The Description Weavers

The delicate art of describing physical appearance

Image of a wooden mannequin.
Photo by Totoo G on

To describe or not to describe

How much description to include is always a tricky decision for authors. Too much is tedious, not enough makes it difficult to imagine. There is a particularly fine line when it comes to a character’s physical appearance.

Some authors don’t describe their characters at all, preferring the reader to imagine them in their own way. As a reader, I find this technique challenging. Until I have a good idea of a character’s personality, I can’t imagine their appearance, unless it’s been described.

Other authors focus on particular features and mention them multiple times. This can backfire too. One of my favourite characters was described at the start of book one of a long series. I soon forgot that description and imagined him my own way. Which didn’t make any difference to how much I enjoyed the books because his appearance was rarely mentioned again. Being frequently reminded he has dark hair, not the light hair I’d given him, would have pulled me out of the story. It was only when I started reading the series for a second time, I realised he didn’t actually look like that at all.

I once read a review of a romance book. Apparently the author used the phrase ‘gorgeous blue eyes’ about 50 times. The reviewer was understandably bored of that character’s eyes by the end of the book.

Using a different word instead

Synonyms are another area where it’s really easy to go wrong. There are multiple alternatives for almost every word in the English language. But it isn’t always a good idea to use them. Physical appearance description is a great example of this.

Seeing the word ‘orbs’, to mean eyes, is a sure way to remove me from the world the author put so much effort into creating. No-one in the real world uses the word ‘orbs’.

“Have you been crying? Your orbs look red.”

“I need a break from this screen. My orbs feel dry.”

“I’d like to book an appointment for an orb test, please.”

See what I mean? Sometimes there is only one right word for what you want to say.

I use the word ‘fingers’ several times in my current project. What else could I go with? Digits of the hand? Upper extremities? I don’t want my readers to have to figure out what I mean. They’re fingers.

Skin colour

Another really tricky thing to describe is skin. Occasionally, readers are offended by clumsy descriptions of skin colour. But authors can’t make sure readers find themselves represented if we don’t describe skin colour. 

I went on some training where the advice was to stick to simple descriptions like brown, dark, or light. That seems reasonable, if a bit boring. They also suggested avoiding likening a person’s colour to any inanimate object. So words like hazelnut, amber, gold, and cream, are all out. Which is strange because that’s exactly how things like cosmetics and skin-tone underwear are described. I find those words rather lovely but perhaps other people don’t.

As long as the author is consciously considering how they use description, they are likely to avoid any unintentional bias creeping in. Of course they can’t stop readers bringing their own bias.

Who’s the describer?

I think the key point about description is that it’s constrained by whatever the main character in the scene notices. They perhaps wouldn’t notice much about the physical appearance of someone they’ve known a long time. But they would notice more about how a new acquaintance looks.

Which brings us to another potential pitfall for authors – the cover. Sometimes there is an illustration of the characters. And it doesn’t always match the written description. Cover designers get a brief, they don’t actually read the book.

What do you think?

I’d love to know what you think about physical appearance descriptions in books. Would you rather know how the author intended the characters to look? Or would you prefer to create their appearance yourself? 

Do you like a mix of different words for naming body parts? Or are you happy with repetition of a commonly understood noun? 

Do some descriptive words have negative connotations for you? Let me know.

Enjoyed this post?

You might also like: All the people we cannot see.

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21 thoughts on “The Description Weavers

  1. Hi Deborah. Great post. It has definitely got me thinking. I hate it when an author uses the whole “baby blue eyes…” blah blah blah… so cliche. I want perhaps a passing reference and that’s it. Same with hair/height/weight etc. The physical characteristics should come out through action, story line, and dialogue.
    The example you gave about skin color…. Unless it matter to the story itself, the color of someone’s skin can be a moot point as the reader will complete the pic in their head. There are other ways to weave things in. ie: ‘Hey, I really like the shade of foundation you’re using. What is it?’ … or the character can compare themselves to someone famous like Beyonce or Drake… Stay away from the stereo types and trying to box people in.
    Wow… I feel like I’m writing too much. Sorry. I obviously need to do a blog on this. Thanks for the inspiration and great writing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Deborah. 🤦🏻‍♀️ ugh. I’m sorry for writing so much on a comment. You obviously know your stuff. My apologies for talking so much in your house. Yesterday was a weird day. Sorry about that. 🙁

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post! I am careful to describe my MCs in enough detail to give the reader an accurate mental picture. I want them to “see” what I see in my head. I usually use photographs of real people to help me with the particulars. I agree that describing POC is tough and that trying to get the cover images to match the story is almost impossible. I work with my graphic artist to find something close but not exact.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When it comes to physical description, I think it’s best to stick to minimal. I wouldn’t go into detail about skin colour; maybe just say someone is Asian or African-American and leave it at that. I agree it’s better not to use words like “orbs,” “digits,” or “pedal extremities” unless jokingly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is so good – really useful…
    Darcy ? Elizabeth ?
    Mostly, left to the reader’s imagination, the approach I prefer, but with the bonus of his transformed perception, from ‘ She, pretty ? to ‘ one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.’
    Sheer prejudice on my part, but could any real hero have blue eyes ?
    Skin colour ? Trickiest of all, and most people aren’t North Europeans – just realised I never mention it. . Mystified, as a child, by The Secret Garden, when Martha refers to Indians as ‘ blacks’ .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. I hadn’t thought about the change of perception when characters know each other better – another thing to consider! I write for young people, and have characters from different parts of the world they may not know much about, so I feel it’s right to mention skin colour. Feels like there’s a definite sweet spot between over-describing and mystifying the audience.


      1. I mention skin colour the first time a character appears in the story, and after that only if it’s relevant to what’s happening. I think you have to go with what feels right for your genre and theme.


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