Looks Aren’t Everything–Or Are They?

No matter what genre you write in, there’s a particular difficulty that every single author experiences, in every single book, novella, or short story they write. Not once, not in a few things, but literally every single thing they write. That is, the difficulty in conveying to the reader what your characters look like.

In some genres, your character’s appearance is more important than in others. I write romance, where how people look is integral to the story. Especially when it comes to the protagonist’s love interest, how they look, how attractive they are, and repeated references to their appearance is part of the narrative. The focus is on attraction and looks. In other genres, appearances probably don’t matter as much, but you still want to convey to the reader, most of the time, what your characters look like. Some things about their appearance might even be important to who they are and to building their personality.

The difficulty in conveying appearances isn’t in managing to build a description for what you see in your head, though. Rather, the problem comes in how to describe the character, specifically, where you can shoehorn this description in without making it seem clunky, obvious, or like the author has taken over. Doing so means you risk jarring the reader out of the story. Also, where does this description come in? How early in the story do you need the reader to know what your characters look like? After all, you don’t want the person reading the story to form their own completely contradictory vision and then mess everything up for them.

Here’s a few ways you might describe your character’s appearance:

  • If you have more than one viewpoint character, of course, it’s easy for the characters to look at each other and note each other’s appearances. This is the easiest way, but only if you’re writing from more than one viewpoint.
  • If the entire story is told through the eyes of one character, their appearance can be revealed through actions–while they’re brushing their hair, while scrutinizing things they don’t like about themselves (or alternately, appreciating things they do like about themselves), or comparing their features to someone else. I am very much not a fan, however, of the character looking in a mirror and giving a detailed description of themselves. After all, how often do you look in the mirror and specifically note the color of your eyes, hair, and the shape of your face? However, this can be done creatively, by having a woman putting on makeup and thinking about how the eyeshadow compliments the color of her eyes, or someone noting that a new haircut flatters the shape of their face.
  • If you’re writing in first person, it can be very difficult to convey a character’s appearance without getting awkward. You can think about the ways we consider our own appearances though, and figure out how to put these same kind of thoughts in your character’s head. Most of us spend at least a portion of our day focused on how we look, and your character can too.
  • But really, the absolute best way to describe a character is to just do it. Simply tell us what they look like as part of the narrative and move on. Introducing the character on the page can also include a brief description of what they look like. Keep it to what is important to know about them, however–there’s no need to describe every inch of them, just the relevant parts. Other things can come up later when there is a need–things like scars, defects, unique features, and other things of this sort.

And when, exactly, should you describe what a character looks like? I feel it should be done as soon as possible without giving an info dump. As I said above, you don’t want the reader to form their own vision and then completely shatter it. Also, your character’s appearance is an important part of their overall personality, just like how we look in real life is always an integral part of who we are.

How do you describe what your characters look like? When do you think this description should come in? And as a reader, when do you expect it and how much do you want to know?