I have read character descriptions that are very precise and detailed, but that lack the true essence of the character. This essence is revealed through things like how a character moves through the world; how he eats his food; or how she plays with her hair. It is these subtleties that bring characters to life. Does he smack when he eats his food, or does he “eat fast and nervous like somebody might take it away from him at any minute?” Does she move her hands through the air as she speaks, or does she keep them perfectly still and folded on her lap?
In addition to describing the subtleties, it is important to describe the things that stand out about a person, as these significant characteristics will also bring a character to life. A description that says a couple of striking things about a character is much more powerful than one that describes everything about a character, but really shows nothing significant. Whether a characters eyes are colored blue or brown is not so important. But does she have a sparkle in her eyes, or are they dull?
Below are a few visually stunning character descriptions from my favorite author, Flannery O’Connor.
“She had a little doll’s mouth and eyes that were a soft blue when she opened them wide but more like steel or granite when she narrowed them to inspect a milk can.”
He has “a sharply rutted face containing a washout under each cheek and two long crevices eaten down both sides of his blistered mouth.”
He is “cinnamon-colored with eyes that were so blurred with age that they seemed to be hung behind cobwebs.”
“His teeth and hair were tobacco-colored and his face a clay pink pitted and tracked with mysterious prehistoric-looking marks as if he had been unearthed among fossils.”
“The boy’s look was ancient, as if he knew everything already and would be pleased to forget it…”
He has “a round face as senseless as a baby’s.”