The Essential Guide To Nailing Your Character's Appearance (plus a character sketch template)
There are approximately 3,348,547,029 articles, blog posts, and questionnaires on the internet to help you figure out your character's appearance. It's true. And that was a totally accurate number, by the way.
Well, today, I am not adding another one to the pile. At least, not another monotonous one. I did title this post 'The Essential Guide', did I not? There is epic-ness to be had here, ladies and gents. And here is what I think all those other posts aren't getting: physical appearances are not objective. Your character's looks will change based on the beholder's perspective.
That opens up a whole new world in your writing, doesn't it? Everyone's a critic. Real life is full of surprising compliments, rude remarks, self-consciousness, vanity, and other comments on appearances. Why shouldn't your story include these palpable hallmarks of real life?
After all, realism is your middleman to reader approval, which means it's also your new best friend. So let's make our characters real by making their appearances multifaceted, shall we?
That's why I've broken up today's post into two parts. Part one is all about getting to know your character's appearance, while part two is all about perspectives and learning how to write them into your story. Are you ready to write realistic appearances that bring your characters to life? Let's get to it!
Part One: Get to Know Them
It's time to get to know your characters. Hurray! Today, I have five easy steps to help you nail down their essentials:
Step One: The Basics.
First and foremost, you've got to lay down what I like to call the 'driver's license appearance' or the 'description of the fugitive'. It's exactly what it sounds like: the basics you might find on your character's driver's license or how a witness might describe your character if they were on the run.
Consider your character's gender, age, ethnicity, any identifying features, coloring and approximate height, weight, and build when writing up the basics, okay?
Step Two: The Lifestyle.
A character's lifestyle can have a huge impact on their appearance. Their profession, their hobbies, their habits, etc. may affect their physical appearance, their body language, the way they carry themselves, and more!
Even events from your character's past can manifest themselves in a physical alteration in the present, so consider all of this when building your character's appearance.
Step Three: The Faults.
It's true. Some people are born gods among men, at least in the physical sense. But majorly attractive characters are a dime a dozen in literature. And the simple fact remains that most real-life humans don't have highly superior looks. Most of us are just average, so your characters should be, too.
Readers want to feel a connection with your characters from the start. When your characters are too physically perfect, your readers may feel inclined to shut the book before they've even reached the meat of the story. And that's no bueño, right?
Step Four: The Clothes.
Clothes play an important role in your character's appearance. They really do! Almost everyone makes some sort of judgement about a person at first sight by surface level standards, meaning our first impressions are usually based on physical appearance. And you can tell a lot about a person by what they are wearing.
Not only might clothing reveal to readers the general interests of your character, but they can also lead readers (or other characters, for that matter!) to form beliefs about your character that may or may not be true.
Step Five: The Body Language.
Body language is an even bigger hallmark of snap judgments than clothing.
A lot can be said about a person based on the way they carry themselves, how they make eye contact, what they do with their hands during a conversation, and how they react in a crowd. It is these same body language indicators that let humans know whether a person might be dangerous, rude, bored, anxious, or just their type.
Part Two: How to Write Your Character's Appearance
Now that you know the essentials of your character's appearance, let's break down how to bring that description to the page. Here is my four-step method:
Step One: Self-Perception.
As happens often in literature, an author will have a character describe themselves in several small ways throughout the narrative, especially if that character is the only POV character in the story.
What will your character have to say about their own appearance? Since you don't want to spend too much time running on about appearances, your characters need to mention whatever features are most noticeable or important in their own mind.
A good rule of thumb when writing a character's appearance from their own perspective is to note their basic build and coloring, something they love about themselves, and something they loathe. Remember, your character knows their body better than anyone else.
They are going to have specific things they hate about their bodies, things they think everyone else notices too. They'll also have something they pride themselves in, that gives them confidence or that they often receive compliments on. Make sure to note all these things when your character is describing their own appearance.
Step Two: External Perceptions.
This is the time consuming part, but I promise it will be worth your while. Ready?
Consider how secondary characters in your novel might describe the appearance of your character. If you have a list a mile long, choose only the secondary characters that would give vastly different descriptions than your character's self-perception.
Have your secondary characters "write up" descriptions of your character. What would they mention in a description about your character?
Repeat this process as many times as necessary for all your story's characters.Remember, your character's loved ones will probably glaze over your character's less desirable features while highlighting those they believe to be most attractive. On the other hand, your character's enemies will probably do the opposite.
You can work these external perceptions into your novel by utilizing your secondary characters' conversations or simply their own POV narratives.
Step Three: Be Subtle.
By now, you should have a self-perception and several external perceptions for each of your characters. Each perception is probably about a paragraph long and jam-packed with visual information. So how do you work all that information into your story?
Slowly. Subtly. Sparingly. Don't ever copy and paste that paragraph right into your story, or you're doomed.
Readers don't like to deviate from the action to read infodumps on character appearances. They want the information to flow naturally, so much so that they remain entirely connected to the rising action of the story.
You can easily slip in small hints about your character's appearance when two characters meet, when one character is describing another in conversation, or when the movement of the body is mentioned in the narrative.
And remember: adjectives are your friend, but use them with care or your descriptions will sound contrived.
Step Four: Avoid Clichés.
Info-dumps are just one of many appearance clichés. Avoid having your character describe their appearance while looking at their reflection. This technique sounds contrived when read and only serves to pull the reader out of the magic of your story.
Also, stay away from glory moments. That's what I like to call the moment when a character spots someone they don't know in a crowd and is suddenly overwhelmed by the gloriousness of their presence. Is there anything more melodramatic than that?
When it comes to the character descriptions themselves, flee from traditional character tropes. The tall, dark, and mysterious charmer; the bleach-blonde, curvy seductress; the wise old man with a beard and a limp...they've been done time and time again, so unless you're bringing something new to the trope, it's time to turn and run.
Let me know in the comments if there are any techniques or clichés I missed. I'd love to hear from you!
I'd also like to give a massive thank you to all of the novel ladies and gents who have befriended me on social media and shared my articles. Your kind words and constant support are so priceless to me. Thanks, friends!