How to Physically Describe Characters in Your Novel



hi this is Ellen Brock freelance novel editor we talked in previous videos about how to make good characters but this time I want to talk about physical descriptions and how you can describe your characters in a way that's interesting to readers the first thing you want to keep in mind is that readers are not necessarily going to remember how you described your characters this happens a lot everybody has a different opinion about what the character looks like even if it's explicitly stated in the book so as hard as you want to try to convey this specific image of your character to some degree it doesn't really matter because people really will envision it however they want to so it's important to keep that in mind in light of that I tend to favor lighter descriptions not really getting into specific details about the exact shade of the hair color or the exact build of the body because the readers are probably not going to remember and it's also probably not relevant to the book just keep it very basic and don't spend a lot of time on it if you do describe your characters try to do it early on because once they the reader has already got an image of the character in their mind if you introduce details about their appearance in like the second third fourth chapter the reader is gonna have to reimagine the character and readers don't really like doing that so make sure that you put those descriptions in early so that hopefully the reader will get an image that's pretty close to what you want the other thing to keep in mind with character descriptions is to not have them just be set aside as an isolated thing you don't want to just spend a paragraph describing your character with no other context or relevance the best thing to do is to work the character description into some type of action that could be something like a girl tucking her long hair behind her ears or pulling it up into a ponytail it could be describing her clothes or not fitting in clothes the way that she wants to for a man it could be describing like that it's easy to reach something or not easy to reach something based on the height what you never want to do is have your characters describe themselves by looking into a mirror because this is considered cliche about this in other videos I think I talked about it in my first chapter video um looking in mirrors is one of the biggest cliches that amateur writers fall into so you do not want to have your character describe themselves by looking into a mirror the last thing you want to keep in mind is to not repeatedly explain what people look like say it once maybe twice and then let it go you don't want to repeatedly describe people because it just becomes tiresome to the reader and it makes it seem like you're more interested in the way that they look than the way that they feel or what they're doing appearance really isn't important because like I said the readers are going to imagine the character however they want to anyway so don't repeat your character descriptions over and over and over and over it's not particularly interesting the one exception to this would be romance where it's much more conventional to explain the appearance in detail and repeatedly because that sort of part of the appeal in romance for the people who read it I hope this video was helpful if you have any video ideas feel free to send me an email I'll put that a my website at the end of the video and I will try to make another video soon

42 thoughts on “How to Physically Describe Characters in Your Novel

  1. Ellen Brock: "Don't have your characters describe themselves while looking in a mirror"
    Me, looking at my post it note that reminds me not to be scared of going back and correcting work: Ah, s***, here we go again.
    tbf tho minimalist descriptions have always been what I prefer. I've always just needed a small number of features (like: "oh yeah she's tall with brown skin, dark hair and yellow eyes"), particularly the abnormal/uncommon features ("yeah and she's also got a giant a** scar across her face") and always filled in gaps like clothing, most facial features and whatnot from there in that moment… somehow my brain forgot that this is literally what everyone else does as well and will now get to work on severely reducing the lengths of some passages where characters are introduced.
    Also thanks for the vid I just read the passages and they're actually awful. Without this they would've never been corrected and I can say the same about a lot of parts to my work thanks to you and other book-writing youtubers so thanks a lot.

  2. I like a character to be fully described. I want to know the shade of their hair, the colour of their eyes, if they are tanned , dark or white skinned. I want it straight out described in an obvious way.

  3. What about drawing your characters and including it in the book. Either one per chapter or like an index?

  4. I describe my characters fairly lightly. Maybe adding smaller details later. But in the current one I'm writing you get to know that he's got dark skin, long black hair and an odd eye colour. That's really all you need to know, because he stands out, and you need to know why. I think that's enough, at least at first. this way the reader won't imagine a blonde dude with short hair, and later get upset when he's not. XD That's happened to me in some books, and I hate that. When I have this character in my head, and then suddenly a description pops up, way late and it's not what I had imagined. ๐Ÿ˜›

  5. I agree it is better not to describe characters in too much detail. When reading a novel, I get an image in my mind as to what the character looks like physically. I don't like to get into a novel and the find out the character looks completely different than I had imagined from the opening scene.

    Let the reader decide what the characters look like from a minimal physical description.

  6. I learned at my critique group to avoid vague subjective labels, such as
    big, fat, tall, or ugly. Instead i mention something that will trigger a
    reaction in a reader, a tic, habit, scar, bald patch, dandruff, limp,
    speech pattern, etc.

    Something a character does can help, such as a chilling grin, fleck of saliva on the lip, piece of clothing or accessory, mode of dress or a pet phrase they use.

    Not every character needs one. The reaction of other characters can also trigger a reaction in the reader:

  7. Thank you very much for sharing this. A friend of mine says I didn't describe the look of my characters very well, but given what you've said here it sounds like people very easily go overboard with it.

  8. I use to describe to the pin-point of how every character appeared. I cut down on that a lot. Oddly enough, when I'm re-reading my manuscript of the main character's crack head biological mother. I picture something else than a skeletal walking corpse like human. After watching your video, I think I know how to fix that. The reader then can take it from there. Great video!

  9. One more thing — I dump information excessively, which prohibits me from thoroughly describing the actual story. Considering that I'm a Space and Power Fantasy writer, I'm obsessed with somehow getting the point across as dramatically as possible.

  10. My problem is that I get stressed out and feel the need to cram in my character's description the moment they're introduced.

  11. Could you make a video on how to pick a pen name, please?

  12. Nice Video Ellen, Btw you've got the name of my main character

  13. I actually used a mirror to describe my character but only when the state of her appearance changed; it wasn't hinted at all that she was hiding her scars under makeup until she bathed, washing it away and pretty much setting herself up for mental breakdown when she made the mistake of looking at it with her face undone.

  14. +MST3Killa – Do you think its ok to write a couple of paragraphs worth of description shortly after you first introduce the character? And then not mention it again.

  15. I tend to describe very little and relevant details like only hair or eyes color or not describe anything at all, especially when it comes to the main character. As you said, readers will forget it and readers tend to imagine themselves or their preferences in the characters. I think it's a right of the reader, and I wouldn't take it from them lol

  16. I think I have a problem with my main character. Basically before I actually show his full description I have written him a sort of a character who hides his appearance in public so it's hard to see his face but later on when he's fully introduce i describe his features but I guess the mistakes I made was describing his full appearance now I have to make it sound better.

  17. My character's description stems from looking into a mirror, but part of the little scene where it happens is also to establish her fear of mirrors. Is this a justifiable reason to have her character description this way (it's a short paragraph that names some of her features, but doesn't go too in-depth), or do I really need to change it?

  18. What if I put my own (MY) concept art on the cover, so they can look at the cover if they forget? Is this ok?

  19. This topic is so confusing for me, because I am an amateur with no formal writing education. I have listened to several different YT channels specifically discussing the "do's and don't's" of character physical descriptions, and everyone seems to have a different take on it. It's not surprising to hear an Editor say not to "over-describe" a character's physical appearance, but this doesn't seem quite right to me in the Fantasy/horror/sci-fi novel I am writing, because many of the characters I'm describing are so far out of the mundane, and unusual, that it feels like I'm ripping the Reader off if I don't give a good solid physical description.

  20. how do you send to publishers? a digital copy or a hard copy? should I mail it to myself beforehand?

  21. SERIOUSLY, EVERYONE SAYING THAT HARRY HAD HIS MOTHERS EYES WAS SO ANNOYING.

  22. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B018RN106E?*Version*=1&*entries*=0

  23. mirror cliche: I don't think it's that bad, it depends on the character. Imagine the protagonist was obsessed with beauty and something bad happened to him/her that made him/her ugly (scars for example) It would be natural for them to look at the mirror and pity herself/himself

  24. I have a problem with clothing, I never know if I should describe the clothes for a new day or not. It's especially awkward in fantasy and historical because you can't just say a shirt or jeans. Listing off clothing can be tedious to write and no doubt even more tedious to read but clothing does set a mood e.g a high society dinner would require high society clothing but can that just be assumed rather than told?

  25. Great point about putting the descriptions in earlyโ€ฆI've just been reading a book where details on the appearance of the main character was given in the 5th and 6th chapters and I had to change how I saw that character. Not fun.

  26. What if the character is growing up from childhood throughout the book aquiring different traits? for exemple grownig a long hair and cutting it in a few years. I have like a million question to you becouse I've just started writing a book about a week ago and already halfway through. And I have no one to ask. Thanks for the videos, they are already helping. Btw, I'm from hungary.

  27. great videos. I'm an amateur writer and I enjoy these videos. They have details and much information. I published a children's book last year and recently just finished a science-fiction which will be published next month. These videos have improved my character descriptions and it's always good to consider many opinions. Keep up the great work ๐Ÿ™‚

  28. One of the funniest book group experiences ย ever was a member describing the male romantic character–pre-burning.–in The English Patient as drunk, angry, overweight, buttons gaping across his belly–all of which was clearly described in a scene in the book. ย As one, all the book club members sighed "No-o-o" ย . Of course they were picturing Ralph Fiennes.

  29. Basically if you chracter is a special forces operative their obviously not going to picture him or her as obese or sickly skinny LOL

  30. George R.R. Martin does the complete opposite of this ๐Ÿ˜‰

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