Describe It: Character Appearance

An Introduction To Writing About Appearance

This topic will be encompassed by a series of posts to prevent it from getting too large. Watch here as we create posts for:

  • Faces – face shapes, skin (complexion), eyes, nose, mouth, chin, ears
    *in process
  • Hair – including facial hair
  • Body – body types, body parts, posture
  • Fashion – manners of dress
  • Mannerisms – obvious motion-related nuisances that affect initial impressions

*if they aren’t linked, we’re still putting them together

Does Appearance Matter?

A reader will often visualize a character based off the clues given throughout the story, but also based on how they want to visualize them. Books have succeeded with giving the reader very few clues about what the main character looks like and some with plenty of detail. Arguably, what is more important are the descriptions of the people around them. Describing people the main character interacts with helps create a rich and believable world.

What about stereotypes

Stereotypes in descriptions of appearance go deeper than how much melanin is in someone’s skin (skin colour) or what area of the world a person appears to be from. They can range from height to the size of a person’s eyes. Media often portrays certain characteristics as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, thus changing not only your perspective, but your readers. Ultimately, it is up to you whether you will use these stereotypes to portray your character or if you will let the character’s actions define them. Consider not using stereotypes as they are a crutch and a weak one at that.

Help yourself identify your own preconceived notions by thinking about the following:

  • Can you envision a person who is 5’2″ as powerful?
  • When you see a description of wide eyes, what gender do they belong to?
  • What do you think of a person with a hooked nose?
  • When thinking of someone who is overweight or exceptionally thin, what assumptions are you making about them?
  • You see a man in a leather jacket with neck tattoos. Are they violent?
  • There is a woman wearing a short skirt and tube top, what does this say about her?

Stereotypes Used To Define Character’s Personality Through Appearance

For the below chart, I am excluding race and gender purposely. I think most of us can agree that if someone is defining a character by the colour of their skin, apparent heritage, or presenting gender then they don’t deserve any more of our time (it took me four tries not to say something nasty there).

BAD: Small Eyes GOOD: Blue Eyes INNOCENT: Wide Eyes
BAD: Small Mouth GOOD: Attractive Mouth INNOCENT: Soft Lips
BAD: Hooked Nose GOOD: Well -proportioned nose INNOCENT: Button Nose
BAD: Receding hairline GOOD: Full head of hair INNOCENT: Blonde Hair
BAD: Unattractive Features GOOD: Attractive features INNOCENT: Child-like Features
BAD: Very pale or darker skinned for their heritage GOOD: Tanned or lightly tanned INNOCENT: Rosy Cheeks
AGGRESSIVE: Muscular WEAK: Thin or overweight REBELLIOUS: Leather jackets
ASSERTIVE: Dark hair NICE: Light Hair GOOD: Modestly dressed
SUCCESSFUL: Attractive

Have more? Leave a comment below!