Description (People)

Think about how much you describe something in a book. Here are a few examples: Shapes, patterns, edges, surfaces, textures, size, position, relation, proportion, light, colors, structures, architectural styles, materials, terrain, landscape, climate, clouds, sky, animals, animal traits, animal terminology.

Most importantly, you have to describe different types of people. Let me blow your mind with more examples: Attractiveness, perceived attractiveness, body types, frame, stature, face, head, hair, coiffure, mustache, beard, colors of hair, eye color, eye shape, eye expression, eyebrows, nose, ears, mouth, lips, teeth, skin shape, skin color, skin complexion, hands, fingers, legs, knees, feet, jaw, neck,  how people walk, their voice, mannerisms, dress and general appearances.

I could go on, because there are “props” that these characters use. For example, a car, shower, or cell phone. (A never ending list.)

If you want to tell a great story with polished mechanics, you better know how to describe just about anything. For this article, I’ll focus on “people.” The best way to learn how to write a great book, is to read a great book. Here are some examples of great description of human characters.

“His eyes were blue and set in a field of pink that suggested a history of torments and conflicts past ordinary understanding. His weight and size seemed to amplify the act of breathing, which took place through his mouth.” E.L. Doctorow, Loon Lake.

The author did not once tell you anything about the character. Instead, it was given through “description.” This is a classic, “Show, rather than Tell.” Do not tell your audience that the character had a “history of torments.” Instead, describe that in your character’s appearance, look, mannerisms, etc…

Describing how eyebrows look, can be a useful way to help your readers understand your character. Here is an example by Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin. “He had shiny brown boot-button eyes and low-comedian eyebrows-so thick and black that they looked as if they had been touched up with burnt cork.”


Here is another couple lines from the same book. “Otto has a face like a very ripe peach. His hair is fair and thick, growing low on his forehead.”

This is great description, however, the mechanics could be improved. There are two things I would change. First, take out the word “very.” The line should read, “Otto has a face like a ripe peach.” That has more of an impact. Second, “hair” and “fair” rhyme, making it sound a little childish.

Next example is from Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers. Here, the writer uses teeth, hair, and body frame to adequately describe the character. “There was a fourth girl too, a skinny redhead with prominent teeth and a corpse-like complexion who was playing with a dark wig.”

The author could have stopped at “skinny” when describing the girl’s body type. Robert Stone went on to say, “corpse-like complexion” to give the reader a nice visual. “Prominent teeth” and “dark wig” go on to show the stature of the girl.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in My Kinsman, Major Molineux, “His face was pale as death, and far more ghastly; the broad forehead was contracted in his agony so that his eyebrows formed one grizzled line; his eyes were red and wild, and the foam hung white upon his quivering lip.”

That is quite a visual. Just be careful. If you try to write with description, sometimes you can overuse the adjectives. There is a secret to avoiding this, which I’ll tell you after one more example.

I’ll finish with the great Mark Twain, The Loves of Alonzo and Rosannah.

“an expression made up of the trustfulness of a child and the gentleness of a fawn; a beautiful head crowned with its own prodigal gold; a lithe and rounded figure, whose every attitude and movement was instinct with native grace.”

There was more to this elongated sentence that I left out. (In fact, I only showed you half of what he had written.) In “today’s” writing, you should have short, quick bursts. But having said that, you can also learn from Mark Twain and other great authors. The secret to writing a great book has been given in every example.

Just this once, I’ll tell you.


The answer is…Comparison. As much as possible, use visual comparisons to tell the reader everything they need to know about the character. Look at the examples that I’ve already shown you:

“expression made up of the trustfulness of a child”

“gentleness of a fawn”

“a beautiful head crowned with its own prodigal gold”

“a lithe and round figure”

“movement was instinct with native grace”

“corpse-like complexion”

“low-comedian eyebrows”

“face like a very ripe peach”

“(eyes) suggested a  history of torments and conflicts”

“His weight and size seemed to amplify”

“face was pale as death”

Master your talents in description. Practice describing everything you see. (Although, you may lose your mind, but that is the price of being an author.) Continue to read and notice how character descriptions take on a “show” rather than “tell” approach.

As Charles Dickens said in Oliver Twist, “He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age, with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly, eyes.”

Ron Knight

Author of “2-10”


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Literary Manager: Melissa Link


Ron Knight

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