Physical Description: Mini Writing Lesson

I thought I would post these now and then, since there's been some interest. This is the first of my mini lessons on writing.

Physical Description


"I'm not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they're wearing...I can always get a J. Crew catalogue...So spare me, if you please, the hero's 'sharply intelligent blue eyes' and 'outthrust determined chin.'"

—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

How much is too much when it comes to describing your character?

Description should give insight into a character, to tell the reader what makes this person tick. Therefore, details should be chosen carefully. If you say everything there is to know about a person, it somehow makes it more difficult to figure out who they are.

It's easy to give a laundry list of physical details: hair color, eye color, height, clothing. It's one of the first things that stands out like a red flag in amateur writing.

"Lea watched as Arthur advanced, sword in hand. Lea's storm gray eyes burned with intensity as she glared at him from a lofty height of five foot six, her fiery hair escaping in long tendrils from a loose bun."

This example is an obvious one. Not only is this wordy, but it's an inappropriate time to describe Lea's looks. We want to know why she's angry and what'll happen, not what her hair is doing.

"Neal wore a green v-neck that brought out the color in his eyes. His hands were in the pockets of his faded jeans. He had spiky, light brown hair with flecks of blond that caught the light, and his smile was warm when he looked at her. In other words, he was gorgeous."

There's nothing wrong with this description, but it could be better. Unless a character's clothing shows us something about their personality, work, or social class, it doesn't need to be shared. The narrator's attraction to Neal is also obvious without that last line. Instead of devoting a chunk of text describing his looks and telling us that he's attractive, it would be better to relate it in a way that also says something about the character watching him.

"Neal smiled at her. His eyes were green. She wondered if they stayed that shade in the dark or changed the way some gemstones did. Her father had owned a garnet class ring. It was hers, now. Sometimes she slipped it on her thumb and waved it under her desk lamp when she missed him, watching the bright lime turn to a warm and reddish plum. She wanted to watch Neal's eyes with that same intensity."

Now, not only do we know that the speaker finds Neal attractive, but that she seems to be lonely and her father is no longer in her life.

But more interesting than people's qualities are their faults. Tell us a character is ugly in some way and then make us love them for it.

"Jenny Rose is the most monosyllabic, monochromatic person Hildy has ever laid eyes on. She's no-colored, like a glass of skim milk, or a piece of chewed string. Lank hair of indeterminate length, skin neither pale nor sunny, and washed-out no-color eyes. She's neither tall nor short, fat or skinny. She smells weird, sad, electric, like rain on asphalt."

—Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link

Physical description paired with summarized dialogue

"The caretaker of Eight Chimneys is Mr. Coeslak. His left leg is noticeably shorter than his right. He wears one stacked heel. Short black hairs grow out of his ears and his nostrils and there is no hair at all on top of his head, but he's given Samantha and Claire permission to explore the whole of the house. It was Mr. Coeslak who told them that there are copperheads in the woods, and that the house is haunted. He says they are all, ghosts and snakes, a pretty bad tempered lot, and Samantha and Claire should stick to the marked trails, and stay out of the attic.

Mr. Coeslak can tell the twins apart, even if their father can't; Claire's eyes are grey, like a cat's fur, he says, but Samantha's are gray, like the ocean when it has been raining."

—Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link

This description is accomplishing numerous things:

  • You learn that Mr. Coeslak is likely an older gentleman (the hair growing out of his ears and nostrils).
  • You get a sense of the location and what people think of it.
  • You can surmise that the girls' father doesn't know them very well, and in Mr. Coeslak's own words, you get a brief description of the girls.
  • Since the dialogue here is summarized instead of being in-scene, it doesn't slow down the narrative.

Hope that helps some people out! Feel free to leave questions in the comments below.