I’ve found that one of the challenges presented in authentic storytelling is knowing when and how to introduce a character’s physical appearance. A lot of writers try to get it done right away, as in, the first sentences of the story. Others save it for later, but devote multiple paragraphs to outlining every intricate detail. Other methods are so cliche that they read “amateur”. So what is the right away to go about describing a character’s appearance? How do you make it both sound natural and give the reader a sufficient mental image? Here’s what I do:
(P.S. Don’t forget to grab your physical appearance checklist here!)
1. Delay it.
Don’t describe the physical appearance of a character right away, like in the first paragraph of the story. In all truth, how a character looks is not the most important thing about them. Their voice, their actions, their wants and values – those are the important parts of a character. So don’t feel rushed to describe their appearance right away. In fact, with the main character, I often do not describe them until the second scene. I skip describing them physically in the first scene altogether. Now, with secondary characters, especially in First Person POV, I’ll have the narrator describe them upon their introduction. This is important because the character whose eyes the reader now possesses is looking at someone. You need to give the reader the same vision as the narrator. It’s different with a main character; in the middle of an action-driven opening scene, a person would rarely stop to say, “My blue eyes flashed with rage,” because how are they supposed to know? They can’t see their self without a mirror. It’s an unrealistic, irrelevant, even tactless way of introducing a main character’s appearance.
2. Break it up.
With a main character, especially First Person narration, don’t reveal the appearance all at once. I cannot condone enough the use of multiple-paragraph descriptions. Don’t pack it in all at once. Describe the character’s hair as they brush it. Describe their skin tone as they’re walking in the sun. Mention their eye color when they put in contacts or try to pick out a shirt that brings them out. Scatter it throughout the first few chapters of the story. Let the reader build the character’s mental image over time.
Unless your MC is constantly getting compliments, it’s very unlikely that other characters are going to do the work of describing the MC for you – especially if you’re writing in First Person. The best (and most natural) way to introduce your MC’s physical appearance is to have them introduce it on their own. Whether it’s a brief glance in the mirror or other reflective surface; whether it’s a moment where they glance down at their arms and once again acknowledge the sun spots they fret over; whether it’s in the midst of them describing their sibling and then adding “we’ve been told we look alike,” – these are all ways the MC can naturally bring to light what they look like without an in-depth interior monologue.
4. Keep it brief.
When introducing different aspects of a character’s appearance, keep the description brief. There’s no need for a multi-paragraph overview of every minute detail. Pick an aspect of their appearance, mention it, and move on. Later in the story, if you want to focus on another aspect of their appearance, do the same thing: highlight it for a moment, then move on. A few sentences – one or two, three being the absolute most attention I’d give to it – is all you really need to introduce a character’s features, whether it be their solo left earring or the bracelets coating their wrists or their cleft chin. Again: drop the description wherever it fits most naturally (in the midst of a conversation, a moment of routine, etc.), then leave it there and continue on with the scene.
Access my checklist here so that you know exactly what physical details to include & when to include them. I also have a blog post to help you select exactly the right specifics for detailing your character’s physical appearance. Looking for the right word to describe their skin tone? Struggling to determine their body type or face shape? This is the ultimate resource. Find everything you need here.
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