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Beyond Looking in a Mirror: Seven Ways to Describe Your Character's Appearance

Deciding when and how to describe a character’s physical appearance can be a challenge. Should you do it right away, when they are first introduced? Do you wait until they look in a mirror? Do you list their physical characteristics all at once? Do you constantly tell the reader how she flips her “long, dark hair” over her shoulder so they don’t forget what she looks like?


Here are seven tips that you can use to describe your characters in interesting ways, with examples from sci-fi and fantasy novels.

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1. Insert Opinion and Bias.

“Grisha were beautiful. They didn’t have spotty skin and dull brown hair and scrawny arms.” Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

First person or third person limited narration is particularly good for this. You can insert opinion into your character descriptions, like in this example from Shadow and Bone. The main character, Alina, doesn’t think she is pretty and describes herself in her own thoughts. What does your character think of their own appearance?


2. Describe How Others See the Protagonist.

“Baba always said I took after Mama, not him. I’d never believed him. I looked at my straight nose, large round eyes, and full lips—yes, those were from Mama. But Mama had been the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, while I… I’d grown up in a house full of men and didn’t even know how to act like a girl. “Finlei used to tease that, from behind, I looked exactly like Keton—reedy as a boy. The freckles on my face and arms didn’t help either. Girls were supposed to be delicate and pale. But maybe, maybe all this could work in my favor.” Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Writers often describe what their character sees as they look into a mirror or a lake, but that gets old quick. In Spin the Dawn, the protagonist reflects on what family members say about her appearance instead. I know I’ve had my fair share of “Wow, you look so much like your mom,” so this method is realistic and can be relatable. What do other people think of your character’s appearance?


3. Describe Clothes and Accessories.

“The thiefmaster looked quite convincing in his nobleman’s suit. It was as rich a costume as Vin had ever seen—it had a white shirt overlaid by a deep green vest with engraved gold buttons. The black suit coat was long, after the current fashion, and he wore a matching black hat. His fingers sparkled with rings, and he carried a fine duelling cane. Indeed, Camon did an excellent job of imitating a nobleman.” Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Clothes can say a lot about a person—how wealthy they are, what their vocation is, even what their personality traits might be. Brandon Sanderson’s description of Camon is interesting because, although Camon is a thief, he’s good at pretending to be something else. What clothing and accessories does your character wear?


4. Use the Narrator's Tone to Your Advantage.

“He really was pretty, impossibly so, with large, almond-shaped eyes and a sculpted mouth that looked good even twisted into a sneer. His skin was a shade of porcelain white that any Sinegardian woman would have murdered for, and his silky hair was almost as long as Rin’s had been.” The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

When describing other characters from the narrator’s perspective, you can go beyond purely descriptive. What does the narrator think about the character’s appearance? Instead of something like, “She thought he was handsome,” try describing how the narrator feels.


In this paragraph from The Poppy War, Kuang could have left the description at “He really was pretty, impossibly so, with large, almond-shaped eyes and a sculpted mouth.” But Rin, the narrator, goes on to comment on the character’s sneer, which gives the distinct impression that she does not like this guy, even though he’s handsome. What does your narrator think of your character’s appearance?


5. Include Facial Expressions and Mannerisms.

“The pitying look made Sophie utterly ashamed. He was such a dashing specimen too, with a bony, sophisticated face—really quite old, well into his twenties—and elaborate blonde hair. His sleeves trailed longer than any in the Square, all scalloped edges and silver insets.” Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Go beyond what a character looks like by describing facial expressions and mannerisms. This section from Howl’s Moving Castle is gripping not just because of Howl’s appearance, but because of the way he’s looking at Sophie and how Sophie is reacting to his expression. His elegant attire doesn’t hurt, either. What does your character tend to do with their face, hands, and body?


6. Make the Character's Appearance Relevant to the Action.

“I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag.” The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Katniss is preparing to go hunting in this scene from The Hunger Games. The addition of motion can be more impactful than a character standing still. Try interspersing descriptions about their appearance among their movements. What can your character be doing while you describe their hair or clothes?


7. Use Simile or Metaphor.

“The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.” The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Using vivid imagery to describe your character can be compelling, but you might want to stay away from similes that are overdone, like “black as a raven” or “a nose like a hawk.” What can you compare your character to?

The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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