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How Do I Describe Characters in My Novel?

It’s important to provide enough information about characters for readers to be able to paint a mental picture of their appearance and personality.

Problems can arise, though, when characters are described in a functional way, almost as though the author is running through the ingredients for a new recipe.


This needs to be avoided for three reasons:

  1. It can become extremely repetitive if done for all the characters, distracting and disengaging the reader from the story you’re telling.

  2. Simply listing a character’s features misses the opportunity to create an emotional bond between them and the reader. The character is likely to come across as two-dimensional and unengaging. For the novel to work, it has to be populated by interesting and vivid personalities. Readers might love some and loathe others – but they have to care what happens to them.

  3. Most readers enjoy the chance to do a bit of work for themselves, joining up the dots to form a picture of a character’s appearance and personality. Presenting a detailed run-down of someone’s relevant features deprives readers of the chance to do this.


How can I write engaging character descriptions in my novel?

Suppose we want to introduce a character called Steve to our novel. The key facts we want to get across are:

  • It’s just before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

  • Steve is a 30-year-old former soldier.

  • He left the army after suffering from PTSD and has since been sleeping rough.

  • He can’t afford new clothes, suffers from chest infections and has lost a considerable amount of weight.


Inexperienced novelists might seek to provide all this information in the form of a very simple run-down of the relevant facts.

For example:


Steve, 30, with a mop of dark hair, huddled deeper into the doorway where he was sheltering from the biting night air.

It was just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, and he watched as revellers prepared for the big countdown.

Steve had been sleeping rough for five years since being forced to leave the army due to PTSD.

His lack of money meant he couldn’t afford new clothes while his harsh way of life had taken its toll on his health; he’d lost a lot of weight and suffered from frequent chest infections.


This text does its job in terms of providing the reader with the information they need to build a picture of Steve. The problem is it’s just too ‘on the nose’. It doesn’t give the reader the chance to piece together any information for themselves – nor does it create any emotional depth to Steve.

Compare that with the example below:


Steve huddled deeper inside the doorway, his mop of dark hair and army overcoat his only defences against the biting night air.

Another round of hacking coughs – how many 30-year-olds had lungs like his?

This spot had been one of his favourite bolt holes over the last five years, although, like his mud-stained clothes, it felt a lot roomier these days.

New Year fireworks exploded and Steve shook uncontrollably for a few seconds til his deep breathing routine slowly won its battle with his mind’s instincts.

He smiled grimly. No carriage clock for him. The shaking had been his leaving present.


The second example provides all the information the first does – but in a less direct way.

  • We learn about his mop of dark hair in the context of it being one of his few defences against the cold.

  • The fact he is still wearing his army overcoat and the reference to his mud-stained clothes tell us Steve is unable to afford new clothing.

  • The reference to his army coat also reveals he is a former soldier – without it having to be stated.

  • We learn he is 30-years-old through the reference to his lungs – which simultaneously reveals his poor state of health.

  • The mention of both his bolt hole and clothes feeling roomier, meanwhile, suggests he has lost weight.

  • The phrase 'over the last five years' tells the reader how long Steve has been sleeping rough

  • The second version makes no explicit reference to Steve suffering from PTSD. The description of the fireworks causing him to shake strongly hints at this, as does the way he regards the shaking as his ‘leaving present’.

  • Referring to his current location as one of his favourite spots suggests Steve has slept rough in plenty of different locations over the years.

  • The mention of New Year fireworks clearly establishes when this scene is taking place.

In addition, the second example provides the reader with much more of an emotional connection with Steve:

  • We see the effect of his ill health through his coughing and shaking – rather than simply being told about it.

  • The image of his clothes being too big for him is more powerful than just being told he has lost weight.

  • The fact that something other people are doing for fun (setting off fireworks) causes Steve such distress reinforces the idea of him being an outsider – somebody society has ceased to care about.

  • The mention of his leaving present continues this sense of isolation. Whereas other people receive something nice when they leave a place of work, Steve took something which has devastated his life.

  • The use of militaristic language (‘another round’, ‘bolt hole’ ‘his only defences’, and ‘won its battle’) creates a feeling he hasn’t moved on since his army days. His experiences back then continue to shape his life.


Here are some more examples of how character descriptions can be reworked to provide more emotional insight:


Sarah had long blonde hair.

Sarah wiped long strands of blonde hair from in front of her face.


Joe had a wrinkled face.

Joe frowned, adding more wrinkles to his well-lined face.


Jim was 51-years-old.

Jim looked at the gold watch Sue had given him for his fiftieth birthday last year – just a week before the accident.


Describing characters in a novel: Conclusion

It’s important to resist the urge to simply provide a shopping list of a character’s appearance. Weaving descriptions into the narrative provides greater emotional depth – and a more satisfying read.

The fact that someone has blue eyes isn’t in itself massively interesting – we need to know what their blue eyes are looking at and what emotions they suggest!

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