How to Describe Your Characters–and How Not to

Perhaps the largest limitation of the written word is that it offers no visual picture. Unlike the viewers of a movie, readers are entirely dependent upon the author’s descriptive skills for their ability to visualize the characters. Luckily, most authors have a vivid picture of their characters in their minds. All we have to do to help readers share our vision is to slap a few descriptive details down on the page.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, in that writing a list of physical descriptors is relatively simple. No, in that there are actually quite a few pitfalls to be avoided.

How Much Description Should You Use to Describe Your Characters?

How much is too much, how much is not enough? We’re not going to find a concrete answer to this, since the right amount will vary from story to story and character to character.

As a caveat, I’ll caution that we definitely don’t want to bore readers with a description that details a character’s every facial feature, every freckle, every scar. Readers only need enough to get the gist, from which they then fill in the blanks on their own.

However, it’s also important that we don’t err on the side of not enough description. Saying a character is tall and has brown hair and brown eyes doesn’t really give readers much to work with. Hunt for the features that make your character unique and that build a complete overall picture.

When Should You Describe Your Characters?

The short answer is better sooner than later. You want to guide readers to a visualization of your character before they come up with their own ideas and are then jarred by an incongruous description later on.

However, you also have to be clever enough to describe the character without violating POV—since few people will describe themselves in detail to themselves.

Descriptions can be a lot of fun to write, but we also have to make sure they’re a lot of fun to read!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you describe your characters in your current work? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I err on not enough because I like to use my imagination when I read and I believe my readers do too. I put in anything that makes a point–such as a red-head who can be very stubborn. And yes, he does have a temper but he’s more stubborn. Then there was Miss Priss (my character’s nickname for this girl) who was petite and had flowing hair just past her shoulders. I didn’t say what color because we have all met a girl like this–mine was brunette, someone else’s may have been blonde.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So important for us to pay attention to what we like as readers ourselves and try to recreate that.

  2. pamelareese says

    I want enough details to let me visualize the character (thankfully, we writers are good at that ;)) but I don’t want it all at one time, or even in the form of ‘description’ per se. As you said so wonderfully in your article, KM, people don’t usually describe themselves to themselves and such info dumps aren’t going to grab most readers’ attention in a good way. I try to provide clues and gradually develop the picture. So much can be provided in small actions, responses by the character and those around them. A character gathering their hair into a thick braid to get it off their neck on a hot day, or taking the stairs three at a time as they are rushing somewhere tell us very specific details without our ‘saying’ a thing 😉
    Thanks for another great inside look, KM… I’ll share it with my writing group for discussion. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes I’m surprised to go back in books in which I vividly “saw” the character and realize how little description the author actually included.

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