Disclaimer: As with all my posts relating to writing, this is purely personal and my methods and opinions will not hold true for everyone.
This is the least important point of character creation, at least in my view (although it’s still important).
Feeding the Information
A lot of new writers make the mistake of describing their protagonist on page one, either in the ‘my name is Rachael and I have black hair and brown eyes’, or by making them look into a mirror. Both of these can work, if done well, but the mirror trick especially is fast becoming a cliché.
As far as writing about appearance goes, the trick is to let what a character looks like trickle in piece by piece. Mention their hair colour in passing on page seven, perhaps. Have another character comment on their eyes on page thirty-two. Have them have to wear a disguise and describe how different it’s making them look to their usual appearance. Anything but one long block of text that is purely there to say ‘This is what I look like.‘
Exceptions and elaborations to this rule:
- Love interests – if there is an instant physical attraction (and I mean physical, not insta-love), you bet I want to know what that love interest looks like. Try to steer away from clichés like ‘flowing locks’ and ‘smouldering eyes’, though.
- If a character your character is meeting is particularly unusual in appearance. Describe them.
- If we’re meeting new characters, we don’t need a ‘police profile’ of them, like listing hair and eye colour, etc. We want to know if they have a kind face, or how they walk, whether they’re as tall as they are wide. Try to sketch in a few details that make that character unique and that would be instantly noticeable to your protagonist. You can always build on their appearance later on.
- If your character is a hairdresser, they’re going to notice people’s hair. If they work in fashion, they’ll notice people’s clothes. Try to think of what your character would notice about someone, and describe them that way.
Knowing a character’s appearance can help the reader envision them in their mind’s eye and, in some cases, can even be an important plot point. For example, the colour of Harry Potter’s eyes, or, you know, the scar on his forehead. Scars and marks and weird eye colours are most often used this way, though if race or culture is a big theme in your novel (fantasy or otherwise) then so can the colour of a character’s skin, the tattoos or body modifications they display, the shape of their face, or the colour of their hair.
Stereotypes and Clichés
Watch out for how you describe a character’s appearance too. There are a lot of appearance-related clichés out there, and using them may set off the Mary Sue alarm bells in some readers’ heads (the Mary Sue is a post for another day). For example, there’s ’emerald/sapphire eyes’ (I’m pretty sure JK Rowling is guilty of this, but perhaps I’ve just read too much fanfiction and I’m getting my wires crossed), hair that ‘cascades like a waterfall’, ‘golden locks’ or ‘raven hair’.
Careful with skin colour too. Often darker-skinned characters are said to have skin like ‘chocolate’ or ‘caramel’, so much so that these have become cliché. There is also the issue that some people of colour find these food-related adjectives offensive, though how predominent that view is I am not sure. It’s just something to be aware of, however.
When making your character’s appearance ‘unique’, try to keep it realistic in the world you have created. Don’t give them purple eyes, just because you want them to be different. When I was thirteen or so, the protagonist of the novel I was writing had red eyes, just because I thought it was cool. Later, I tried to come up with an explanation for it and eventually dropped it completely. By that point, she didn’t need the red eyes to make her unique; she was a fully-developed character.
Beauty (or Not)
Dont make your character stunning just because they’re the protagonist, or because they’re the love interest. Give them physical flaws, just as you would personality flaws. Freckles, moles, or scars, for example. Do they hate their nose? Are their lips too thin, their belly too flabby? What do they dislike about their appearance?
Of course, it depends on the character. If your character is a model or something, perhaps you want to make them beautiful, handsome or flawless. But there’ll probably still be something about their appearance that they dislike.
And if not, that tells you something about their appearance too.
Cricket – a study in blending in
With Cricket, I didn’t want him to stand out from the crowd, for the most part. He has the same hair and eye colour as about 90% of the population of his country (dark, dark brown and dark blue). There is nothing remarkable or memorable about his appearance, though he is slightly on the pretty side for a boy (mostly to do with his long eyelashes). His hair is naturally messy, and he usually lets it grow to just past his ears before he cuts it. He’s eighteen, average height, slender and pale-skinned. He is, much to his ire, incapable of cultivating facial hair; it just doesn’t grow. He wishes he could grow a bit of stubble to offset his natural prettiness, but his skin remains stubbornly smooth. His mouth is quick to smile, though it should be noted that these smiles are not always genuine, and his eyes often maintain their natural wary distance.
Hopefully that brief description goes a little way in showing what I mean.