How to Describe People

Learning how to write physical descriptions of your characters is a basic author skill.

And to be a great novelist ‘how to describe people’ means going beyond the basic descriptions of height, age, body shape, hair and eye colours.

This guide will help you to really bring your unique characters to life and build a clear picture in the minds of your readers, but in a way that doesn’t sound generic and forced.

Describing Physical Features

If you’re writing a short story, then you may get away with never revealing some of these aspects, if it isn’t moving the plot forwards. Regardless, you can choose a few key features to emphasise, and perhaps even utilise a well-placed simile to really make the reader’s imagination paint the picture for you.

  • Simile Examples: Her hair was like a flame. She looked as American as apple pie.

When using simile’s and using descriptions in general, it’s important that they match the behaviours and personality of your character, as well as the overall tone of your story.

You may even want to employ the power of psychology through the use of euphonics to emphasise the perfect description. You can learn more about the importance of euphonics and find guidance on how to use them in How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide.

Describe Characters in Your Writing

So what are some writing tips to slip these character descriptions in to our books in a natural way? If you’re writing from a first person perspective, you can have the narrator ‘speak their mind’ regarding particular looks or traits, passing comment on either themselves or another character.

  • First Person Narrator: I’ve always been proud of my soft blonde hair.

You can also reveal physical characteristics in a natural way while describing your character’s actions. This can be either physical traits (such as hairstyle) or the way a character moves that gives descriptions of their body type.

  • Describing Actions: She ducked under the archway, knocking loose strands of her high, tight bun. 
  • Describing Actions: His height was accentuated by his stiff gait.

A great tip to prevent writing from sounding like a news bulletin is to spread the description throughout different parts of your book. Perhaps give them a key feature, then a bit of dialogue, then an action which reveals more. This way the story doesn’t pause to describe the character, the description itself becomes the story unfolding. All you need to do is give the readers enough information that they can hold a current picture in their mind.

Beautifully diverse characters can make your writing memorable

How To Describe Body Parts

I’ve provided a few examples of how to describe different parts of the body. These are generally the most common descriptions, as full lists would be huge, but they can be a starting point for your own characters.

Writing: How to Describe Body Shape

When describing the body focus on both body-type and posture. What it looks like and how they are using it.

  • Describe Characters’ Body: big, little, large, small, fat, thin, bulky, skinny, plump, lean, fine, chunky, solid, muscular, athletic, flabby, saggy, standing, sitting, reaching, resting, arching, walking, jogging, running, hunching, bending, stretching, leaning

Writing: How to Describe Faces

Possibly the most important feature to describe is the face, as it’s able to convey the most emotion and intent of your character.

  • Character Face Shapes: round, square, oval, heart-shaped, triangular
  • Describe Character’s Face: fine, full, baby-faced, fresh, chiselled, thin, wide, furrowed, craggy, sculpted, weather-beaten, dimpled, handsome

Writing: How to Describe Skin

Complexion is your skin colour and what it looks like.

  • Describe Character’s Skin: tanned, wrinkled, freckled, rosy-cheeked, fresh, smooth, creamy, pale, glowing, rough, leathered, brown, dark, ebony

Writing: How to Describe Eyes

Most of our information about the world is received through the eyes. And most of our reaction to the world can also be told through the eyes. Remember to describe colour, shape and expressions.

  • Describe Character’s Eyes: small, large, bulging, deep-set, teary, hollow, sad, gentle, bright, twinkling, warm, sleepy, brown, blue, green, hazel, dark
The eyes can broadcast deeper emotional meaning

Writing: How to Describe Noses

  • Describe Character’s Nose: bridge, nostril, flared, hooked, wrinkling, twitching, aquiline, red, puffy, crooked, flat, enormous, pointed, thick, veined

Writing: How to Describe Ears

You can play around with descriptions of a character’s ears, as they receive dialogue, so can convey emotional meaning through interactions.

  • Describe Character’s Ears: pulling/tugging on their ear, covering their ears, tucking their hair behind their ears, hear their pulse, battered, attentive, bandaged, bleeding, buzzing, dainty, elfin, floppy, earringed, pierced, comical, deaf, keen, open

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” — Leigh Brackett

Writing: How to Describe Mouth and Lips

Like the eyes, describing the mouth relates to both shape and expressions.

  • Describe Character’s Mouth: full, thin, pursed, puckered, pouting, laughing, smiling, curled, sneer, toothless, gappy, cruel, kind

Writing: How to Describe Hair

You can describe hair by its colour, texture and style.

  • Describe Character’s Hair Colour: black, brown, blonde, red, auburn, ash, honey, golden, platinum, strawberry, silver, white, grey, salt-and-pepper
  • Describe Character’s Hair Style: long, short, shoulder-length, ponytail, bun, ringlets, bangs, slick, pigtails, bob
  • Describe Character’s Hair Textureshiny, spiky, fuzzy, wavy, parted, neat, cascading, curly, dull, frizzy, wild, straight, shaved, thick, thin, full, fine, bald, dyed, permed

Writing: How to Describe Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair

  • Describe Character’s Facial Hair: beard, sideburns, goatee, moustache, stubble, bushy, shaggy, clean-shaven, smooth, trimmed, whiskers, handlebars, viking
Clothing is a reflection of a character’s personality

Writing: How to Describe Clothing

There’s obviously a huge choice of clothing options available for your character. I always use a character template before I start writing, which captures what each character is wearing. This ensures it fits into my plot, making logical sense in relation to the character’s personality and the situation they find themselves in.

I divide clothing into tops, bottoms, outer, footwear and accessories. I then decide what fabric and other materials each item is made from, as well as patterns and textures.

  • Describe Character’s Style: smart, scruffy, elegant, torn, stylish, rough, relaxed, posh, chic, casual, sharp, disheveled, ripped, faded, badge, worn, new, shiny, soft, knitted, shabby, goth, sporty, wild, over-dressed
  • Describe Character’s Tops: t-shirt, shirt, tank top, polo shirt, jumper, sweater, cardigan, hoodie, V-neck, round-neck, turtleneck, collar, bra
  • Describe Character’s Bottoms: trousers, jeans, pants, boxers, leggings, slacks, jogging bottoms,  sweatpants, overalls, shorts, swimming trunks, knickers
  • Describe Character’s Outerwear: jacket, coat, blazer, dressing gown, bath robe, apron, uniform, costume
  • Describe Character’s Footwear: shoes, trainers, sneakers, sandals, plimsoles, flip-flops, boots, wellies, pumps, heels, socks, stockings, tights, slippers
  • Describe Character’s Accessories: gloves, scarf, hat, baseball cap, bandana, bracelet, earrings, necklace, cufflinks, rings, purse, bag, handbag, glasses, sunglasses, watch, belt
  • Describe Patterns and Fabrics: cotton, acrylic, polyester, denim, tweed, silk, lace, velvet, fleece, wool, leather, stripes, checked, dots, stars, squares, solid block, floral, pastel

I hope these ideas on how to describe people help you bring your own characters to life. They’re just a starting point and you can read many more of them to describe each body part in How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide.

Aaron Mullins

aaron-mullins-author-writer-books-crime-mystery-smallAaron Mullins is an award winning, internationally published psychologist. He started Birdtree Books Publishing where he worked as Editor-in-Chief, gaining media recognition and partnering with World Reader Charity before moving on to new ventures. He also taught academic writing at Coventry University. As a fiction author he’s known for exploring the darker side of psychology in his work. He also creates business guides for entrepreneurs and writing guides for fellow authors.