In Part One we discussed relatability.
In Part Two we covered uniqueness.
Without further ado, I give you Part Three: Physical Traits
We’ve all heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover,” which is good advice for nearly everything except books, and yet most of us make judgments about people based on what we see. First impressions are important. The first time we interact with someone colors our judgment of them from there on. We may later change our minds and discover depth to a person we didn’t realize was there when we first met, but that initial perception sticks with us.
The same is true with our characters. How they look, what they wear, what they say, how they say it, the strength of their grip when they shake hands—all of these superficial elements add up to give our readers a first impression of our characters.
When you first introduce a character, what do you mention about them? Is it different for your POV characters versus your secondary characters?
I usually don’t do a lot of physical description of my POV characters, because they’re usually not thinking about those things. My POV characters get revealed more from the inside-out. Many times, their physical descriptions are revealed from a secondary character’s POV.
But when one of my POV characters meets someone new, I usually try to describe them in as much detail using as few words as possible. Tall, dark, and handsome, with a scar running down one cheek. Cute, blonde, cheerleader-type with dimples that show every time she moves her mouth, even if she’s not smiling.
How much detail I go into depends a lot on whether or not my POV character already knows them. If they’re already acquainted with one another, she’s not going to spend time noticing his red hair and freckles and lopsided grin. But he might run his hand through his red hair, and he might wink and give her his trademark lopsided grin.
On the other hand, when she meets someone for the first time, she’s going to make note of all the details that any of us might notice upon first meeting them.
As I mentioned in Part Two, your characters should have something to make them memorable. Sometimes that is an aspect of their character, but often there is a physical trait that stands out.
When you see your character in your head, what do you notice first? The way you can see right to her soul through her eyes? The fact that he never takes his sunglasses off, even indoors? The pregnant belly that looks like she may go into labor at any moment? The way cowlick in his hair sticks up no matter how much he tries to flatten it?
Physical characteristics can be dramatic, like scars or birthmarks or tattoos or a strange, abnormal color of eyes. Perhaps the first thing your POV character sees when he meets a woman is the giant spider tattoo on her chest with its legs that reach up her neck. Or perhaps it’s that his face is half-hidden behind a burn scar, or her hair is soft, fine fuzz, just growing in, or the man with a shaved head wearing a leather jacket and chains but has a tattoo of a small, delicate lily on his wrist, or that his right arm is missing at the elbow.
These unique and striking characteristics create intrigue.
Why a spider tattoo? Does it have special meaning? What’s the story behind it?
Was he in a fire? A victim of some sort of attack?
Did she have cancer? Is she in remission, or is she dying? Or did she lose her hair for some other reason?
What or who inspired such a tough, gruff-looking guy to tattoo such a delicate design on his wrist?
How did he lose his arm? Was he in an industrial accident? Did he lose it in a war? Was he born that way?
Creating questions draws your reader in and makes them want to find out more. If you can create a physical characteristic that reflects a layer or character or backstory, you will engage readers and give them a reason to care about what happens next.
However, physical characteristics can also be ordinary things, like being excessively tall or short, being covered in age spots, having hands deformed by arthritis, wearing glasses, being so plain they’d never stand out in a crowd, and so on. Most people you meet (and thus most characters your character meets) won’t have some dramatic, character-defining physical trait that draws attention. Most of them will be ordinary people with ordinary traits, so when you describe those traits, they don’t have to be dramatic, just memorable.
If you were trying to explain to one friend how to find another friend in a crowd, what would you say?
Brown hair, average height, heavyset, wears glasses.
So pale he’s almost an albino.
Really short, maybe 4”10’, but don’t let that fool you, she’ll kick your butt if you mess with her.
The bluest eyes. Soft, wavy gold curls. Short, spiky hair dyed neon pink. Perpetually sunburned, except for the white space around his eyes where his sunglasses usually are. Dresses like a media tycoon. Dresses like a runway model. Dresses like a couch potato, and has stringy hair that looks like it hasn’t been washed in a month.
It doesn’t really matter what trait you decide to go with. It might be that he walks with a limp or is in a wheelchair. It might be her ethnicity. It could be his age or fitness level, or it could be that she dresses in the traditional costume of her homeland or religion, or that he wears a beard, or that the shape of her mouth makes it looks like she’s perpetually frowning.
Pick a feature or two that are distinctive, the thing that people notice when they first meet a person, and describe it with a little extra flair so that’s the thing your reader sees, what they picture in their mind when that character comes on stage. It’s better to have a few really memorable qualities that give the reader a framework around which to build their mental image than to describe every boring detail.
She had dark brown hair in a simple but sophisticated bob cut that framed a heart-shaped face. Her skin was pale, sprinkled with faint freckles, but her eyes were dark and too large for her face. She had a high forehead and a long neck above a narrow frame.
Huge, dark eyes stood out against pale skin in her tight, narrow face, giving her an almost alien appearance.
One description gives much more detail, but which one gives you a more vivid mental image?
Think about which physical traits you want to highlight and use strong, descriptive words to give life to those traits, and you’ll give your reader a much better grasp of what your character looks like, a mental image they will see every time they see that character on the page.