The Art of Physical Character Descriptions

In the end, readers are going to picture your characters the way they want, but you provide them with the foundation on which they build their fictitious friends. 

I’ve always heard it said, “if you want to learn to do something well, find someone who is exceptional at it, and mimic them.”

Writing has changed a lot over the years, most books coming out today don’t take the time to describe gardens the way that Oscar Wilde does in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Maybe our attention spans have shorted and we no longer care to read a chapter about the history of pipe weed, like in The Fellowship of the Ring. Or maybe we just focus more on characters and relationships in our stories than setting and scenery. In any case, it is extremely important these days to have developed characters in order to have a great book that can compete. If your characters aren’t believable, or heaven-forbid, distinguishable from other characters, readers are going to have a hard time connecting with your story, or caring what happens to your protagonist(s).

Though writing styles have certainly changed over the years, the craft is the same. We are all trying to paint a picture with words. I myself struggle with wanting to describe my characters the way I see them in my head, but as a reader, I know I enjoy picturing the characters as I want to see them. I end up describing my characters perhaps a little too vaguely sometimes so that the reader can have the fun of deciding for themselves what they want them to look like. I provide the hair and eye color, and maybe a few little quirks, but I want the reader to enjoy themselves with their imagination.

However, occasionally there is a character who just demands more time and attention. My favorite character description of all time (I literally read it over five times when I first came across it and underlined it in my book– Yes, I am one of those people) is Mr. Wemmick. I love the time and detail Charles Dickens spent describing one of his secondary characters, and the way he went about it in Great Expectations

Casting my eyes on Mr. Wemmick as we went along, to see what he was like in the light of day, I found him to be a dry man, rather short in stature, with a square wooden face, whose expression seemed to have been imperfectly chipped out with a dull-edged chisel. There were some marks in it that might have been dimples, if the material had been softer and the instrument finer, but which, as it was, were only dints. The chisel had made three or four of these attempts at embellishment over his nose, but had given them up without an effort to smooth them off. I judged him to be a bachelor, from the frayed condition of his linen, and he appeared to have sustained a good many bereavements; for he wore at least four mourning rings, besides a brooch representing a lady and a weeping willow at a tomb with an urn on it. I noticed, too, that several rings and seals hung at his watch-chain, as if he were quite laden with remembrances of departed friends. He had glittering eyes — small, keen, and black — and thin wide mottled lips. He had had them, to the best of my belief, from forty to fifty years.

But the truth is, readers today have shorter attention spans and like faster-paced stories, so we can’t stop and describe every character we introduce with that kind of fervor.

Here is another one of my favorite character descriptions from my favorite book:

Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre:

He was, in short, in his after-dinner mood; more expanded and genial, and also more self-indulgent than the frigid and rigid temper of the morning: still he looked preciously grim, cushioning his massive head against the swelling back of his chair, and receiving the light of the fire on his granite-hewn features, and in his great, dark eyes; for he had great, dark eyes, and very fine eyes too–not without a certain change in their depths sometimes, which, if it was not softness, reminded you, at least, of that feeling.

So what about you? Do you like to go into a lot of detail? Or do you like to let your readers use their imagination to picture your characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Comment below!

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