How much physical description is enough when you create characters?

create characters

When you create characters, how far should you go to individualize their physical descriptions? What is absolutely necessary for the depiction?

One of the imponderables of the fiction writing trade is, when an author creates characters, just how much physical description is enough to fully flesh out a character’s identity?

In years past many novels contained illustrations that purported to show images of the characters as conceived by the author. A prime example would be the work of Hablot Knight Brown “Phiz” who illustrated the works of Charles Dickens. Such illustrations were not mirror-image portrayals of Dickens’ characters but imaginary images conceived by the illustrator. Apparently Dickens, who approved the work of the artist, thought they were representative enough.

As technology expanded its reach into photography, film, television, and now the world of digital media, adaptors of literary works chose either live actors or imagined cartoon characters to represent those characters created in the mind of the author. They made their choices based on their own imaginary representations choosing actors who they thought might best pass a loose test of authorial authenticity with a canny eye out for commercial appeal.

Most storytellers from time immemorial compose their material as a kind of roadmap conceived in their imagination to communicate their vision to the imagination of the reader. The author’s expectation is that exposition, dialogue, character interaction, emotional contact, descriptive details of the environment, authorial insights, and perhaps a sketchy outline of the characters’ physiognomy are all enough to create an image of a character’s appearance in the reader’s mind.

The reader would be well aware of the approximate age of the characters by their impulses and desires, especially in those stories that deal with the mysteries of physical love and motivational impulses like ambition, faith, rapaciousness, depression, yearning, and other emotions. In terms of the actual physical description, the physiognomy was and is often left to the reader’s imagination.

For example, in the Bible we are well aware of the characters and their motivations, but do we know what they really look like from the text? When we first encounter David, we know he is a young shepherd, physically adroit, obviously chosen because he is a skilled master of the slingshot.

With little physical details in the text, Michelangelo has imagined David as a stunning image carved in marble, fourteen feet tall. He is portrayed by the great sculptor as the most beautiful male figure on the planet, every part of him molded to represent the physical pinnacle of the gender.

Examples of such transference are legion. It is also true of the iconic painted and sculpted visions of Jesus Christ as an imagined human being and his depiction on the cross. Such physicality is not described anywhere in the new Testament.

There are so many examples of “left out physiognomy” descriptions that I can simply cherry-pick from my recollections.

Charles Swann and his mad passion for the courtesan Odette in Proust’s magnificent Swann’s Way is an interesting instance where the prime example of her physiognomy is Swann’s memory of Botticelli’s rendering of Moses’ first wife Zipporah. Thus the reader must accept Swann’s memory of the painting, via the representation conceived by Botticelli, who imagined her from a brief mention in the old testament. Is anything more needed from Proust to fix Odette’s physical presence in one’s mind? Perhaps not.

Emma Bovary is another good example. Flaubert conceives of Emma with rich details of her psychology, her actions, even her inner thoughts, but the actual physical description is somewhat sketchy: black hair, big eyes, a birdlike walk. We know, of course, that she is a romantic, sexually frustrated, extravagant, and obviously sensual and attractive, but there are few concrete details.

In today’s pop culture, the authors who have their books adapted to film have little choice but to accept the film makers’ physical version of their conceived characters. In Hemingway’s novels, for example, Gary Cooper was chosen to represent both Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms and Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. People of my generation have it fixed in our minds that Gary Cooper is the physical image of Hemingway’s conception.

The list of these “transferences” go on and on. Vivien Leigh is Scarlet O’Hara. Clark Gable personifies Rhett Butler. Did Margaret Mitchell conceive them physically as such? Detectives, cowboys, political figures, gangsters, courtesans, fairy tale characters, heroes and heroines of every possible category conceived in the imagination of authors are physically portrayed by actors. Indeed, this is not confined to fiction. “Based on a true story” has become a kind of logo to signify what is recycled as “real events.”

The question for the author is: how far he or she should go to individualize his or her character’s physical description? What is absolutely necessary for the depiction? Think of the possibilities. The color of the eyes, so varied and rich with meaning. The hair color: its length and style. The voice: its pitch, depth and rhythm. The skin hue: so fraught with genetic clues. The configuration of lips in a smile or pout. Height, posture, carriage, girth, age, gait, disfigurement, handicap, and a limitless number of specific physical identifiers.

Is it a conscious decision of the author to leave out the physical descriptions deliberately to allow the reader to imagine his own images? As an author of many works of fiction, some highly descriptive of the characters’ physiognomy and some merely sketchy or non existent, I must confess that I am still somewhat ambivalent about such a choice but I raise the issue largely to solicit opinion from my fellow scribblers.

Just how much physical description is enough?

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  1. Elmore Leonard and Nelson DeMille would sooner commit hara-kiri than write one word that describes how their characters look, and I think their works suffer from it. Cormac McCarthy goes overboard in describing scenery but limits character description to something less than the bare minimum. In TV and movies the audience is spoon-fed, not having to do any work to recreate the situation in their minds.

    I think that the standard is set by your genre. If you’re writing chick-lit, you’d better provide good descriptions. If you are trying to write a Great Novel, then by all means be sparse.

  2. I love this article – you did a great job with examples from both extremes, and I don’t think any answer to this question is necessarily wrong. If your audience takes notice of how little or how much description you include, then perhaps you’ve gone too far to the extreme, otherwise do what feels natural.

    I’m working on my first novel right now and it didn’t even occur to me that I’d completely omitted physical descriptions until I was asking for critiques on the first draft. I like to leave a lot of it up to the imagination of the audience because that’s how I am as a reader, but I did go back and work in a few details here and there in a subsequent draft.

    • I believe that to a large extent, it depends on how familiar your readers are with the type of character you are portraying.
      Are you describing the standard noir gumshoe, or are you introducing a more exotic or unfamiliar type of character; say a man in Timbuktu who sells camels; if you describe him as having dark hooded eyes, a scar across the side of his face and three missing fingers, you add an element of menace or are using it as a misdirect.
      Character description can be effectively used flavour the rest of your scene or narrative, as opposed to illustration for its own sake.

      • Wonderful article. I’m a few chapters in on the sequel to my first novel, and one thing that many readers noticed was that the flow was interrupted by too much character description. I blame the editor, who said I needed it, and it being my first book. In my sequel I use other means to let readers identify characters, those who aren’t already known.
        Thanks again.

  3. Any tips for good ways to convey your first-person narrator’s looks, besides the cliche of having him look at himself in a mirror and think about what he sees?

    • Good to hear from you, Jendi. Love your blog and especially your contribution to Writers of the World. To answer your question, I think that a first person narrator’s looks could be painted in small brush strokes that gradually build to a complete portrait. Details and clues can be sprinkled in through actions. What did you have in mind? WA

  4. Thank you for this article. It helped me crystalize in my mind, the very elements I was struggling with as I begin the second volume of a trilogy I’m working on. I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that character description is important only to the extent it drives the story. It is my belief that the more room you leave for the reader to participate in the world you are revealing, the more they can enjoy it. This does not excuse one from providing the elements necessary to allow their characters to live, but excess embellishment can cause the flow of your writing to drag. I was reminded, and encouraged by this piece, to keep the reader first as I am writing; and allow my words to guide rather than paint.

    • Appreciate your insightful comment and I’m happy that it shed some light on what appears to be factors that you’ve already been considering. I agree that there is such a thing as excess embellishment – it is something that you decide when working on the tempo of the narrative. WA

  5. In my novels, I describe my main characters in detail, and refer to those characteristics often; however, other characters are described as I deem necessary for the reader to understand…

  6. My take on this, from the perspective of both a novelist and screenwriter, is that the physical description should focus on the most important aspects of the character. For example, the heroine of the novels I am working on would be slender, dark hair, fair complexion, with blue eyes a man could fall into. All of this to convey an alluring woman who is at the same time shy and withdrawn. It also speaks to her family heritage, since she is a hybrid of elf and vampire. With her being adopted, she would be a little more aloof, and a physical description could drive that very point home.

  7. I come to fiction writing from work as an oral storyteller, mostly of folktales, which are usually short on physical description of characters. Yes, Snow White has hair as black and coal and skin as white as snow, but most of her peers are “fair as the day” or some such generality. So I tend to be short on physical description. Bruno Bettelheim preferred fairy tale books without illustrations so the reader could imagine a monster just scary enough but not too.

  8. Characters who flit in and out of specific chapters never to be seen again can be memorable from the author’s description, with regard to clothing, features and hair. The reader can immediately paint a picture of the character and in a given genre this description enhances and validates the story theme. Specifically with the depiction of seafarers in a sea adventure novel the dress description of characters allows the reader to be more fully an observer aboard the ship. The main characters dress can be relevant, for scene setting, but their speech and responses to one another identify their character traits for the reader. Where love interest is likely to develop you need to give your main characters male or female characteristics, mannerism, style and dress sense that will interest and excite the reader. With modern novels you need to be very aware of the contemporary scene for the reader to then relate to your characters with your description. In writing this advice I’m aware that it is relatively easy to describe how best to portray through description, but also that it is not that easy to get the balance right. My not so guilty secret is that I read novels by women authors describing their female characters to get a better understanding of how best to describe hair style of a heroine in my novel, for example.

  9. It’s reassuring to note that other writers have the same problem with physical description. I chop around in my novels sometimes giving a physical description of a character and sometimes not. I would like to say it is part of an overall strategy and understanding of when the need to describe exists. Unfortunately it is neither. It’s just how I feel about it when writing the first appearance of the character. Not very scientific or clever but it seems to work.

    Fran Connor

  10. I have two novels nearing completion and my sci-fi novel The Fall of Heaven employs the barest of character descriptors. I give a basic framework for a few traits and leave the reader the task of rendering their appearance based on their actions and their personality. There are subtle plot purposes to most of these descriptions.

    As a young reader, I often equated a character in the book to a person that I knew, sometimes pulling a hollywood switch where there were few physical similarities to each other, but their personalities matched. I am sure that some readers need more physical traits to fill out the characters in their heads.

    I read most of a fantasy series where the writer was so impressed with his ability to create a scene that he described every detail in exacting detail down to plate cracks and patterns on the table settings. Had his characters not been so engaging, I would have stopped during his first 700+ page novel.

    In early drafts, I described the power generation techniques of the megacities as a way to make it more real, but most readers don’t care if it is not a plot mover or key to helping them solve a mystery.

    • Thank you for sharing, David. I agree with you on your recollection that experiences as a young reader have given you some insight into what you think works and what doesn’t. Whoa! A 700+ page contemporary novel? Finishing it is a testament to the author’s work, right? WA

  11. There’s a fine line between too much and just enough of a character’s physical description. When I’m reading, I want to know age, hair color and length (or patterns of baldness), approximate size and age of the main characters. The rest I enjoy using my imagination. When too much information is given, it doesn’t flow naturally. As a writer, I give subtle character descriptions, working them into the story in different ways depending on my writing style. In a first person point of view, which I used in my last novel, it’s easy for the narrator to describe what he or she sees in a fellow character, but in third person point of view novels, I’ve worked the them in in a number of ways. A character looking in the mirror at herself, lamenting about grey hair, crows feet, etc. Another character’s fiery temper being associated with red hair worked well for me, but I have found with my subsequent books that because I’ve pictured the characters in my head, I am lacking in describing them until I finish my first draft; then I go back and blend the physical appearances in.

  12. Screenwriters are pretty much forbidden to give great description when introducing a character. The suggestion (rule) is to give just enough to provoke an image; the rest is up to the director, producer, etc. I recently completed my first novel and it felt good to take liberties in my descriptions. My editor and beta readers love it. I think of it this way – The novel belongs to me. It’s mine! A screenplay doesn’t once its sold.

  13. I usually get bogged down when faced with vast descriptions of character; so when I described my character in Paradise Ridge and Ghost in the Forest, I used only the details that would serve the story. Dori’s curly brown hair matches that of another woman rather than the wavy auburn tresses of her willowy mother. That fact ties in with elements of the plot rather than merely telling the reader what Dori looked like. I’ve had two readers ask me about my lack of description and we went through a named the various clues to Dori’s appearance. They were all tied to Dori’s character and attitudes which also drive the action of the story. Description should served a purpose beyond mere appearances.

    • Appreciate your feedback, Sue. Interesting how time spent as a reader influences certain decisions, isn’t it? I agree with the last line of your comment. Details that serve a purpose won’t bog down a reader. WA

  14. Thank you Mr. Adler.

    I conceived my first novel as a movie. I cast my characters as well-known stars. I see Seija played by Uma Thurman, with her screen persona. What more need I say? Unless my reader has never seen Ms. Thurman on screen.

    I got some flak for not describing my characters.

  15. Thanks for the intriguing article and the various responses.
    As a writer who struggles with setting and physically describing characters, I know that my scenes and descriptions are sketchy at best, but I get bored writing them, so I know my readers will be bored reading them. Someone (I wish I could remember who) mentioned using only the “Telling detail(s) which seems the best compromise. However, finding that one salient identifyier becomes the next challenge.
    On the other hand, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be as much fun and anybody could do it.

  16. Wonderful blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like
    Wordpress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that
    I’m completely confused .. Any suggestions? Many thanks!

  17. Screenwriters are pretty much forbidden to give great description when introducing a character. The suggestion (rule) is to give just enough to provoke an image; the rest is up to the director, producer, etc. I recently completed my first novel and it felt good to take liberties in my descriptions. My editor and beta readers love it. I think of it this way – The novel belongs to me. It’s mine! A screenplay doesn’t once its sold.

  18. I conceived my first novel as a movie. I cast my characters as well-known stars. I see Seija played by Uma Thurman, with her screen persona. What more need I say? Unless my reader has never seen Ms. Thurman on screen.

    I got some flak for not describing my characters.


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