Character Description: 6 Suggestions from Stephen King’s Memoir
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.
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.
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.
Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. —Stephen King
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.
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.
Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. —Stephen King
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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