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.

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