, hobbies, and personalities. Allow them to have flaws, contradictions, and diverse perspectives.
Avoid using physical descriptions as shorthand for personality traits
For example, using "slender and elegant" to describe a character's appearance and implying that they are also sophisticated and graceful. Physical appearance is just one aspect of a character's identity and should not be used to make assumptions about their worth or behavior.
Be mindful of language
The words you use to describe your characters can reinforce negative stereotypes. Use language that is respectful and avoids negative or reductive connotations. If you’re writing characters outside your lived experience such as someone of a different race or sexuality than you, hire a sensitivity reader. You can do all the research in the world, but you don’t know what you don’t know.
Types of Physical Descriptions
Now that we’ve covered some of the dos and don’ts of writing character descriptions, let’s discuss what you can actually describe about your characters. This is just a jumping off point and you certainly don’t have to use all of them to build your characters.
Keep in mind that, while you might come up with all of these details for your characters, you want to be mindful of which ones are actually relevant to telling your story. Remember, don’t go overboard.
External features include a character's height, weight, body type, and general appearance. You can describe their skin color, hair color, eye color, and any distinctive features like freckles or scars. This type of description gives the reader a basic understanding of what the character looks like, which is helpful in creating a mental image.
Describing the type of clothing they wear, including the colors, patterns, and how they fit, can reveal a lot about a character’s personality and social status. For example, a character who wears tailored suits and expensive shoes might be a little snobby and concerned with their image, while a character who wears ripped jeans and t-shirts might be casual and relaxed.
Facial features can be used to give the reader a more in-depth understanding of a character's personality and emotions. You can describe their smile, the way they frown, their cheekbones, and their jawline. You can also describe their eyebrows, the shape of their nose, and the size and shape of their eyes, which can give the reader insight into their emotions.
Body language can be used to give the reader an understanding of a character's emotions and personality without the need for dialogue. Describing the way a character stands, walks, or gestures can reveal a lot about their confidence level, mood, and attitude. For example, a character who slouches and avoids eye contact is likely to be shy, while a character who stands up straight and makes direct eye contact is likely to be confident.
Describing the tone, pitch, and rhythm of a character's voice can reveal a lot about their personality, emotions, and background. For example, a character with a deep, booming voice may be more assertive, while a character with a soft, high-pitched voice may be more timid.
Finally, sensory details can be used to add depth and richness to your character descriptions. Describing the way a character smells, the way their hair feels, or the way their skin looks in different light can make them feel more real and tangible to the reader.
Words to Describe Various Features
As you can see, there are so many ways for you to describe your characters. To help you get started on this, below is a list of ideas and words you can use to describe different aspects of your characters. Obviously, this is just a start and there are literally thousands of ways to describe people in all their various shapes, sizes, colors, and types.
Head and face
- Oval: rounded, elongated, balanced, symmetrical
- Round: full, plump, chubby, cherubic
- Square: angular, defined, strong, masculine
- Heart: pointy, triangular, wider at the temples, narrow at the chin
- Diamond: angular, pointed, narrow at the forehead and jaw, wide at the cheekbones
- Long: elongated, narrow, oval, rectangular
- Triangular: angular, wide at the jaw, narrow at the forehead, inverted heart-shape
- Oblong: elongated, rectangular, similar to oval but longer
- Pear-shaped: narrow at the forehead, wide at the jaw and cheekbones, downward-pointing triangle
- Rectangular: angular, defined, similar to oblong but more squared
- Cheeks: rosy, plump, gaunt, sunken, dimpled, flushed, pale, chubby, hollow
- Chin: pointed, cleft, rounded, prominent, dimpled, double, weak, strong, square
- Ear: large, small, delicate, flapped, pointed, rounded, lobeless, pierced
- Eyes: deep-set, angled, bright, piercing, hooded, wide-set, close-set, beady, slanted, round, droopy, sleepy, sparkling
- Forehead: high, broad, wrinkled, smooth, furrowed, low, narrow, receding
- Jaw: strong, square, defined, angular, jutting, soft, weak, chiseled
- Lips: full, thin, chapped, cracked, puckered, pursed, smiling, quivering, pouty
- Mouth: wide, small, downturned, upturned, smiling, frowning, pouting, grimacing
- Nose: hooked, straight, aquiline, button, long, short, broad, narrow, upturned, downturned, hooked, snub
- Eyebrows: arched, bushy, thin, unkempt, groomed, straight, curved, knitted, furrowed, raised
- Texture: curly, straight, wavy, frizzy, lank, greasy, voluminous, luxurious, tangled, silky, coarse, kinky
- Length: long, short, shoulder-length, waist-length, neck-length, chin-length, buzzed, shaven
- Style: styled, unkempt, messy, wild, sleek, smoothed, braided, ponytail, bun, dreadlocks
- Color: blonde, brunette, red, black, gray, silver, salt-and-pepper, auburn, chestnut, golden, caramel
- Volume: thick, thin, fine, full, limp, voluminous, sparse
- Parting: center-parted, side-parted, combed, brushed, gelled, slicked back
- Bangs: fringed, side-swept, blunt, wispy, thick, thin
- Accessories: headband, scarf, barrettes, clips, pins, extensions, braids, ribbons, beads, feathers
- Build: slender, skinny, lean, athletic, toned, muscular, burly, stocky, rotund, plump, hefty, portly
- Height: tall, short, petite, lanky, willowy, stocky, rotund
- Posture: slouching, upright, hunched, stiff, relaxed, confident, nervous, slumped
- Shape: hourglass, pear-shaped, apple-shaped, athletic, bulky, willowy, curvy
- Muscles: defined, toned, prominent, ripped, flabby, soft
- Fat distribution: chubby, plump, rounded, jiggly, wobbly, flabby, bloated, bloated
- Body hair: hairy, smooth, shaven, beard, goatee, mustache, stubble
- Weight: light, heavy, average, underweight, overweight, obese, lean, skinny
- Body language: confident, nervous, aggressive, submissive, arrogant, timid, confident, relaxed
- Body movements: graceful, clunky, fluid, awkward, jerky, smooth, agile, rigid
- Muscular: ripped, toned, defined, well-built, buff, brawny, burly, strapping
- Athletic: fit, toned, agile, flexible, energetic, muscular, athletic, sporty
- Thin: skinny, slender, slim, lanky, bony, gaunt, angular, wiry
- Stocky: sturdy, broad-shouldered, compact, muscular, solid, robust, heavy-set
- Overweight: plump, chubby, rotund, heavy, portly, corpulent, stout, fleshy
- Fat: overweight, overweight, rotund, heavy, bloated, tubby, round, fat
- Lean: lanky, slender, skinny, thin, wiry, willowy, spare, underweight
- Larger: large, heavy, hefty, substantial, solid, overweight, portly, rotund
- Texture: smooth, soft, silky, rough, bumpy, flaky, scaly, rough
- Tone: fair, light, pale, dark, tan, olive, bronze, ruddy, rosy
- Complexion: clear, radiant, glowing, dull, blotchy, sallow, ruddy, weathered
- Wrinkles: deep, fine, lines, crow's feet, wrinkles, age spots
- Marks: freckles, age spots, birthmarks, moles, scars, blemishes, discoloration
- Tone: even, uneven, patchy, discolored, mottled, sunburned, windburned
- Glow: luminous, radiant, healthy, dull, tired, lifeless
- Tautness: taut, firm, loose, saggy, wrinkles, age spots, slack
- Condition: healthy, glowing, radiant, dry, oily, acne-prone, sunburned, windburned
Note: Be sure to read our article on writing skin colors to get some background on how to write characters of color and avoiding harmful stereotypes when it comes to these descriptions.
- Clothing: trendy, stylish, fashionable, outdated, classic, eclectic, casual, formal, conservative, bold, vibrant, plain, ornate
- Fabric: silk, cotton, wool, leather, denim, lace, satin, velvet, suede, corduroy
- Colors: bright, bold, pastel, neutral, vibrant, muted, monochrome
- Accessories: jewelry, hats, glasses, belts, scarves, gloves, watches, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings
- Shoes: sneakers, boots, sandals, heels, loafers, flats, pumps, oxfords, slippers
- Grooming: well-groomed, unkempt, messy, clean-cut, scruffy, neat
- Hair: styled, messy, curly, straight, braided, dreadlocks, afro, updo, ponytail
- Makeup: natural, bold, minimal, heavy, smokey, colorful, neutral
- Personal grooming: clean, fragrant, unkempt, well-groomed, grooming habits
- Overall appearance: put-together, disheveled, polished, rough, messy, tidy
- Pitch: high, low, nasal, gravelly, scratchy, deep, throaty, husky, raspy
- Volume: loud, soft, whispery, booming, hushed, muted, strident, dulcet
- Tone: monotone, cheerful, sad, angry, bitter, sarcastic, enthusiastic, flat, nasally, gravelly, cheerful, sarcastic
- Speech patterns: slow, fast, articulate, stilted, halting, fluent, confident, nervous, eloquent, mumbled
- Accent: southern, New York, British, Australian, Scottish, Irish, French, German, Spanish
- Tempo: steady, fast-paced, slow, rhythmic, halting, uneven, rapid-fire
- Inflection: rising, falling, flat, questioning, commanding, sing-song, monotone
- Quality: clear, muddled, strained, smooth, raspy, breathy, husky, scratchy
- Emotion: sad, angry, joyful, frightened, nervous, confident, excited, monotone, cheerful, bitter
- Distinctiveness: unique, distinctive, common, generic, typical, atypical.
- Floral: rose, lavender, jasmine, gardenia, lilac, daisy
- Fruity: apple, peach, citrus, berry, tropical, mango
- Spicy: cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, pepper, ginger, vanilla
- Earthy: wood, moss, pine, soil, leaves, grass
- Musky: animalistic, wild, sensual, exotic, primitive, earthy
- Sweet: sugar, candy, chocolate, caramel, vanilla, honey
- Fresh: clean, soapy, crisp, fresh-cut grass, ocean, mint
- Pungent: sour, sharp, acrid, acidic, biting, rank
- Chemical: antiseptic, bleach, alcohol, gasoline, paint, rubber
- Miscellaneous: perfume, cologne, cigarette smoke, body odor, aftershave, hair spray
- Posture: upright, slouching, slumped, stiff, relaxed, confident, timid
- Gestures: pointing, waving, nodding, shaking, shrugging, crossing arms, twirling hair
- Facial expression: smiling, frowning, scowling, smirking, biting lip, raised eyebrow, blank stare
- Eye contact: direct, avoiding, intense, fleeting, guarded, bold
- Movements: quick, slow, deliberate, graceful, clunky, hesitant, energetic
- Touch: holding, embracing, patting, slapping, grabbing, caressing
- Tone of voice: loud, soft, monotone, animated, friendly, gruff
- Fidgeting: tapping, shuffling, jiggling, biting nails, twirling hair, fumbling
- Stance: wide, narrow, balanced, off-center, tense, relaxed
- Proximity: close, distant, invading personal space, avoiding proximity
Whew, that is a lot to keep track of. And if you’re like most people, you probably have more than one character in your novel. In fact, you might have dozens. While you might not go into as much detail about your side characters as you do your main ones, you’ll still want some grasp of their physical characteristics.
Thankfully, Dabble is the perfect tool to keep on top of every single trait you assign to your characters. Using their Story Notes function you can keep in-depth dossiers of every character, their eye color, height, age, accent, you name it. The best part is those descriptions are right there and easy to access while you’re drafting and editing your novel.
Give it a go with their 14-day free trial and see how it works for you.
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
While the terms "story" and "plot" are often used interchangeably, they are actually two distinct elements of narrative, and understanding the difference can be a useful tool in your storytelling arsenal. You’re going to need some of both to create a compelling book that’ll have your readers coming back for more.
Editing. That tricky little step between drafting and publishing. Okay, maybe it’s not so little. Actually, it’s kind of important. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s actually the most important part. And the limb is very short. But where do you start? You’ve got all these words and now you have to take your messy first draft and make them actually readable. You know editing’s a thing, but you’ve probably heard there is more than one kind of editing. One of the most comprehensive is known as content or development editing. This is often the first kind of editing any book sees and, for new writers, can be a valuable step in honing their craft.
We tend to give a lot of thought to our characters when we’re writing. Their likes and dislikes. Their appearance and disposition. Hopefully their wants, goals, motivations, flaws and all the things that make them feel like real people. But how much thought do you give to actually introducing them to your readers? A strong introduction to a character can help make or break that character and the way your reader perceives them. So what’s in an introduction, anyway?