“He threw on his beige plaid caped coat and matching deerstalker, slipped his curved pipe into a breast pocket, and walked out past his violin, his long, slender frame outlined in the doorway for just a moment before he was gone.”

“Sleepy blue eyes and a richly pouting mouth accented with a dark mole were framed by white-blonde hair. I looked down and up at her hourglass figure, the way she filled out that white halter dress, before I slowly put down my cigarette. ‘Gah,’ I said.”

“As he laughed, I took in the sight: the belly that quivered with each guffaw, curly white beard and hair, sparkling blue eyes, rosy red cheeks, and the theme of red that ran strong through his working-man’s clothes. I raised one eyebrow. ‘Seriously?'”

Sherlock. Marilyn. Santa. Each of these characters (and real people can certainly inhabit characters!) is instantly recognizable through their iconic appearances. Moreover, details of that appearance often carry a lot of characterization baggage.

What do the following appearance details say about a character?

  • Military-style crew cut
  • Withered hand grasping a gold-topped black cane
  • Pale, dead skin
  • Unkempt, grizzled beard
  • Perfectly manicured nails (on a man)
  • Rainbow-dyed mohawk (on a woman)
  • Dark weathered skin
  • Man-bun
  • Harsh, pain-etched lines paired with a gentle smile
  • Perfectly cut suit
  • Rumpled trench coat

Each of these says a lot about the character that owns them. There are also sounds:

  • Harsh hacking cough
  • Melodic voice
  • Steady thump of motorcycle boots
  • Whispery breath
  • Cracked his knuckles
  • Dry rustling as he rubbed his hands together

As you can see, physical description doesn’t have to be confined to blue eyes/blonde hair/stacked/muscular/fat/etc. Stretching for details creates a richer character, creating everything from implied age to aura of evil or danger to even the political beliefs of your character – and it doesn’t take a lot of detail.

For that matter, you don’t have to create a full description of a character to make him fascinating. Writers, like painters, use a variety of styles. You may prefer creating a clear, precise image of your character, the way Da Vinci crafted every detail of his artwork – or, like the Impressionist painters, you may prefer to use a few crisp details that create an image focused on personality more than visual. Here’s an example:

The young solder took a swig from his Camelbak and smiled at her. He was dusty from the trail, his Kevlar helmet sun-faded and weatherstreaked. His long, lean body was fit in a way that showed he didn’t have to work out. A few droplets of water spotted his stubbled chin, showing pale skin beneath the grey ashy dust of Afghanistan. His  bright-blue eyes sparkled with good humor in spite of the harsh conditions, and he wiped his brow with his right forearm, leaving behind dark streaks like warpaint. He was dressed in desert camo like his companions, but I spotted a vivid pink Hello Kitty sticker on his belt, half-hidden beneath his holster. He saw me looking and grinned. “My daughter thinks I need to be cheered up.”

as opposed to:

A bright pink sticker peeped from beneath the dusty young soldier’s holster. He spotted me looking and grinned, friendly eyes sparkling from his dirty face. “My daughter thinks I need to be cheered up.”

The first is heavily detailed, incorporating a little action and a lot of specific description. It’s also slow, forcing the reader to stop and absorb the image. This is the kind of detail you’d more likely dedicate to a character who will be important. The second is sketchy and quick, hitting the most critical points before moving on to the dialog, and yet you form just as strong an image of the character. This sketch style can be used to introduce both important and minor characters, depending on your writing style.

HOWEVER – if you use the sketch style to introduce an important character, stop for a moment and write down specific detail for your background data, even if you don’t list it in your story. This creates a critical reference you can look back to when you can’t remember if the eyes are blue or gray, or whether he’s tall or medium in height. Additionally, if it’s an unusual detail – a scar, rainbow-dyed hair, or a birthmark – note why the character possesses this detail

A quick aside: for characters who will be around for works of 5000 words or more, it’s a good idea to keep notes in a story bible, a record of your background notes – data on your world, plot points, clues, details like eye color or where a character went to school. I keep mine in OneNote, for short works, or in a personal wiki for longer works. If you use Scrivener, the pre-populated fiction templates have sections for maintaining these records. Maintaining a story bible prevents irritating errors later that have to be edited out.


Now, there’s describing a character and there’s CREATING (perhaps even branding) one with one or two specific details. Columbo was instantly recognizable by the rumpled trenchcoat. For Sherlock, it’s the deerstalker cap, Quasimodo had a humped back, Gandalf a peaked hat and staff, Odin hid one eye (or eye socket), Kojak had a bald head and a lollipop, Dorothy had ruby slippers. Each of these specific details did two jobs: first, it made it very clear which character inhabited a scene, and second, it often said a world about a character’s background and personality without going into detail.

For example, Columbo’s rumpled coat created a sort of bumbling air about him that perfectly matched his oblique investigative technique. It put suspects off guard – made them feel as if they were superior to and smarter than the detective. It also reflected Columbo’s somewhat messy personality and lifestyle – you know he does not have a clinically sparkling home that looks like a showplace. No, it’s relaxed and casual, probably beyond casual, just like his coat. And yet – it’s still a trench coat, symbolic of great movie detectives since Bogart. Columbo, despite his rumpled appearance, IS brilliant and perceptive and very good at putting together clues. The coat is a visual clue that elevates his character from mundane to iconic.


But wait, there’s more! Creating characters through appearance is only the first step to a fully fleshed, realistic character. It’s often more than enough for “extras,” characters who exist only to become dead bodies or utilitarian minor personages, but more important characters require more. There are four other major techniques for creating characters:

  • Characterizing through dialog
  • Characterizing through action
  • Characterizing through surroundings or habitat
  • Characterizing through motivation

There are also minor keys: characterization through change, through family history, through psychoanalysis. With every story you write, you are likely to find new ways to characterize your story people.

The four other major techniques will be addressed later in separate posts, as well as how to integrate them to create a deep, fascinating character that feels real.


Exercise: Create an iconic character. Use specific detail to create a unique and recognizable individual. Keep notes on the description. Place that character into a short scene using some or all of your specific detailing.


Reference: Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, specifically Chapter 8.


Previous installments in the series:

Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach