How to Capture Your Character's Appearance
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Writers often enjoy crafting their characters' appearances, yet just how important is appearance in the grand scheme of your story? Well, that depends.
In some instances, appearance plays a large role, informing a character's struggle, defining important cultural context, lending representation to under-served readers, and so on. Yet for most stories, a character's specific height or hair color bears little sway on the plot. Does this mean defining our characters' looks is unimportant?
Not at all, but we may need to change the way we think about appearance. Why so? And just how can we capture the clearest versions of our characters on the page? Let's dive into today's breakdown, writers!
Why must we change how we think of appearance?
You've likely heard the phrase, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." I think this holds true for appearance as a whole.
Though every character will have a general appearance that most any beholder could agree upon — hair color, height, skin tone, etc. — the features that stand out in one character's view will likely differ from another's. Even the character being described may think of themselves quite differently from how others view them.
For example, one may find a character's dimples to be endearing, while the character themselves may feel their dimples lend a youthful look that often sees them treated as a child. Thus, capturing both how a character views themselves and how others view them in return lends depth to an appearance that helps readers better understand the mindsets of all involved.
But we can't discredit the more general description of your character's appearance either. Though a lengthy list of all your character's features would surely bog down your story, giving readers a general understanding of your character's appearance helps them better visualize your story as a whole.
So, where should you begin when crafting your character's looks? Let's tackle the process together, shall we?
Part One: Establishing Common Features
In most cases, beginning to craft your character's appearance by laying out the general description of their features is the best way to go. But "general" doesn't necessarily mean simple. Use the steps below to define a clear vision of your character's standard appearance:
Step #1: The Basics
To begin sketching your character's general appearance, take the time to define what I like to call their "driver's license features" or "the description of the fugitive." In other words, your character's sex, age, general height and weight, skin tone, hair color, build, and any other common identifying features...
Step #2: The Lifestyle
One's lifestyle can greatly impact their appearance. With a basic sketch of your character in place, take the time now to consider your character's hobbies, profession, and daily habits. How does each of these items affect their physical appearance?
For example, do they have dark circles under their eyes because they're a parent of young children? Is their skin tone ruddy from too much time spent surfing in the sun? Or, do they maintain a perfectly coifed and manicured appearance because of their profession as a high-powered lawyer?
Even past lifestyle choices can continue to manifest themselves in your character's current life, so take the time to consider their history as well as their present story.
Step #3: The "Flaws"
Thanks to society's uncaring standards, some people will have features that are generally seen as physical flaws. And no matter how screwed that idea may be, creating characters that lack such "flaws" altogether will only leave you with characters that seem too physically perfect to be real.
So, breathe realism into your character's appearance instead by defining what features society as a whole would find less than perfectly attractive. This can range anywhere from dingy hair to acne scars, a distinctive limp, a waistline that isn't flat as a board, and beyond.
Step #4: The Clothes
Clothing can inarguably make a strong first impression. Help shape readers' initial perceptions of your character by defining the clothing they wear on a daily basis. Such clothing can indicate culture, lifestyle, profession, interests, self-esteem, and other key characterization factors.
Step #5: The Body Language
A person's mannerisms and expressions may make an even larger impact than their clothing and general appearance. How a person, or character, carries themselves can reveal much about their personality and self-perception, and can even hint at their motivations and past or present circumstances.
When crafting your own character's body language, take into account their posture, gait, eye contact, facial expressions, and mannerisms. What does each of these elements indicate about their personality, mindset, and aims?
Part Two: Building Varied Perceptions
Now, with your character's fairly undeniable features defined, let's turn our eyes toward the second element we need to consider when crafting appearances: perception. As we discussed above, how your character views themselves will likely differ from how other characters view them. The perception of a character can also vary between beholders, as well.
Remember, perception is important because it helps readers better understand the beholder. A vain and frivolous character might notice another's lean build and thick head of hair, while one who cares more about a person's character may notice their open smile and the kindness in their eyes.
With that in mind, use the steps below to begin building out your characters' perceptions:
Step #1: Self-Perception
Describing a character's physical description when they are the only point-of-view character can be tough. There's a reason why many authors have defaulted to describing their character's reflection in a mirror, after all. But doing so has now become so ubiquitous that it often feels tacky.
What can writers do instead? Offering brief descriptors that pull motion or setting into the mix is often a great trick. For example, you could write that the warm coastal sunlight turned your character's straw-colored hair to gold or that smiling stretched taut the skin around the scar that cut through their cheek.
But another fantastic trick is to reveal your character's physical self-perception directly in their narrative, even tying their appearance into plot events when possible.
Remember our dimple example from earlier? You can reveal to readers that your character has dimples by showing their frustration at being treated as a child in the workplace. Or, to use another example, your character could describe the confidence they've gained in shearing off all their hair.
However you choose to highlight a point-of-view character's features, remember to focus on those that indicate something of their mindset, worldview, or experiences. Doing so adds purpose to your physical descriptors, ensuring you'll never weigh down your story with too much detail.
Step #2: External Perceptions
Alright, we've discussed how best to include a character's self-perception in a story, but what about the opinions of others?
As we've already briefly discussed, how a point-of-view character describes the appearance of another can reveal much about their own personality, mindset, and worldview. That said, doing so can also offer readers a deeper understanding of your character's appearance — but we'll get to that in a moment.
When one of your point-of-view characters prepares to describe another character, don't simply offer up a general physical description. Take the time to consider those important elements we laid out above: personality, mindset, worldview.
What would catch your point-of-view character's eye when looking at another character? Would they see the person's physical flaws before that which makes them beautiful? Would they notice first their clothing or the expression on their face? And so on...
Consider as well what your point-of-view character's first impressions reveal about the other character or society as a whole. For example, does your point-of-view character notice that another character is wearing traditional religious garb? Do they respect this or is it something they look upon with disdain?
Admittedly, taking such care when crafting external perceptions is hard work. But remember that every line in your story must add value to your work overall. So, why simply throw out there that a character's hair is black when you can use that same line to reveal so much about your characters and world?
With both your character's general physical description and the varied perceptions of their appearance laid out, you've put fantastic work into capturing their likeness on the page. But before we wrap up today's article, I'd like to leave you with a few additional tips for bringing your character's appearance to life.
Firstly, remember that subtly is king. Most readers aren't looking for three full paragraphs describing each character as they're introduced. They aren't looking for your character's exact height or weight either. Understandably, we want readers to visualize our characters as we do, but you must discern for yourself which is most important: the flow of your story or your readers' exact understanding of your character's appearance.
In my opinion, no lengthy physical description is worth its salt if it disrupts the pace of the narrative. My best advice instead is to lay out a few key details when a character is first introduced — just enough to give readers a basic understanding of their appearance — then weave in any further descriptors slowly throughout the story, and only if truly necessary.
I would also encourage you to stray from appearance clichés whenever possible — unless, of course, you're using that cliché with purpose. Generally speaking, however, love interests don't always need to have six-pack abs, nor do wizards need beards. Large chests aren't the only way a woman can prove seductive and blondes aren't always air-headed and vain.
People are much more interesting than that, and I'd love for your characters to be as well. Remember, writers, appearances come in all shapes, shades, sizes, and impressions. Why not use that your advantage when bringing your characters to life?