13 June 2018

Writing a Novel: Is a Physical Description Enough When Developing Your Characters?

When I begin to write a new story, one of the first things I attempt to do is imagine what my characters might look like. I find it sometimes difficult to bring my books' characters to life if I don't know what they look like. Granted, since I mostly write historical fiction, it's relatively easy to find pictures of my main characters online, but the rest is usually up to my imagination. 

But stories almost always have more than just a few main characters, and I find there are numerous ways to develop the appearance of the supporting characters beyond their eye and hair colour. Often times I like to make notes of details such as the character's height, weight, body type, or other unique physical traits for reference.

Although part of the description, include eye and hair colour it is so easy to rely on such physical characteristics that we might be tempted to neglect everything else.  But how can writers go beyond the obvious? 

Here are some methods that have worked for me so far:

1. Main characters will, more than likely, need a description of their hair and eyes and so much more to help our readers visualize our main characters right from the start, instead of leaving them confused for halfway through the book and then spring an image on them that might not match what they've already visualized. 

2. Supporting characters descriptions can probably do without hair and eye colour unless one or both play a role in the plot. Otherwise, why even bother mentioning them? Writers can use much more creative ways to describe them...with traits that add to the story in some peculiar and memorable way, such as mood, or tension. 

3. Give your characters unique tags, something that will help the reader identify a character throughout the book. It can be something simple such as a physical abnormality such as a beet red face or a wart on the tip of the nose. Give the character a tick such as a catchphrase which only one character uses throughout the story. Your character could also be plagued by extreme shyness, or have a bad habit such as nail-biting. While these tags can be incredibly useful, it's important not to over-use them. It can become tiring when you mention these tags every time a character makes an appearance. And that leads me to my last point...

4. Ultimately, the physical description is only the tip of the iceberg in bringing a character to life, and their actions will always be more memorable than the words they speak. It is also important to show how our characters react to certain situations, what their goals, and dreams are, etc. All of these things combined, help build an impression in the reader’s mind about who the characters really are.

What unique ways have you developed to describe the characters in your fiction writing? Feel free to share your writing experience with us in the comment section!

Piper is the author of several non-fiction books, and recently added two historical fiction novels to her ever-expanding collection of published writings, In the Shadow of Her Majesty and The Country Girl Empress. When she isn't busy typing away on her computer, she can be found chasing after her furry children or holding on tightly to a good cup of coffee. Follow her on LinkedInFacebookGoodreads and Google+.


  1. When I began writing the draft of my first book, I ignored descriptions of my main characters. I gave the draft to a few of my family members. Then they read a revised version, with descriptions of the characters added. My cousin was disappointed because one of the characters had blonde hair. In her head, he had black hair. In fiction writing, how much is too descriptive? You mention hair and eye color being too much, and I learned that. What about body types? Where does it exactly end, or begin?

    1. That's a great question, Robyn! Eye and hair colour alone shouldn't define a character. It takes so much more than a physical description to engage a reader's imagination. While it's a shame that your cousin preferred a different hair colour on one of your characters, one person's opinion shouldn't stop you from writing your stories the way you envision them.

  2. I think it depends on the story and the reason for the needed description... Obviously a sci-fi book needs to describe what an alien character looks like. But often I think writers over do it. You should leave something to the imagination, unless it is important to the story, or that particular character needs a full blow description. How many times has a booked been adapted to film and the actor doesn't match the character as described in the book? Quite often, actually. I general descriptions are best, long hair, weathered skin, tall, heavy... all have their place but is their color of their eyes important to the story? Just depends on whether it adds to or distracts from the readers own interpretation of the character.

  3. I would say that describing a character should be as detailed as it needs to be for the reader to get a good picture in their mind of what the character looks like and who the character is. But I think you must also be careful to ween out personal bias here because you don't mention anything about skin color, which is a huge descriptor for most readers. Even if you never feature a person of color in your novel, you do a disservice to your readers to have them assume that white is the default color.