Slipping in Character Description

11 Apr

by Kat Zhang


How much physical information a writer should put in about his or her characters is a pretty well-debated topic. Some readers like to have everything about the characters described the very first time they show up. Others just like to have the basics—hair color/length…eye color…tall or short…slim or heavyset. Others don’t care about physical description at all and like to have a blank canvas to draw their own mental picture of the protagonist and minor characters.

I’m in the middle. Well, actually, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a super-detailed description of every single character. I’m a very visual reader, and I like books that allow me to see the scenes in my head like a movie. That’s basically how I write, too, except the other way around. I see the scene like a movie in my head, and then I describe it on paper.

Trouble is, there’s really no way you can describe everything. It would slam the action to a halt, and while I say I like detailed explanations, I know that a book that is actually full of them would drive me crazy. So what’s a writer to do?

First off, remember your voice. This is especially important for first person and close third. You’re not just describing someone, you’re seeing them through someone’s eyes. Everything they notice or don’t notice should make sense. Think about what you notice when you see someone. You don’t meet your friend for lunch and run over their entire outfit and the eye color and hair length before saying hello, right? You might notice if they’ve recently had a haircut or if they’re wearing a skirt when they never wear skirts or something, but otherwise, you probably won’t even notice their clothes.

However, it is nice to let the reader know some physical description of the characters, so you’ve got to find ways of subtly slipping it in.

This is an example of just describing someone:

He was tall, about 6 foot 1 with short blonde hair and blue eyes. Also, he wore a white shirt with horizontal blue shirts and camouflage-patterned, baggy cargo pants. His shoes were heavy boots with thick soles, and he had a ring on his ring finger that was just a band of polished gold.

A couple things that could be improved on this description. Right now, it’s sort of just sitting there. Whatever was happening before the protag saw this guy has ground to a stop while you, the writer, describe his appearance. Weaving your description into the story’s flow of action can improve it a lot. So can spacing out the description so the reader’s picture of a character is built little by little. Of course, if you take too, too long, the readers will start filling things in on their own, and it might be a bit of a shock if, ten chapters in, you describe your love interest as having green eyes and the reader has imagined him as having dark brown ones.

So let’s try weaving the previous description into some action:

He waved to her from across the room, and when she smiled back, started making his way through the crowd. She bit back a laugh when he stumbled; he’d used to be graceful, but the recent growth spurt had added a foot to his height and an ungainliness to his walk.

“Hey, soldier boy,” she said when he was in hearing distance. “Nice pants.”

He grinned, automatically looking down at his baggy camouflage-pattern cargo pants. Along with the heavy boots and the crew cut she bet had taken a lot of convincing on the part of his mother to make happen, he looked almost like he’d stepped out of one of those Army Strong pamphlets her older brother used to bring home. Only his preppy white and blue striped shirt broke the image.

“Laundry day,” he said, still grinning, and ran his fingers through his hair. Probably had to get used to how short it was. She was about to say something back when she noticed the flash of the ring and choked on her words.

Right, so not the best material out there (I probably wouldn’t usually try to cram so much physical description in at once), and I missed out on some of the detail in the first example, but this way, the story didn’t stop completely. Yes, I used more words overall, but we also got a bit about the guy’s age (teens if he’s recently grown a foot in a relatively short period of time), about his relationship with the girl (close enough for her to tease him and him to smile), about their families (she’s got an older brother who was/is interested in the army; his mother wants his hair short, and he disagrees), and about the ring (she hasn’t seen it before).

I’ve got lots more to say about things like this, but I think that’s enough for today 🙂 If you guys are interested, though, I’ll continue the series during my next post!


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID–about a girl with two souls–recently sold to Harper Children’s. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.


7 Responses to “Slipping in Character Description”

  1. Rowenna April 11, 2011 at 9:27 AM #

    Kat–awesome points! I love description through a character’s eyes–both writing and reading it. It’s more vibrant and active and keeps the scene moving instead of taking a break. I think what a character notices and describes can offer so much about the character in whose POV we’re in, as well–so it does double-duty. It reveals what’s important to the observer, how he or she views the world.

    I can think of a few good examples of “stop and describe”–my favorite is Little Women (“because readers like know ‘how people look'” as Alcott says in the text) but it’s definitely a style that isn’t used much nowadays. I think it’s honestly harder to do effectively!

    • Kat Zhang April 11, 2011 at 1:38 PM #

      Thanks, Rowenna!

      I admit that sometimes I like the “stop and describe” method, too, but usually only if it’s employed rarely and it’s a really important moment (unveiling of Cinderella :P)

  2. Chauntika April 11, 2011 at 10:11 AM #

    Great post. Description is so much better when it’s weaved into the action instead of just a big info-dump.

    You all have such great posts on this site. Would love for you to continue the series.

    • Kat Zhang April 11, 2011 at 1:40 PM #

      Glad you liked the post, Chauntika! I’m definitely leaning toward writing more about this 🙂

  3. Angeline April 17, 2011 at 9:04 AM #

    This is brilliant. I am often criticised for not putting any description in of my characters, and it’s because I’ve always struggled with how to do it. Thanks so much for the great advice.

    • Kat Zhang April 17, 2011 at 12:53 PM #

      You’re welcome! I’m so glad you found it helpful 🙂


  1. Nicole Murchadha » Blog Archive » The Writers on Writing Weekly – April 15, 2011 Edition - April 22, 2011

    […] Slipping in Character Description […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: