12 June 2024

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


When embarking on a new story, one of the most empowering and creative exercises is to envision what our characters might look like. It's a challenge to bring our characters to life without a clear mental image. In the realm of historical fiction, we often have the advantage of finding visual references for our main characters online, but the rest is a canvas for our imagination to fill. 

Yet, stories are not just about a handful of main characters. They are populated with a multitude of supporting characters, each with their unique story to tell. This is where we, as authors, have the liberating freedom to develop their appearances beyond the typical eye and hair color. We can delve into details like height, weight, body type, or other distinctive physical traits, painting a vivid picture for our readers.

Although eye and hair color are part of the description, 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 halfway through the book and then springing an image on them that might not match what they've already visualized. 

2. Supporting character descriptions can do without hair and eye color 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 ', which are distinctive traits or characteristics, to 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 that only one character uses throughout the story. Your character could also be plagued by extreme shyness or bad habits like nail-biting. While these tags can be handy, it's important not to overuse 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. Their actions, their reactions to certain situations, their goals and dreams, etc., these are the elements that truly inspire and leave a lasting impression in the reader’s mind about who the characters 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 award-winning author of The Country Girl Empress series. When she isn't busy typing 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 LinkedInFacebookMedium, and Goodreads.
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