characters / descriptors / writers resources / writing

How To Describe Your Character’s Appearance in a Phrase

UPDATE

This is the ninth in the “How to Write Descriptions” series.

When you’re writing about your protagonist, you want the reader to see them–their clothes, shoes, the 891389868_b3506b074fscarf they wear, that old-fashioned belt buckle that shines in the sunlight. These images will engage readers in the plot as they watch a movie inside their brain, complete with a fully-described cast of characters. The more unusual you can make an article of clothing or accessory, the more memorable:

Here are some ideas for colorful descriptors. As with all my descriptor series of posts, these come from books I’ve rerad and have inspired me to love the character, story, or author’s wordsmithing. Don’t use these in your writing, merely use them to jog your muse:

  • Round spectacles tinted pink
  • John was wearing tan slacks and a powder-blue golf shirt, a thick gold chain around his neck. He chewed gum. Mary looked at him and thought, Perfect.
  • The driver was a big guy, wearing a steel-gray suit, wine-colored necktie and sunglasses. He looked like one of Warren’s security people: good physical condition and too big for the Corolla.
  • Wore a rumpled suit and a tie that wasn’t knotted properly
  • Wore a faded gray David Lynch Rules sweatshirt, wrinkled cargo pants, high lace-up boots
  • Tight beige cotton pants and a loose cotton shirt striped with shades of blue and pink and red. No panty line.
  • Tweed jacket, coat
  • Tight sleeveless tunic over crop pants
  • Despite that, and the ugliest Aloha shirt I’d ever seen
  • With their beaded purses and gem-studded slippers, their arched eyebrows and raccoon eyes
  • Dust-streaked plaid shirt and faded Levis
  • graying heavyset man with wire-rimmed glasses
  • his t-shirt contoured around his body like wet kleenex

  • Sturdy, compact body, neatly dressed in a pressed suit, shined shoes and perfectly rolled-up sleeves
  • Tan jacket. Brown pants, black shoes, a groove in his forehead from a hat now resting on his lap.
  • The heavyset copy wore an ill-fitting gray suit over a pale blue shirt and a 1980’s navy blue tie. . Taking fashion direction from NYPD Blue
  • Frisson of fear (delicious)
  • Dangerous stillness about him
  • wore martial arts slippers
  • the collar of his greatcoat
  • poor taste in clothes
  • Top button of his shirt was undone, exposing his undershirt
  • Chunky, square-faced, with short, curly hair and a bald spot at the crown of his head. He had small back eyes, fight scars under them, a nose that had been hit a few times.
  • Middle-aged, wavy-haired brunette packed tightly into a peacock-blue knockoff Chanel suit.
  • Barrel-chested, rust-bearded fireplug, five-six in thick-soled shoes, with sturdy, hirsute wrists and lumberjack hands. He wore a yellow-and-blue window-pane shirt, a big-knotted red tie of gleaming silk brocade, leather knit suspenders.
  • His hand was still damp—from the water faucet in the restroom, Virgil hoped.

What are your favorite ways to sum up a character in a phrase or a sentence?

More descriptors:

How to Describe Dogs

What Do Emotions Look Like?

113 Ways to Characterize Your Protagonist




Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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21 thoughts on “How To Describe Your Character’s Appearance in a Phrase

  1. My muse is jogged thank you … but insufficiently to answer your question re: favourite ways to sum up a character in a word or a sentence. I guess to just write it as it comes and then edit to see other ways of making the character stand out? Your examples are extremely useful thank you.

  2. These are all fantabulous. I laughed out loud at “The heavyset copy wore an ill-fitting gray suit…”
    Hmm. I haven’t thought about how I describe a character. Seems I catch them in action and haven’t done a lot of actual physical description. Short, short pieces don’t have room for much. :-)

    • ‘Ill-fitting’ really says so much–poverty, weight gain or loss, lack of interest in one’s appearance. All are insights into characters. You do that so well in your 100-word challenges, Tess.

      • Thanks, Jacqui. <3
        I hope once I've studied and practiced the 100-word challenges and flash fiction, I might move on to something bigger and have an idea about what I'm supposed to do..

  3. I was always struck by a line I came across by my namesake H.G. Wells; I forget which novel it is from, but he describes the British as being “Quietly shy to the point of madness” and I’ve always admired the way he managed to cram so much sense of a national character into so few words.

  4. I started writing fiction only recently, so descriptions are an open canvas for me. I experiment, edit, write some more, edit some more and so on. But these examples definitely helped. Thank you. Some of my favorite writers are amazing at descriptions. And that’s one of the first things I stop to admire.

  5. Jacqui I people watch and have done for many years. If I see a character walking past in a certain outfit that I like. I write it down. I use to work as an usher at the football stadium….oh what a field day I had. Great post.

  6. Love these, but something I read in Stephen King’s book On Writing I thought was interesting and perhaps worth adding, and that is that he gives very little description of his main characters, so that the reader can fill in their personal images of what his protagonists look like, etc. I thought that was a really good idea. He only does this with his most important characters. It makes a lot of sense to me.

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