How To Write Physical Descriptions – Describing Characters’ Appearances

Students often find it easy to describe a character using a list of adjectives, and they usually do so in a straight-forward manner (Using Direct Characterization). This is easy – just look at the character’s picture or visualize one and list down how the character looks from head to toe. Right? Is that all about the external character description? No. There is much more to learn about the characters’ physical descriptions or describing characters’ appearance. 

Today we will learn more about describing characters’ appearances/ physical descriptions. First, we will learn a technique that I call the ‘contrasting technique’  to describe characters’ appearances then we will learn four descriptive writing techniques to describe the characters’ looks or how they dress up.

Read Sample Character Descriptions:

First, read the sample character descriptions (LINK TO download-file-01), and let’s get ready to use the ‘contrasting technique’  in your writing.

Now as you have read sample character descriptions, you are ready to apply the contrasting technique in your writing:

Read this sentence: ‘He was a big beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache.’ From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Movie/ Book)

Notice The Author’s Character Description Technique:

Did you notice the contrast the author has created by highlighting the difference in the character’s body type (beefy man) and a prominent facial feature (mustache)?

Now the question is, “How does she achieve this effect and how can we, as writers, write similar descriptions that create a contrasting effect?”

Let’s learn. First, notice what the author does in the first clause of the sentence, ‘He was a big beefy man with hardly any neck.” Now if you notice the first part of the clause, the author is describing two physical features of the character: his body type i.e. beefy that shows that the character had a muscular body. The second part i.e. “hardly any neck” describes another prominent feature of the character i.e his neck.

Question: Why do you think the author uses ‘hardly any neck’ instead of using ‘short neck’? This is another way of emphasizing the importance of the look that the character is describing. By reading ‘hardly any neck’, the reader instantly visualizes how it might look instead of ‘short neck’.

As we noticed in the first clause the author only described two physical features: the body type and

the character’s neck. Why? It is because these two features must be the most prominent features of the character’s body and their description tells us it is a man who is muscular and a shorter and fat neck.  

Before we read the second clause, see how the author prepares the readers about contrasting information she is going to reveal about the character’s other physical features i.e. mustache. 

To create this effect, she uses the subordinating conjunction although. Then she describes the character’s mustache in these words: ‘…he did have a very large mustache.’ Here she describes the look of the mustache without describing it in too much detail.

Tips For Describing Characters’ Appearance:

Before you even begin to write the description of your character’s appearance, keep these things in mind:

  1. Visualize your character
  2. Observe the picture
  3. List down words and/ or phrases to use
  4. Use figurative language to create imagery
  5. Select important physical details only – don’t over-describe 
  6. Read, read, and read

Don’t worry if you don’t understand these tips. Let me explain each of these – one by one. But first, know that you too can write great character descriptions. How? Just follow along and let your creativity flow through your characters’ descriptions.

01. Visualize Your Character

Whenever you write a character description, it is always a great idea to envision and visualize who your character is. Close your eyes. Yes, close your eyes and you’ll start to see how the character looks as you imagine him/her. Have a pen and paper and list down what you see. Sketch it out (If you can). Before showing your readers what your character looks like, you need to be sure about it.

02. Observe The Picture

Whether you are writing a character description for your assignment or your first novel, you can surely take inspiration from pictures. If you are a great artist sketching your character out helps a lot. Choose whatever feels suitable, and then list down the key details. List down what you see. Bushy eyebrows, thin papery lips, protruding neck bones, pallid skin, dainty nose, chiseled jawline, or tousled hair. List it down or draw it. Don’t worry if you don’t know the vocabulary. Get the picture clear on the paper first. List down any body movements or gestures you want to incorporate in your writing that goes with the physical features of your character. For example, a wistful smile, a radiant smile, ‘her lips curled into a grin’ or she smirked.

03. List Down Words And/ Or Phrases To Use

This is very important and the first step in writing: Prewriting. You must plan your writing. Once you are clear about your character, jot down the thoughts on the paper. A Graphic Organizer is a perfect tool for this purpose. This is where you need to select appropriate words and phrases. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right in the first place – no one does. To get you started, I am sharing this word list with you.

04. Use Figurative Language To Create Imagery

Re-read the sample character descriptions and notice how authors use figurative language to create imagery when they describe the characters’ looks. They use similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and many other literary devices to paint a picture in the readers’ minds so that the readers can fully imagine how the character looks. Think of your favorite character in a story and read how the author has described the character’s looks. They use a combination of literary devices and effective word choice to show their characters’ looks. A very good resource is right here which will not only prove helpful in using figurative language to describe characters, but also other story elements such as settings and events.

05. Select Important Physical Details Only – Don’t Over-Describe 

Balance is the key. Read your graphic organizer and decide which details are important for the reader. The readers want to visualize character as well as want to know what kind of character traits they have, so instead of listing down the traits in order, you can show their physical features and gestures that reveal their personality traits. Again, strike a balance. Don’t explain and describe every little detail of your character’s face, eyes, and hands. A short, crisp description with a good mix of direct and indirect characterization methods is a recipe for success.

06. Read, Read, And Read

No one can give you better advice than this one advice: 

  1. Read
  2. Read
  3. Read 

The more you read, the more will you be exposed to great authors’ writing. To be able to write like writers, you need to read what great writers write. Reading more will not only improve your comprehension skills, focus, and vocabulary but you will also develop great writing skills. Try that!

You can also download this direct and indirect characterization worksheet (LINK TO download-file-02) which will help you understand how you can also use these two characterization techniques in your writing.

Practice Task – Write Physical Description:

Now it’s time to write a character’s physical description using the contrasting technique I discussed above. 

Below is a picture of a little girl. Describe her appearance using the contrasting technique I shared above. Ensure you focus on salient features of her appearance that show what she is like and how she is unique.

You can also watch this video that teaches four excellent strategies that will answer your question, ‘How to write physical descriptions?”

Bonus Practice Worksheet – Describing Characters’ Appearance:

After you watch the above-mentioned lesson video, download this bonus worksheet on describing characters’ appearance  (LINK TO download-file-03) and let me know in comments how helpful this post has been in helping you to improve describing characters’ appearance.

You can also post your descriptions and/ or questions in the comments section below.

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