Character Description: 6 Tips from Stephen King’s Memoir

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When we read books with characters we love, we can learn how to write our own characters by studying what details the writers included. Which details do you need? Let's look at the advice Stephen King gives in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft about good description and apply it to two examples of character description: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

character description

6 Tips on Writing Exciting Character Description

When you write a story, you want your readers to believe that the characters you create are real. The character traits feel as natural as the people in your real life—both major characters and minor characters.

Stephen King, master storyteller and popular writer, shares tips about character description in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

1. Read a lot

Good description is a learned skill, one of the primary reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read and write a lot.
—Stephen King

To learn how to write, we just can't buy books on writing, we have to read actual stories and write a lot. Not just a little, but a lot.

Right now I spend more time cleaning the seven litter boxes than I do writing. Perhaps I need to read more?

That being said, what should you read in order to grow as a writer?

In a word, anything. Or everything.

Read in your genre, and out of it.

Read authors you love, and read authors you've never heard of before.

Check out plays, short stories, and graphic novels.

Read anything you can.

By drinking from a diverse well, you'll ingest a wide variety of styles and approaches to the art of character description. Every author has his or her own way of bringing physical attributes and mannerisms to life, and it is to your advantage to read indiscriminately as you study your craft.

2. Visualize your reader's experience

King says too little character description leaves a reader bewildered and nearsighted. He also says over description buries the reader in details and images. We are supposed to use just enough description.

An author who specialized in “just enough description” is American author Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the following scene, Huckleberry is shocked to see his father (a lousy drunk) waiting for him:

“His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white… a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes—just rags, that was all. He had one ankle resting on t’other knee; the boot on that foot was busted, and two of his toes stuck through….”

What a feast of physical details! Yet any thoughtful reader can link this list of physical traits to the character's personality.

Twain doesn't just state Pap's hair color—he uses physical descriptions that evoke the man's backstory of poverty, unkempt living, and cruelty.

These imagery fills the reader's mind with the same dread that the narrator and protagonist feels upon seeing him. Our first impression is one of disgust, and even horror.

Great character description brings fictional characters into vivid reality. In this passage, Pap is drawn with perfect precision, just by his grotesque physical appearance.

If I have read a lot of stories, I will know how much description is just enough.

3. Remember your main job

Your readers did not pick up your book so that they could read lots of details about your characters in a character sketch. They picked up your book so you could tell them a story.

A little character description can be helpful, but always remember to focus on your primary job: tell your readers a story. You may even find that when you focus on the story, you don't need much character description at all.

So while Mark Twain's description of Huckleberry Finn's father is dramatic and thorough, it doesn't stretch on forever. Once this passage wraps up, the conflict between violent father and rebellious son begins. Twain doesn't spend a moment more haggling over whether Pap has green eyes or brown eyes, and instead gets to the problem Huck must overcome of escaping an abusive elder.

In fact, Twain only chooses elements of physical characterization that are essential to the story.

Every element of Pap's appearance, from his filthy, vine-like black hair, to his fish-hued flesh, are tied to his personality traits. He is ugly on the inside, and the outside appropriately matches. If one were to write up a character profile on Pap Finn, as any high school student might be tasked to do, they would be able to link the character's actions, which go from despicable to outright evil in the book's early chapters, to his hideous appearance.

4. Use just enough detail

Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.
—Stephen King

What is the most important aspect of what your character looks like?

The reader doesn't need a description of every button, ribbon, loose thread, or hair follicle. Include only the details that give the reader the most important aspects of the person in the story.

While characterization is an essential task and tool of a story teller, it must be performed quickly and subtely. Most readers aren't too worried about eye color or a character's physical appearance, beyond the bare essentials.

Instead, they're worried about a great story.

This is a crucial lesson to learn as a writer, whether you are a novelist, poet, or screenwriter. Brevity is the soul of wit, so says the Bard.

Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale, sums up the role of a character quite well:

“All fiction is about people, unless it's about rabbits pretending to be people. It's all essentially characters in action, which means characters moving through time and changes taking place, and that's what we call ‘the plot'.”

One tempting mistake for new writers is to spend hours on characterization, worrying about the little details like those I've already mentioned.

However, this is ultimately counterproductive.

A story is about a character pursuing a goal. And in order for that pursuit to happen, the character must make choices that require some kind of sacrifice. This doesn't happen in a vacuum or without some kind of motion.

Veteran writers have found that by drafting their characters in action — meaning, making tough choices — they discover the most important details. Something as simple as eye color doesn't really matter that much… unless it weighs heavily on the difficult, sacrificial choices the character must make.

That, of course, brings us to Harry Potter.

5. Leave room for imagination

You do not need to tell your reader everything about your characters. Create a bond with your reader by leaving room for their imagination in your story.

J.K. Rowling didn't describe in great detail what Harry Potter as a baby looks like. She didn't describe Harry's pudgy cheeks, or his hands, his tiny fingernails, his eyebrows, or eyelashes.

We can fill in the details of what we think a baby looks like from our imagination.

She does, however, spend a good deal of time telling the reader that Harry has green eyes, because they are the same color as his mother. And for those who've read the books, this is a BIG deal.

Yet other than that, Rowling doesn't talk much about Harry as a baby. She gives the reader plenty more when he's grown, but again, it isn't terribly much:

“Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair and bright-green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Sellotape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.”

Notice that the crucial details here are brief and potent. Hair and eye color are mentioned to give the reader a color connection, but notice the most powerful detail: the Sellotape.

Why?

Because Harry gets punched in the nose by some bloke named Dudley. That means conflict, which means the reader cares and wants to know more.

Why is this jerk punching little Harry?

Will Harry get Dudley back for being so mean?

The characterization pulls double-duty by establishing Harry as more than just a set of physical details. He is a real-life person because he is bullied.

I was bullied. Were you?

Odds are we can relate to Harry, even with this brief details.

Rowling gives the reader room to connect to the character. She keeps the story moving forward without bogging the reader down with boring details.

And based on those few, crucial details, the reader is left to imagine the rest.

6. Write a lot

I know. This tip was in the first tip, with read a lot. I repeated it because it is important, and it is the tip I need to be reminded of. I tend to read more than I write. And how can a writer get better at writing if they don't write?

As Stephen King says, “You can only learn by doing.”

That, by the way, is why this blog is called The Write Practice. Many new writers, myself included, start out believing that talent is king, and is somehow sufficient to tell a story that readers love.

It's not.

It's may be easy to write good character description the first time, but it is not easy to craft great character description that is highly relevant to the plot, story, and stakes.

While your character's superhero t-shirt may be a fun detail to help you remember what they look like, it can only be a potent detail if, perhaps, the character is insistent on being a hero, too—especially if it puts them in mortal peril.

So practice.

Practice a lot.

See failure, or even mediocrity, as a badge of professionalism. As William Faulkner once said, “You have to write badly in order to write well.”

Examples of Character Description

Now that we've dug into some principles of character description, including some gems from Stephen King, let's see whether or not J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins follow King's suggestions in the character description examples below.

Who is Katniss Everdeen?

The character introduction to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is mainly about her shoes:

I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet.

We know she hunts. Her ability to hunt is the most important detail about Katniss; it is the central theme of her story; it is what keeps her alive during the Hunger Games and in the rest of the series.

We don't find out the color of her eyes until page eight. Collins describes Katniss by comparing her to her friend Gale:

He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes.

Notice which characterizing detail comes first. Katniss's ability to hunt with her bow and arrow is a crucial character detail. It embodies her skillset and her determination.

This is a great example of tight, concise, and carefully-chosen characterization.

Who is Harry Potter?

Other than his eye color, what is the most important detail about Harry Potter when we first meet him in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone?

Fill in the blank: The most important detail about Harry Potter is _____.

Did you say the scar on his forehead? You got it right!

As we already read, when we first meet Harry, Rowling gives us a few details: his hair color, and the scar on his forehead. Here's where Rowling provides a clear image fo the infamous scar:

Under a tuft of jet-black hair over his forehead they could see a curiously shaped cut, like a lightning bolt.

Alongside his green eyes inherited from his mother, the scar on Harry's forehead is the most important detail about Harry's appearance. Plot-wise, it is even more important, as it encapsulates the conflict of the entire series between Harry Potter and Voldemort.

We also find out from the title of the first chapter another important detail about Harry. He is The Boy Who Lived.

Like King and Collins, Rowling skips all the unimportant details and tells us the most important features of her characters immediately. We are not burdened or bored with too much information.

Read to Write

When we read books, books with characters we love, we can learn how to write by studying what details the writers included.

We can begin to notice when character description pulls the reader in—using these six details—and when it doesn't.

But of course, no writer ever gets better without writing.

So write, writer. And have fun with it!

How much character description do you think is necessary to include about the people in your story? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

I have a few options today for your practice.

Option Number One: Write for fifteen minutes about a person who is out looking for their lost cat. Think about what is the most important thing about their appearance? What details will help me visualize what you want me to see?

Option Number Two: Take fifteen minutes to write a scene introducing a character from a story you are writing right now. Or re-write a scene based on Stephen King's tips.

Option Number Three: Take fifteen minutes to re-read the first chapter of a book you love and have read. Look for the description of the main character and observe how the author introduces them. What details did the author give?

If you are already a Write Practice Pro member, post your practice here in the Practice Workshop. Be sure to give feedback to a few other writers and encourage each other.

Not a Pro member yet? You can join us here as a Write Practice Pro monthly subscriber. We'd love to practice alongside you.

You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.

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8 Comments

  1. Gary G Little

    I’m afraid. I’m afraid, so very afraid!

    Oh god my head hurts so very much. Ugh … no … no don’t move. Sick to my stomach … no … oh god gotta puke … ugh passing … managed to turn my head … oh no, another wave.

    Ugh … breath, that’s it, breath deep. Deep calming breaths. Again, breath in nice and slow. Exhale nice and slow. Breath in.

    Phew … something stinks. I mean really stinks.

    Where am I? Jesus, what’s my hand in? Gooey. icky. Oh crap what am I lying in? Cheez … mud? I wish it were mud. Crap whats that over there? A PIG? I’m in a pig stye? I’m in a god damn pig stye!

    Get away … get away from me or I’ll kick you again!

    How did I … Charlie, that’s how … Mr. Practical Joke … I swear you are so god damn dead Charles Hilbert.

    Reply
  2. France Nadeau

    Very interresting! Thanks!

    Reply
  3. EndlessExposition

    My method for character description is the more frequently a character appears in the story, the more description they’re given. So main characters get a lot, secondary characters some, and everyone else little if any. This is a section from my WIP. Reviews are always appreciated!

    “Oh boy.”

    “What?” Emmet was peering through the blinds on the front window.

    “They sent Her Highness to work the case.”

    “What are you talking about?” I left my charges to see the cause of concern. Emmet obligingly stepped aside to let me have a look. Outside Eldridge House a gleaming silver car was pulling up next to the other police vehicles. “Who is that?”

    “That’s Detective Cameron from the CID.”

    “What kind of cop drives a Mercedes-Benz?”

    Emmet pursed his lips. “Detective Cameron is…interesting. You’ll see.”

    “I guess I will.” We left the window and Emmet hunkered down next to the corpses to take more shots. I watched over his shoulder, and pointed out key details.

    There was a knock at the door. Sean hollered, “I’ll get it!” I heard the door open, and Sean chirped, “Hiya, Detective!”

    If Emmet hadn’t already mentioned that the detective was a woman, I might not have been able to tell. The voice that responded to Sean’s greeting was smooth and deep. “Officer O’Dare. The bodies?”

    “They’re right in here! Emmet and Dr. MacBride are already taking a look at ‘em.”

    “MacBride? That’s a name I haven’t heard before.” The deep voice had entered the room. I turned around – and found myself staring into the darkest pair of eyes I had ever seen. Liquid and black, like crude oil. I think Emmet might’ve said something. I wasn’t paying attention. The dark eyes held my gaze and I had no interest in looking away.

    I heard myself say, “That’s me. MacBride. Dr. Alexandra MacBride, hi.”

    The woman to whom the eyes belonged shucked off her leather gloves and held out her hand. “Detective Alicia Cameron. Pleased to meet you.”

    I peeled off my own gloves, being careful not to drip blood. “Likewise.” Our hands met and a current of – something, rippled through me.

    Detective Cameron was tall. She towered over me, and even Sean – who had trailed after her into the room – was about half a head shorter. She was also rail thin, or so I guessed from the parts of her that weren’t covered by her greatcoat. The hand I had just shaken was spidery. Her jaw was narrow, her lips were flat, and her cheekbones were angular slashes across her face. She was white, quite literally, making her eyes and her mop of black hair seem all the darker by comparison. She wasn’t attractive in the conventional sense, but there was something about her stark, androgynous features that was oddly beautiful.

    Reply
  4. Davidh Digman

    I like to find one trait that sums up the character and his or her role within the story, and the emotional turmoil that is their norm. Here is my introduction to one character:

    Doctor Camille Romilly sat thoroughly still, scalpel-thin arms closed with much severity, her facial muscles as clenched as bowels that must suppress a stone-hard motion at an inconvenient time.

    Reply
  5. Davidh Digman

    Or here is an other one from the same work:

    Doctor Frantisek Dušek spilt hot sweat as he gesticulated towards a sheaf of mostly dog-eared papers. They were nearly bursting out of a cracked and fray-edged clipboard on the desk as he made his noisy point. Whatever it was.

    Reply
  6. Nana

    I always wondered about how much is description is needed, and this article helped me alot, thank you!

    Reply
  7. EmFairley

    Perfectly timed, Pamela, as always, even if I am a week late getting here! Why? Because my current WIP introduces a new key character who readers learn a lot about by her being discussed by the male and female leads. That said, I had been pondering adding a chapter in from her POV and have decided today to leave that for the next book in the series; so this article confirms that thought

    Reply
  8. Jai

    She drew stares whenever she entered any room.Eyes, both male and female, usually followed her but were drawn to her for vastly different reasons. Shaped like the proverbial hourglass, hips swaying as her customary pumps beat a staccato rhythm across the floor.You would think her form was the most mesmerizing thing about her until she opened her mouth and you saw the smile, her teeth a batallion of troops in perfect formation.

    Reply

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