The challenge -- physical description as a key to character

Teresa Edgerton

Goblin Princess
Staff member
Nov 1, 2004
So this is another train of thought set off by recent discussions on how much description is too much (or not enough), which details add something important to the story or the character (and which do not). I started thinking how most of my favorite authors are able to describe a character's outward appearance (including voice, dress, the kind of impression they make on other characters, etc.), so that it isn't just a catalogue of hair-color and features quickly forgotten, but creates an indelible portrait AND gives a glimpse -- often a vivid glimpse -- into that individual's personality, background, etc.

And I thought it might be both entertaining and useful if we were to try and do the same thing here, or share some of our own previous attempts.

First a couple of examples from favorite authors, to show what I mean:

The man stopped before him, a short, straight, vigorous figure in a hooded cloak of white wool. Above the folds of the laid-down hood his face was reddish-dark, hawk-nosed, seamed on one cheek with old scars. The eyes were bright and fierce. Yet he spoke gently.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore

Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow and the shoulder, with the loose knot of an even looser kerchief lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was a business-like usage in his steady gaze.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

I know I should start, but because I'm sleepy this morning, I'll tinker with something I've already written rather than create something new on the spot.

Inside the blood-red cowl his face, with its fine, sharp features, was bleached of color; his flat metallic eyes had no more humanity than ice or wind. And if, under the heavy layers of scarlet robes, his figure appeared boyishly slight, she did not make the mistake of thinking him weak or effeminate. No, he was as thin and bright as a new dagger, and likely to prove every bit as lethal.

Does anyone else want to try?
She was quite the striking figure. Two sapphire clips held raven-black hair back from a pale porcelain face, and her blue eyes sparkled as she considered what she had stolen. The tight-fitting black clothes she wore only emphasized her magpie nature, revealing more of her slender form than was decent, and the daggers that hung from her waist showed that they were no mere trinkets. Despite her beauty, he was certain that this woman was not to be trusted.
He was a young man with dark short hair and a lithe body, though his stomach was beginning to protrude and wobble even. Good-looking, he knew it, even in the standard attire of a barman's brown tunic and apron and he performed his job well, putting people at their ease. A smile from his pink lips could entice someone to stay for another drink.

Appealing then, except there was a thinness to his eyes, something untrustworthy there and in conversation he held back. It may have been he had been used and hurt, but when he laughed his eyes did not close, he carried on watching.
This is actually one of my weaknesses, but well you try, you learn:

He had bath teeth. Some of them so black that one would start to wonder why they've remained in the guy's mouth. His red, stain covered, shirt did anything but fail to hide his enormous belly. You would wonder why someone who carries massive rubies on his rings can't wear a clean shirt. As he tossed his head back, some of the few strings of red hair that decided not to leave his plump face slightly changed direction, leaving imprints in a mixture of sweat and grease.
His throaty laughter made me shiver. Would he bargain, or just decide to eat me?
Not a new one, but from my WiP. And on reflection, probably a little OTT...

Crawley was a large man, though not soft; his recent successes were marked plainly by the rich clothes he wore, fashioned of silk and samite in shades of scarlet. Rubies and blood opals studded the thick gold bands that adorned his fingers. Despite the fact he dressed like a blood-soaked peacock, he still looked dangerous.
Yes Teresa

He eyed the man that entered the room.
His face looked like a child had drawn it with crayons on a burlap sack filled with potatoes,a cigarette in the left corner of the mouth seemed more like an outgrowth than anything else.The skin looked fit for making suitcases out of it.
His head nearly touched the ceiling.
Even the doorframe seemed to want to make way for this huge figure.
Suddenly the face split open,revealing teeth that were curiously and uncongruously white.
A voice that shook the timbers filled the tavern.
"Drinks for everyone ,my good man",he bellowed to the man behind the bar,who flinched.
Then he set that huge frame down on a chair.
the chair survived.
Oh, excellent descriptions everyone! (And, scalem, your last line speaks volumes.)

OK, I'll contribute something new this time:

His extreme gauntness gave an initial impression of frailty, yet there was a fierce energy in his movements, and an uncanny brilliance to his eyes. His garments were more than neat, they were immaculate; nothing could exceed the whiteness of his linen, the shining blackness of his coat and knee-breeches. One felt instinctively that here was a man who would rise from his own deathbed to wash and press his own nightshirt, if his valet were unavailable.
He had a way of carrying himself; a certain kind of a weak sway or sleepy drone, partly exaggerated by his wan face and hollow gray eyes, which, assisted by his slow, somber drawling, and his stiff, mushy movements, seemed eerie at night and out of place at day.
Tall and well-formed, her figure was active and womanly rather than dainty or girlish. She had a fresh complexion and thick brown hair, which owed nothing to the powders, ungents, and false locks to which most of the other ladies (and some of the men) frequently resorted; nor was belladonna needed to add brilliance to her dark eyes. Straight-forward in her own speech, she had an air of listening with close attention when anyone else spoke, of fixing them with a level glance that many found disconcerting. In all, she had so little of artifice, was so frank and natural in all her words and actions, that others found it hard to know what to make of her, they were so accustomed to dealing with the elegant facades and obscure motives of a royal court.

Soulless eyes of the most intense blue peered out of a beautiful face untouched by emotion of any kind, giving him the air of an angelic being, but the blood that dripped from his long fingernails dispelled the illusion entirely. As he walked, moving with a grace that a dancer would envy, his long silvery hair swayed about that finely boned face, and he continued to wear that same, emotionless mask as he raised his hand to deliver the final blow.
His hawai shirt was new flashy, the rest of his outfit stylish and he probably had more hairgel keeping his coiffure up, than he had brains underneath. But it didn't seem to bother the girls around him. Even the mule like movements of his mouth, which sort of made you wonder if he was chewing gum all the time; were completely ignored by all bystanders.
Safe for Sandra and me. I held her bag, while she walked up to him and punched him in the face.
The old woman sat hunched on the floor, her hair hanging down in tallowy clumps, covering half of her face. There was dirt in the creases of her skin, a dusty film over her one visible eye, and he thought there was something oddly unjointed about her entire figure, the wry disposition of her limbs. Dingy, desolate, crippled, possibly blind: that was the first impression he had of her. Yet at the sound of footsteps she jumped to her feet with unexpected agility, and tossed back her ragged hair. Her face, which had been vacant before, took on a look of imbecilic cunning. It was then that he noticed the dried blood under her fingernails.
He stood up straight, stiff, lifting his head up, and shook hands with the old man who just walked in. He was dressed in formal colors, in a formal style, with formal shoes, and a formal watch. His hair was closely cropped, and the medal pinned to his blazer shined powerfully under the faint yellow light of the auditorium.
He was all strut; I could see that from the moment I first laid eyes on him. It was obvious he'd had the uniform especially made, as we colonials weren't issued official garb. His smoke-grey breeches had a pair of silver stripes up each flank, and his jacket - gaping rakishly open to show off a crisp white undershirt - was of a heavy fabric, royal blue with silver buttons and epaulettes. An old-fashioned cavalry sabre swung from his right hip, hilt polished and gleaming, while a long-barreled pistol nestled into a cross-draw holster on his left. Needless to say, my first impression was not a good one.
Everything about her was like a little bird. She moved in short bursts, but each one was graceful, and every time her head moved her shortish brown hair bobbed from side to side as she regarded everything with care. The gown she wore was of dark brown silk, tight and deep at the bodice with a long skirt, and the sleeves were full, trailing like wings every time she moved her arms. Even her brown eyes were bright and curious, just like a sparrow. In a moment of irreverence, he wondered if she ate sunflower seeds or berries.
Raven's head hung low, perched on a neck bent like a torturer's hook. His tight jaw rolled with constant motion, as if he were chewing a mouthful of stubborn gristle. With a hand thin and pale as bone, he scratched absently at his chin, tousling storm-grey whiskers. As if in conclusion to some internal debate, a small smile spread across his face, and with that simple gesture, he seemed to stand a little straighter.


Two different characters for the same physical appearance:

He was slim; thin, cabled muscle laid taut over a wiry frame. His face was hard, weathered leather without expression, and he crouched like a coiled spring; a predator waiting in ambush. His cloak hung about him like raptors' wings.

He was slim; gaunt bones held together by papery skin. His hard-worn face had long since lost all expression and he hunched over himself, sprawled on the packed mud; a corpse waiting to die. His ragged cloak hung about him in tatters.

It's amazing the power that the author, and the chosen POV, can have.
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You make an important point, JDP, and provide an excellent example.

I tried my hand at something similar, although with the intention of revealing the different characters of the two observers:

When she entered the room, it was as if a cold wind blew on the back of his neck, yet there was nothing much to her. A drab, pitiful creature, preternaturally aged, everything about her seemed, drained, bloodless, used up. A gown of no particular hue hung loose on her wasted form, and the cloth was so worn in places, you could see right through to the bony figure beneath.

A filmy gown floated away from her slender figure. With her pale skin and fine, translucent hair, she appeared insubstantial, a creature shaped out of aether and light, with nothing in her of the baser elements. It would be difficult, he thought, to guess at her years, for there was something about her that redefined youth, as it redefined age. When she crossed the room she seemed to do so on a breath of air, so light were her footsteps.

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It's strange how things differ, yeah.

Teresa, I can just imagine the two observers. The first is like the fighter type, who, if the creature would turn, would laugh at her feebleness and stand and fight.

The second is the innocent/nice guy kind of type, who would either stand petrified or would start talking while he slowly backed away. (that or he has an undead fetish:eek:):p

Good stuff.:)
To the irreverent mind, he could almost have resembled a badger. Short and stocky, and prone to spells of irritability, he sat at the table with a tankard of ale in his almost clawed hand. His hair was of iron grey, slicked back into a long tail but his eyebrows were still jet black, and they reached very nearly into his hairline. Bright, beady eyes poked out from beneath them, seeing everything, as if he was ready to bolt at any time. He kept himself to himself, watching everyone carefully from the safety of his little corner of the tavern.
Still intrigued by the idea of describing the same person from two different perspectives, so I tinkered around and came up with this ...

She was tall and coarse-featured -- I promise you, no one would have given her a second glance, if not for the garish gown and gaudy jewelery. She plunged across the room, scattering the dancers, and fell into an awkward curtsy before the thrones. Perhaps she realized then what a spectacle she had made of herself, for she blushed like the dairymaid she so closely resembled, shook a bony fist at no one in particular, and tripped over her own train as she backed away from the dais.

No creature on earth could possibly be less vain than I -- you can ask any one of my wide circle of admirers -- but I could hardly help knowing that my crimson gown and diamond stomacher were exceptionally flattering. I edged past the dancers on the floor, swept across the room in a delicious swirl of taffeta and lace, and sank into a perfect curtsy before the King. Imagine my humiliation when I noticed a tiny smudge at the tip of the toe of one pink satin slipper. Ashes, I realized, and instantly resolved that my slatternly little stepsister, Ella, would suffer for her carelessness.

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