When you go to see a movie, you instantly know what characters look like; one glance at the screen lets you absorb dozens of small details. Obviously, writers have a much harder task.

You do have one advantage over film: you can tap into the character’s thoughts, and describe emotions – but when it comes to showing readers what a character looks like, you are faced with more of a challenge. The danger here is that you’ll recite a list of attributes that sound like a prisoner’s rap sheet: ethnicity, hair colour, eye colour, height, build, identifying marks such as scars or tattoos, and so on. Your job is to be subtle, yet to describe your characters powerfully enough for the reader to firstly get a quick ‘thumbnail’ impression, and then to absorb further details that round out the picture as the story continues.

At this point I’m going to use a scene sent in by one of my e-course participants as an example. I’m changing names and some of the details (since this is a copyright work in progress) but the structure remains essentially the same.

Setup: The character, Joe, has arrived at a hotel in search of the owner, a powerful figure in the community. He hasn’t met this person before, and has no idea of what he looks like.
Here’s the original version:

Joe pushed open the door of the hotel and walked a few paces towards the bare counter. He stood for a time, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and when nobody appeared he turned and began retracing his footsteps.

“Hello dear,” came a woman’s voice. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

Joe stopped just before he reached the door and when he turned around, the elderly woman extended her hand and took Joe’s hand into her own.

“I – I’m looking for Reginald Masterton,” he said shyly.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place then. I’m his sister, Marcia,” she told him. She smiled, then continued. “You’re not from around here?”

“No,” he replied, hesitating for a moment. “I’m from Marshville.”

Marcia’s eyes clouded over, then she looked away. It was a few minutes before she spoke again. “Not many people survived the attacks on that village.”

“I survived.”

“You must be tougher than you look,” she said.

Joe squared his shoulders and reminded himself why he had come. “Can I speak with Reginald?”

“Reginald!” she called towards an adjoining room.

The powerful man that filled the doorway was disturbing; almost to the point that Joe wished he hadn’t come.

What do you want, woman?” he asked gruffly.

“This is Joe from Marshville,” she informed him.

Reginald’s gaze raked Joe from head to toe. Then he looked at his sister.

“What are you waiting for, woman? Get this boy a bath and food,” he ordered. “Then we will discuss why you are here,” he said abruptly to Joe.

Comments on the Scene Above.

I like the way that the author has SHOWN me Joe’s state of mind rather than TOLD me about it, by having Joe shifting his weight from one foot to another for a time then turning around to leave. The reader can see that he’s indecisive, or lacks confidence: he doesn’t even call out to see if anyone is around. We can also tell that the woman who greets him is friendly, through her words “Hello dear” and “Well, you’ve come to the right place then.” However, when Joe turns around, all the reader is told is that he sees “an elderly woman”.

Think about this for a moment. Does this really help the reader to see what Joe is seeing? We know that (a) she is friendly (at least to start with) and (b) that she is “elderly”. But – what does “elderly” really mean? Is she in her eighties, or in her sixties? What is it about her that prompts Joe to tag her as “elderly” – wrinkled skin? Grey/white hair? The way she is dressed? Perhaps it’s a combination of factors. If so – what are they? As an author, how can you help the reader to see what you’re seeing?

When we meet someone for the first time, we take in a lot of information. It’s like pressing the shutter on a camera. Imprinted on our brains are instant impressions about height, weight, age, gender, ethnicity, fitness, hygiene, social class, personal grooming or fashion sense, education, personality, mood, likely financial status and many more. Some of these initial impressions may turn out to be wrong: for example, a woman may appear to be well-groomed and elegant, but alienate others as soon as she opens her mouth to let fly a shrewish opinion on something. (This is an excellent ploy for a novelist, by the way – let your character make judgements about someone via a first impression then be quickly proved wrong as the scene plays out.)

Let’s return to the scene above. As the author, you’re writing from Joe’s viewpoint. You’re showing the reader everything through his eyes. In this case, what does Joe see when he turns around? What are the combination of factors that he sees that signals ‘elderly woman’ to him? Keep in mind that you don’t want a list of attributes here; you’re not describing a piece of furniture, and you don’t want to bore the reader. You need to pick out a couple of features that SHOW ‘elderly woman’. If you choose carefully, you can telegraph several things at once – her age, her mood, her social class and so on.

Sometimes, you can sit there and stare at the keyboard for half an hour and still not be able to recreate the character on the page. If this happens, try acting it out. Yes, really! Get up from your seat and BECOME Joe, walking into the hotel. He looks around; nobody is there. He waits. (What else might Joe take in about his surroundings while he’s waiting?) He finally feels awkward enough standing there to decide to go. But he hears a voice behind him and turns.

What does he see? What does her expression tell him? Is her face wrinkled or smooth? If it’s smooth, what betrays her elderly status? Is her face kind or hard? What is the expression in her eyes? Sure, he’ll register an instant first impression – but what are a few of the SPECIFICS that lead to this impression? How is she dressed? Do her clothes telegraph ‘rich’ or ‘important’ or ‘worker’? Is she sloppy? Grubby? Elegant? Or do her clothes say nothing much about her? (If this is the case, it wouldn’t be the clothes that would make an impression on Joe; it would be something else. Don’t fall into the trap of describing things that DON’T make an impression!)

If we zip through the scene to where Reginald appears, we see the same problem. What are we told? “The powerful man that filled the doorway was disturbing; almost to the point that Joe wished he hadn’t come.” I like the phrase ‘filled the doorway’ – that combined with ‘powerful man’ gives an instant impression of size and strength. So far so good. BUT – that’s where the information ends. The conversation progresses and the reader still can’t “see” this character. It’s a bit like looking at a silhouette, or a big shapeless blob. (Or talking to someone with a bag over his head.) What does this man LOOK like? I have no idea what his face is like. I don’t know whether he’s bald or has dreadlocks. I don’t know if his skin is weathered, pocked with acne or sunspots, or smooth. I don’t know if he looks worried, curious, or irritated.

Joe would be able to answer my questions, because he’s looking at the man. So make sure he answers the questions in the reader’s mind, too!

One final thought: the woman introduces Joe to her brother as “Joe from Marshville”. However, although Joe tells her where he’s from, he hasn’t actually told her his name. It’s easy to forget things like this, but the reader will pick them up!