How to Describe a Fictional Character

Unlike movies where viewers watch as characters develop throughout the action of the film, characters in works of fiction must be described through thoughtful character development that includes physical appearance, movements, mannerisms, speech and, most importantly, intentional actions. Your challenge as a writer is to describe your characters without disrupting the flow of the action. By creating specific details that are memorable and using careful characterization, you can create distinct characters that readers will remember.

Physical Appearance

Readers want to visualize the characters that they read about to feel connected. However, too much physical description will slow down a story and keep readers from enjoying the plot. Instead of quantity, focus on a few clear details: a piece of jewelry, a hairstyle, a pair of shoes or a meaningful nickname. Weave these details into action to keep readers connected to the story. For example, In Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson describes one of his characters “a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, vivid white.”

Movements and Mannerisms

Mannerisms or habitual gestures help to reveal interesting details about a character. Nownovel reports that mannerisms are a great way to show instead of tell while developing your characters. Take for example the following sentences:

  • Greta walked across the room.
  • Greta strode across the room with her head held high.
  • Greta shuffled across the room, staring at the floor.

The second sentence shows Greta's confidence to the reader without breaking the action of the story, while the third sentence reveals Greta's lack of confidence. Use specific mannerisms to make a character stand out and to reveal a character's motivation.

Personalized Speech

Describe your characters through realistic dialogue. Let the word choice, accent and repeated phrases your character speaks reveal traits to the readers. The way a character speaks should reveal his education and attitude. For example, in Zora Neal Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character says, “Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” This dialogue reveals Janie's background as well as her views on love.

Intentional Action

One of the first lessons most writers learn is to focus on action over exposition, meaning to let the character's actions speak for themselves. The choices your character makes from how he reacts to a conflict to where he lives reveal character traits to the readers. Orson Scott Card, author of Enders Game, says, “People become, in our minds, what we see them do. This is the strongest, most irresistible form of characterization.” When Card's title character, Ender, beats the leader of a gang of bullies while defending himself, readers know that he is courageous and capable of anything. Develop your characters with intentional action and your readers will remember them long after they turn the page.

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