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How to Write Amazing Character Descriptions (with Examples)
A good character description is walking a fine line between too much and too little information. Not only that, it's how you deliver the information to the reader that can make or break a good description. So whether you already have a vivid picture of your characters in mind or you don't know where to start, you've come to the right place. Read on to explore character description.
- What is a Good Character Description?
- Descriptions for Character Profiles
- Descriptions in Prose
- Character Description Examples
- Tips for Writing Character Descriptions for Profiles
Table of contents
- Description in Prose
- 1. Start With a List
- 2. Edit it Down
- 3. Get Creative With Surroundings and Movement
- 4. What Is and What Isn't
- 5. Adjectives Can Help or Hinder
- 6. Practice Makes Perfect
- 7. Description Can Help Reveal the Narrator
A good character description isn't just about describing how a given character looks. It's also about describing the character through the world around them and through their actions. When these factors come together, you can create a vivid description that not only tells the reader a lot about your character's personality but also sparks the reader's imagination. That, after all, is what reading is all about.
And while we'll mostly be discussing character description in prose, we'll also be discussing how character description is important when writing your character profiles. Since character profiles are best utilized before you write your novel, we'll start there.
Creating a character profile can help you when it comes time to write. It can ensure that you know your major characters intimately before you start writing. These profiles are about more than just character description, but for the purposes of this article, we'll focus on the physical attributes, as they're the building blocks for writing descriptive prose.
Think of a profile as a character sketch. You're not trying to get every single detail down, as it's always good to leave room for spontaneity when you're writing your novel . But when it comes to the basics of how the character looks, it can help to nail down the details.
This includes things like eye color, facial expression, height, weight, build, hair color, skin color, any disfigurements or scars, and things like tattoos or birthmarks. This should also include clothing and any other accessories, such as hats, watches, necklaces, and piercings.
You don't have to get fancy with the profile. Just get the information down so you can refer to it later. If you want to go the extra mile, you can write down some varying descriptions of your character as if you're writing the novel. It's often easiest to focus on one physical attribute at a time until you're comfortable. These practice descriptions can lend inspiration when you start writing in earnest.
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Description in your book is a bit different than in your profile. A good description can give the reader a glimpse at the character's personality traits as well as their appearance. There are many different ways to write a great character description, but they all have one thing in common: they're creative and anything but boilerplate.
Many new writers opt for the list-style of description, thinking that less is more. They often look like this:
“He had piercing green eyes, sandy blond hair, and stood a stocky and solid six-foot-two. He had a slight limp and the musculature of a man who works hard for his living.”
While this may be fine for a minor character, it falls a little flat for a major character that you want the audience to know intimately. So for ideas on how to write character descriptions, let's look at some examples from some masters of the craft.
“His present dog was a huge white brute, a mountain dog from the South. He had named it Halina, after his second wife, with whom it shared some personality traits. . . It weighed almost as much as he did and its coat was matted and filthy; it lifted its massive head and watched him with lunatic eyes.”
This description, from Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn , is a great example of how to describe physical appearance. Neither the man nor his dog is a major character in the story, but the description tells you a little about the K9 and its owner in a few concise sentences.
“He did not look like anything special at all.”
This one-sentence description in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated is an excellent example of “less is more.”
“When he did appear his eyes were as brown as I remembered, pupils flecked with gold like beach pebbles.”
This description is from Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn. It's a compelling use of simile to create a picture of a character's appearance in the reader's mind. Note that she doesn't use tired and worn-out similes such as “eyes as blue as the summer sky” or “hair as red as autumn leaves. Getting creative with figurative language can work out very well.
“He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”
This description, from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, focuses on the character's actions to tell the reader about him. Or, rather, on a single action: a smile. At the same time, the writer is telling the reader something about the POV character, giving insights into how the narrator sees the character while describing him.
Tips for Writing Character Descriptions in Prose
Most writing teachers and authors will tell you that if you want to write, you need to read. And the descriptions above should be shining examples of why that is sage advice. Reading how the authors you love write character description is key. But I've included some tips you can use when it comes time to write your own masterpiece!
This is where the character profile comes in handy. Not only does it keep you on track (there's nothing worse than realizing you switched a character's eye color halfway through a book) but it also allows you to keep a picture of your character fresh in your mind's eye.
So keep a list handy. Even if it's just the basics, like “black hair” or “brown eyes” and the like, it helps.
One of the most oft-quoted pieces of advice from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is “Omit needless words.” For writers old and new, this advice is sound indeed for writing character descriptions. We've all read a book where the description of a character goes on for pages and pages and we find ourselves asking, “When will we get back to the story?”
This is something to avoid at all costs. So edit your descriptions down as much as possible. Don't use flowery language for its own sake. Instead, try to get your point across to the reader in as concise a manner as possible. You don't have to get into a character's backstory with the description if it will interrupt the flow of the story.
Remember that you want to create a vivid character in the reader's mind, but that doesn't mean that you want to take all of their imagination out of it. Leave something for the reader to interpret, if at all possible.
Description isn't all about a character's physicality. It's also about how the character interacts with the world around them. The way a man sits on a couch or a woman drives a car or a child eats an ice cream cone can all add to the character's description. A sentence about what a couple does while waiting in line at the movies can tell the reader more than a paragraph of straight description.
The way a character walks, the way they gesture when they talk, the way they squint when they're thinking. These are all great ways to add to a character's vividness and depth through description.
Describing a person, fictional or otherwise, can be done by looking at what is there and what isn't there. In fact, sharing what isn't there — what's missing — can be a great way of describing a person. As a writer, this can also help you develop your craft and keep your prose fresh. Whether this is a missing limb, a shirt pocket that has been torn off, or the lack of seeming intelligence on a vacant face, the absence of things can say a lot about a character.
As a rule in fiction, it's best to limit your use of adverbs. And the use of adjectives in character descriptions is no exception. Like adverbs, adjectives can become a crutch that holds back more concise and creative writing. This is not to say that you shouldn't use them on occasion. Sometimes an adjective is just the right kind of word for character description. Just keep in mind that overusing them can lead to reader fatigue and overly flowery language.
This should go without saying, but practicing your description will go a long way to becoming a better writer. When you consciously sit down to write a compelling character description, you can really think about what you want to say and how best to say it.
To do this, choose a character archetype and flesh that archetype out into a full-fledged person through descriptive language. Try writing several descriptions of the same character type, focusing on a few different tributes each time. You can try writing one where you focus on appearance. One on movement. One on how she/he interacts with the world around them. One on clothing. And one on what's missing (if anything). These practices can help you get your head around how best to describe a character in any given situation.
Description can also tell the reader about the POV character or narrator. And if your narrator is also your protagonist, this can be very important. This is because, short of having your character stand in front of a mirror and describe herself, there aren't many easy ways to describe your POV character without taking the reader out of the story. So, a great way to enlighten the reader is to use the way your narrator sees other characters. This can often be in the form of physical comparisons that the narrator makes or insights that they glean from watching/interacting with another character.
Not only does this add to the main character's believability, but it also provides an opportunity for character development as the story progresses. Perhaps your POV character has a bad habit of comparing himself to others he learns to break. Or perhaps he focuses too much on physical attributes to the detriment of seeing who other characters really are.
Whether you're writing a short story , novella, or a 1,000-page tome, you'll want to get familiar with character descriptions. The best way to start this is with a character profile. This will help you with your character analysis, which is great for fleshing out your main character, villain, and even secondary characters that need brief but compelling descriptions.
Once you have the basics of your character down, you can start experimenting with description. By focusing on one major character trait at first, you can develop your own style of description. Then you can incorporate more attributes, sharing only a couple at a time as your novel progresses.
Be concise, creative, and don't forget to look for what is and what isn't there. Use movement, interactions, and gestures to make vivid and crisp character descriptions.
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The Gigantic List of Character Descriptions (70+ examples)
The vast majority of character descriptions are simply lazy.
They recycle typical ideas about hair, eye color, and build, giving you more information about the character’s fitting for a dress or suit than the type of information you need to know them intimately.
The first thing you should do when describing a character is to pick a category that isn’t so overused. Such as trying to describe:
Describing your character in an innovative way will help retain the reader’s interest. You want your reader to be asking questions about this character, to not only learn something about them but to create mystery. What made them like this? How long have they been this way? Is there someone currently after them or is this paranoia because of a past experience? Questions like these are what keeps the reader reading.
Not only physical descriptions are needed. Consider: “How is this person viewed by another character?” Do they seem dangerous, alluring, secretive, suspicious? The way another character views someone else gives insight about them as well. Are they attracted? Repulsed? Curious?
Another thing to take notice of is the type of person they are, despite their appearance.
- How do they think?
- What do they feel?
- How do they view/react to certain situations compared to how others would?
- What is their mental state?
Here is a list of examples of brilliant character descriptions to give you an idea and help you come up with your own:
3 Categories: Modern Literary, Literature, Popular
1. vladimir nabokov, lolita.
” … Her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever.”
2. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
” … in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.”
3. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
“Phyllida’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.”
4. China Miéville, This Census-Taker
“His hand was over his eyes. He looked like a failed soldier. Dirt seemed so worked into him that the lines of his face were like writing.”
5. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
“And then the hot air congealed in front of him, and out of it materialized a transparent man of most bizarre appearance. A small head with a jockey cap, a skimpy little checked jacket that was made out of air … The man was seven feet tall, but very narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin, and his face, please note, had a jeering look about it.”
6. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
“Mama BekwaTataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left.”
7. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.”
8. A.S. Byatt, Possession
“He was a compact, clearcut man, with precise features, a lot of very soft black hair, and thoughtful dark brown eyes. He had a look of wariness, which could change when he felt relaxed or happy, which was not often in these difficult days, into a smile of amused friendliness and pleasure which aroused feelings of warmth, and something more, in many women.”
9. Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
“He did not look like anything special at all.”
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10. Henry Lawson, The Bush Girl
“ Grey eyes that grow sadder than sunset or rain, f ond heart that is ever more true F irm faith that grows firmer for watching in vain — She’ll wait by the sliprails for you.”
11. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.”
12. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”
13. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
“My brother Ben’s face, thought Eugene, is like a piece of slightly yellow ivory; his high white head is knotted fiercely by his old man’s scowl; his mouth is like a knife, his smile the flicker of light across a blade. His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light: it is delicate and fierce, and scowls beautifully forever, and when he fastens his hard white fingers and his scowling eyes upon a thing he wants to fix, he sniffs with sharp and private concentration through his long, pointed nose…his hair shines like that of a young boy—it is crinkled and crisp as lettuce.”
14. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books
“A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.”
15. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“[Miss Havisham] had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker…”
16. John Knowles, A Separate Peace
“For such and extraordinary athlete—even as a Lower Middler Phineas had been the best athlete in the school—he was not spectacularly built. He was my height—five feet eight and a half inches…He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, a galling ten pounds more than I did, which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength.”
17. Ambrose Bierce, Chickamauga
“-the dead body of a woman—the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.”
18. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“…your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
19. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“He was most fifty, and he looked it. 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; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl – 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, and he worked them now and then. His hat was laying on the floor – an old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid.”
20. William Golding, Lord of the Flies
“Inside the floating cloak he was tall, thin, and bony; and his hair was red beneath the black cap. His face was crumpled and freckled, and ugly without silliness.”
21. Jane Austen, Persuasion
“Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character: vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth, and at fifty-four was still a very fine man. . . .”
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22. Andrew Lang, The Crimson Fairy Book
“When the old king saw this he foamed with rage, stared wildly about, flung himself on the ground and died.”
23. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
“He was commonplace in complexion, in feature, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold, and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant and heavy as an axe… Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy — a smile — not a smile — I remember it, but I can’t explain.”
24. Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.”
25. Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson
“He followed with his eyes her long slender figure as she threaded her way in and out of the crowd, sinuously, confidingly, producing a penny from one lad’s elbow, a threepenny-bit from between another’s neck and collar, half a crown from another’s hair, and always repeating in that flute-like voice of hers: “Well, this is rather queer!””
26. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
“He had a long chin and big rather prominent teeth, just covered, when he was not talking, by his full, floridly curved lips. Old, young? Thirty? Fifty? Fifty-five? It was hard to say.”
27. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
“Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too. I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her.”
28. D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
“But her will had left her. A strange weight was on her limbs. She was giving way. She was giving up…”
29. Henry James, The Aspern Papers
“Her face was not young, but it was simple; it was not fresh, but it was mild. She had large eyes which were not bright, and a great deal of hair which was not ‘dressed,’ and long fine hands which were–possibly–not clean.”
30. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni Book One: The Musician
“She is the spoiled sultana of the boards. To spoil her acting may be easy enough,—shall they spoil her nature? No, I think not. There, at home, she is still good and simple; and there, under the awning by the doorway,—there she still sits, divinely musing. How often, crook-trunked tree, she looks to thy green boughs; how often, like thee, in her dreams, and fancies, does she struggle for the light,—not the light of the stage-lamps.”
31. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
“Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses…”
32. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“Though every vestige of her dress was burnt, as they told me, she still had something of her old ghastly bridal appearance; for, they had covered her to the throat with white cotton-wool, and as she lay with a white sheet loosely overlying that, the phantom air of something that had been and was changed, was still upon her.”
33. Rudyard Kipling, Many Inventions
“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.”
34. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“He was sunshine most always-I mean he made it seem like good weather.”
35. Hugh Lofting, The Story of Doctor Dolittle
“For a long time he said nothing. He kept as still as a stone. He hardly seemed to be breathing at all. When at last he began to speak, it sounded almost as though he were singing, sadly, in a dream.”
36. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”
37. Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
“He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality, for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing.”
38. Jamie McGuire, Beautiful Oblivion
“Her long platinum blond hair fell in loose waves past her shoulders, with a few black peekaboo strands. She wore a black minidress and combat boots.”
39. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
“His long, long hair wafted around him like black smoke, its tendrils curling and moving of their own volition. His cloak — or perhaps that was his hair too — shifted as if in an unfelt wind.”
40. M.L. LeGette, The Orphan and the Thief
“A creature–a frightfully, awful creature–was mere feet from her. Its eyes were enormous, the size of goose eggs and milky white. Its gray, slippery skin was stretched taut upon its face. Its mouth was wide and full of needle teeth. Its hands rested on the rock, hands that were webbed and huge with each finger ending in a sharp, curved nail. It was as tall as a human man, yet oddly shrunken and hunched.”
41. Amber Dawn, Sub Rosa
“When he did appear his eyes were as brown as I remembered, pupils flecked with gold like beach pebbles.”
42. Julia Stuart, The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise
“His hair had been grown to counteract its unequivocal retreat from the top of his head, and was fashioned into a mean, frail ponytail that hung limply down his back. Blooms of acne highlighted his vampire-white skin.”
43. James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain
“His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial features of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder.”
44. Stephenie Meyer, Twilight
“I vividly remembered the flat black color of his eyes the last time he glared at me – the color was striking against the background of his pale skin and his auburn hair. Today, his eyes were a completely different color: a strange ocher, darker than butterscotch, but with the same golden tone.”
45. Brian Malloy, Twelve Long Months
“Whith her hair dyed bright red, she looks like Ronald McDonald’s post-menopausal sister. Who has let herself go.” (This is one of my favorites, because I find it ridiculously funny)
46. Joan Johnston, No Longer A Stranger
“Actually, Reb had the same flawless complexion as her sister– except for the freckles. Her straight, boyishly cut hair fell onto her brow haphazardly and hid beautiful arched brows that framed her large, expressive eyes. She had a delicate, aquiline nose, but a stubborn mouth and chin.”
47. Brian Morton, Breakable You
“Without her glasses Vivian did look a little frightening. She had tight sinewy strappy muscles and a face that was hardened and almost brutal – a face that might have been chiseled by a sculptor who had fallen out of love with the idea of beauty.”
48. Anne Rice, The Vampire Armand
“I saw my Master had adorned himself in a thick tunic and beautiful dark blue doublet which I’d hardly noticed before. He wore soft sleek dark blue gloves over his hands, gloves which perfectly cleaved to his fingers, and legs were covered by thick soft cashmere stockings all the way to his beautiful pointed shoes.”
49. Becca Fitzpatrick, Black Ice
“His brown hair was cropped, and it showed off the striking s ymmetry of his face. With the sun at his back, shadows marked the depressions beneath his cheekbones. I couldn’t tell the color of his eyes, but I hoped they were brown…The guy had straight, sculptured shoulders that made me think swimmer …”
50. E.C. Sheedy, Killing Bliss
“He stood, which put him eye to eye with the dark-haired woman whose brilliant, burning gaze poured into his worthless soul like boiling tar, whose mouth frothed with fury–and whose hand now curled, knuckles white, around a steak knife.” (The author gives a lot of details about the characters emotions, but there is not one specific detail about neither of their appearances. Use this as an example of how physical appearances aren’t always the most important thing.)
51. James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain
“His wiry gray and black hair was dripping with sweat, and his face was the color and texture of old paper. He looked up at me from where he was seated on his bunk, and his eyes were hot and bright and moisture was beaded across his upper lip. He held a Camel cigarette between his yellowed fingers, and the floor around his feet was covered with cigarette butts.”
52. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
“She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound.”
53. Becca Fitzpatrick, Hush, Hush
“He was abominable…and the most alluring, tortured soul I’d ever met.” (This isn’t describing him physically, but it is giving insight to how the main character views him)
54. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair.”
55. Anne Rice, Violin
“I deliberately thought of him, my violinist, point by point, that with his long narrow nose and such deep-set eyes he might have been less seductive to someone else–perhaps. But then perhaps to no one. What a well-formed mouth he had, and how the narrow eyes, the detailed deepened lids gave him such a range of expression, to open his gaze wide, or sink in cunning street.”
56. Kevin Brooks, Lucas
“As I’ve already said, the memory of Lucas’s walk brings a smile to my face. It’s an incredibly vivid memory, and if I close my eyes I can see it now. An easygoing lope. Nice and steady. Not too fast and not too slow, Fast enough to get somewhere, but not too fast to miss anything. Bouncy, alert, resolute, without any concern and without vanity. A walk that both belonged to and was remote from everything around it.”
57. Anne Rice, Violin
“And she looked the way he had always hated her–dreamy and sloppy, and sweet, with glasses falling down, smoking a cigarette, with ashes on her coat, but full of love, her body heavy and shapeless with age.”
58. Kevin Brooks, Lucas
“As we drew closer, the figure became clearer, It was a young man, or a boy, dressed loosely in a drab green T-shirt and baggy green trousers. He had a green army jacket tied around his waist and a green canvas bag slung over his shoulder. The only non-green thing about him was the pair of scruffy black walking boots on his feet. Although he was on the small side, he wasn’t as slight as I first thought. He wasn’t exactly muscular, but he wasn’t weedy-looking either…there was an air of hidden strength about him, a graceful strength that showed in his balance, the way he held himself, the way he walked….”
59. Iris Johansen, The Face of Deception
“Kinky tousled curls, only a minimum of makeup, large brown eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses. There was a world of character in that face, more than enough to make her fascinating-looking instead of just attractive.”
60. Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before the War
“Brian Paulson was rake thin, with smooth hair the color of tin and a wet fleshy handshake…. His greeting was a nod and a blink, befitting someone who’d stepped out of the shadows only momentarily.”
61. Gena Showalter, The Darkest Night
“Pale hair fell in waves to his shoulders, framing a face mortal females considered a sensual feast. They didn’t know the man was actually a devil in angel’s skin. They should have, though. He practically glowed with irreverence, and there was an unholy gleam in his green eyes that proclaimed he would laugh in your face while cutting out your heat. Or laugh in your face while you cut out his heart.”
62. Sam Byers, Idiopathy
“Now here he was: sartorially, facially and interpersonally sharpened; every inch the beatific boffin.”
63. Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven Boys
“As always, there was an all-American war hero look to him, coded in his tousled brown hair, his summer-narrowed hazel eyes, the straight nose that ancient Anglo-Saxons had graciously passed on to him. Everything about him suggested valor and power and a firm handshake.”
64. J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
“The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.”
65. Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove
“People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.”
66. Frank Herbert, Dune
“…a girl-child who appeared to be about four years old. She wore a black aba, the hood thrown back to reveal the attachments of a stillsuit hanging free at her throat. Her eyes were Fremen blue, staring out of a soft, round face. She appeared completely unafraid and there was a look to her stare that made the Baron feel uneasy for no reason he could explain.”
67. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
“Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain.”
68. Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl
“He had his head in his hands, and his tie looked like it had been put on by an enemy, and was strangling him.”
69. Graham Joyce, Some Kind of Fairy Tale
“Peter was a gentle, red-haired bear of a man. Standing at six-four in his socks, he moved everywhere with a slight and nautical sway, but even though he was broad across the chest there was something centered and reassuring about him, like an old ship’s mast cut from a single timber.”
70. Brad Parks, The Girl Next Door
“…in addition to being fun, smart, and quick-witted—in a feisty way that always kept me honest—she’s quite easy to look at, with never-ending legs, toned arms, curly brown hair, and eyes that tease and smile and glint all at the same time.”
71. Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before the War
“Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.”
72. Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
“Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.”
73. Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
“I thought she was so beautiful. I figured she was the kind of woman who could make buffalo walk on up to her and give up their lives. She wouldn’t have needed to hunt. Every time we went walking, birds would follow us around. Hell, tumbleweeds would follow us around.”
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Love the compilation. Thank you for doing this
This is a great compilation! My students are working on writing characters right now, so I’m having them look through your list to see examples of a job well done 🙂 Thanks!
Thanks I’m using these for students to make character drawings from
This is really helpful ! Love it !
Do you have a way, where you could put the characters physical traits in this website?
Thank you for the awesome list. You should add this one; it’s from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, was a man of rugged countenance, that was never lightened by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.” There’s more after, but I thought this was a good description.
And this one: “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering, and somewhat broken voice: all these were points against him, but all of them together could not describe the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing, and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him.”
The quote that stood out to me the most was the quote from ‘The Census Taker’. That quote captured the characters feelings so well. The author was able to compare in self worth by saying it was as dirt, so much so that the dirt was written in his skin. I have never seen self worth and failure described as part of a person’s face.
Thank you. I echo Chris’s comment Wowwwwww and add a few!!!!
Wonderful! Reading these enabled me to rewrite the descriptions for my two leading characters.
Thank you for this, very helpful! I don’t know if this is really related, but I’m writing a story including a mean girl who bullies the main character (also a girl). I’m struggling to write what the mean girl uses to bully the main character – what I end up coming up with is way too mean or unreal, etc.
Blinded by tears, she could hear the haze of pink shout, “See, poor baby cries. Great actress, dear. Why do you waste your talent on us, here?”
great great any book for description of physical appearance in narrative
Great list. And I have one to add. It’s from Michael Moorcock, riding the new wave of British sci-fi back in the 1960s. He’s been a favorite of mine for decades. The passage is from “Elric of Melniboné:”
“It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.”
Thanks for this – very useful compilation for teaching – makes life so much easier! And helps in my writing, to look at expressions and word arrangements… I notice how some writers seem so good in visual description, and some others seem to be much better at character expressions..
wowzers!!! this is so cool!
I planned to just read a few, but I couldn’t stop reading. These are awesome! Thank you.
“Character Description” on The John Fox’s blog is a treasure trove of valuable tips and techniques for crafting compelling characters. The blog explores the art of painting vivid and multi-dimensional personas, adding depth to storytelling. Aspiring writers will find this guide indispensable for creating memorable characters that resonate with readers.
holy MOLY, thank you!
I liked them
wow thanks you have really helped me but can you put something to describe a character that is a tyrant please? that would really help
Absolutely remarkable. So very helpful in every since of the word.
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Whether writing your book or revising it, this will be the most helpful book you’ll ever buy.
Learn how to:
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Character Description Examples: How to Hook the Reader.
And make writing character descriptions 10x easier by comparing amateur and pro samples..
Character description examples: how to hook the reader.
In this post, we’re going to show you how to get the reader to emotionally connect with your characters—particularly your protagonist—by comparing amateur and pro character description examples.
Far too often aspiring writers’ character descriptions involve mundane activities, unrelated to who they’re introducing.
Often this is accompanied by a list of personality traits and/or physical attributes, like so:
These character description examples aren’t bad, but they’re not great either.
But why not?
Take a moment to consider just how much you know about each of these protagonists from their character description examples.
• Do you get a sense of Caitlyn’s personality?
• Do you have any idea what Roger’s fundamental character flaw is?
• Do you get a feeling for who each of these characters are deep down?
In fact, it’s probably pretty hard to say you know anything about who these characters really are when we first meet them.
In this post, we’re going to show you the exact steps you need to take in order to go from writing pedestrian character descriptions like these to great character descriptions that immediately hook the reader .
We’re going to do this is by using “before and after” sample character descriptions. So let’s get started.
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Amateur vs. pro character description examples.
Here’s a quick character description template of what makes these ones that much better and really hook the reader:
• Interesting Action . The pro character description examples show them in action. It’s just more interesting to be introduced to a character doing something active—preferably something interesting or unusual—rather than something we all do every day.
• Show Don’t Tell . The pro descriptions utilize the “show don’t tell” principle. The writers show the reader who each character is as a person through their actions, rather than simply tell them.
• The Flaw . They show us a moment that perfectly sums up where each character is at in this particular stage in life. These character description examples show us their flaw in action: their “want” rather than “need.” The bad behavior that’s keeping them down at the start of the film.
Overall, you want to show the reader the heart of each character right off the bat when we first meet them.
This usually means showing us their flaw in the most visual, unusual and interesting way possible. (Although not always, but more on this later.)
So let’s jump on in with the first description.
Amateur c haracter description example #1.
Like many character description examples from spec screenplays, this one’s perfectly serviceable.
It puts an image in our mind of a young guy who’s probably single. He’s engaged in an action of sorts—eating a TV dinner—and the car’s arrival adds some interest to the scene.
But you don’t want to write a “serviceable” character description. You want to blow the reader away with the quality of your writing, right?
Professional c haracter description example #1.
Here’s how Dan Gilroy introduces the same character in Nightcrawler :
Ignore the somewhat idiosyncratic formatting for a moment and just focus on how this character description kicks ass .
Focus on how much more you now know and feel about Lou than in the first example.
But how does Gilroy achieve this?
He could have chosen to introduce Lou scouring CraigsList for a job. Or asking a scrap yard manager if he has any vacancies.
While either of these would have told us more about Lou than in Example #1 and made him more active than sitting watching TV, they wouldn’t have been particularly unusual or revealing actions .
Showing him stealing fencing at night, on the other hand, tells us everything we need to know. Our interest is immediately piqued. Who is this weird guy? What’s he doing? Why is he doing it?
Most importantly, Gilroy’s character description shows us Lou’s many flaws in action.
He’s in the middle of a theft and is about to beat up an interfering security guard. He’s “pure primal id” possibly mentally disturbed and insanely driven.
This is the essence of who Lou is at the start of the film and Gilroy captures it all perfectly in this character description.
Here’s another one, this time from a comedy.
Amateur c haracter description example #2.
This character description is clear and succinct and gives us a good idea of what we’re seeing here: two friends having a great time catching up over lunch.
We get the feeling Annie is the protagonist as her name comes first and includes her surname. But what else do we learn about her from this character description?
Not much. We learn nothing about what her personality’s like, where’s she at in life, or what her flaw is.
Professional c haracter description example #2.
Here’s how Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig introduce the same protagonist in Bridesmaids .
This is the character description we get after some brief Off-Screen dialogue that sets up the fact this is just a casual fling. (From Ted’s perspective at least.)
This character description is tight and sparse—all we get is Annie’s age. But that’s okay because what she’s doing here is so much more important:
She’s showing us her flaw in action : trying to get together with a guy who has zero romantic interest in her.
One of the key reasons why studio script readers pass on spec screenplays is a lack of empathy for the characters.
This is often because the writer hasn’t fully communicated who the characters really are and what their flaws are right off the bat.
Readers empathize with flaws: the characters (and our) relatable problems that they want to see solved by the movie’s end.
It should be pretty clear that out of these two character description examples it’s Example #4 that better gives you a sense of who Annie is, what her flaw is and where she’s at in this stage of her life.
Amateur c haracter description example #3.
Let’s move on to an example from a recently nominated best-adapted screenplay.
It’s true that Jack’s active here, but how engaging is it? And how much do we learn about him?
We learn that he’s a musician in a hotel room, which could suggest he’s on tour and semi or very successful.
We learn that he likes gin, which could suggest he has a drinking problem, but neither of these is stated explicitly.
Professional c haracter description example #3.
Here’s the same character introduction from A Star Is Born by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters.
Now we’re hit in the gut with a character description that shows rather than tells us so much more about him.
Jack is not just involved in an action here that vaguely tells us something about who he is. He’s doing something that shows us explicitly who he is and what his problem is.
He famous enough to draw a large crowd and have roadies. He pops pills before going on stage, drinks deeply from a bottle of gin—some of it “spilling down his beard…”
Note how much more interesting and exciting Example #6 is compared to Example #5. And how it’s now so much clearer that Jack’s a famous musician with a drink and drugs problem. It’s 100 times more engaging, revealing and visual in every possible way.
Character description examples that break “the rules.”
Of course, not all good character descriptions in professional screenplays abide by the “rules” we’ve discussed so far.
• Sometimes in professional screenplays we’re introduced to characters involved in the most mundane activities imaginable.
• Sometimes when writing character descriptions, pro writers don’t give any indication of a flaw.
• Sometimes great character descriptions are so sparse we learn nothing at all about what they look like.
• Sometimes professional screenwriters describe their characters as “handsome” or “a natural beauty.”
Here are a few more character description examples—the ones that seemingly break the “rules” discussed in this post.
Mundane actions in the character description.
Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty introduce the protagonist of Can You Ever Forgive Me? like this:
Here, the writers introduce Lee Isreal in the middle of one of the most everyday situations imaginable: asleep on a couch .
As familiar and uninteresting this situation is, it perfectly sums up where she is at this point in her life: lonely . They even give her a pet cat to really drive the point home.
We don’t know why she’s alone yet but we can guess it’s got something to do with her flaw.
In other words, writing character descriptions doesn’t mean you always have to introduce performing a bizarre or exciting action. It means writing a description that serves the character —whether that’s exciting or mundane.
No flaw in the character description.
In some cases, professional writers choose not to highlight a character’s flaw in their opening character description.
For example, here’s how we first meet Jaime at the start of It Follows :
When writing character descriptions like this, genre comes into play.
The reason why writer David Robert Mitchell doesn’t show us his protagonist acting out their flaw here is that in horror movies they often don’t have one. At least not in a traditional sense.
The theme in horror movies often revolves around the collective “sins” of society rather than an individual flaw of the central character.
The protagonist is a representation of this sin, but because of this, we don’t need to know nearly as much about them as the protagonist in other genres.
Hence we’re not introduced to a protagonist with a flaw in the usual overt way. Rather, the flaw is hidden beneath the surface on a thematic societal level.
No details in the character description.
You may have heard that describing a character’s clothes, hair and makeup is a great way to help give us a sense of who they are as a person. Sometimes professional writers do this, sometimes they don’t.
Occasionally they choose to skip over giving us any specific details at all about a character when we first meet them.
Here’s how Max and Annie are introduced in the Game Night screenplay:
And further down the page:
The writers could have added details about Max’s hair or Annie’s makeup, but they chose not to. All we get are their approximate ages and the fact they’re wearing “matching shirts.”
That’s because it’s the characters’ actions that are important here, not their appearance. We get a sense of who Max and Annie and, in a way, it doesn’t matter whether Max has brown hair or what kind of dress Annie’s wearing.
By all means add clothes, hair and makeup details to your screenplay character descriptions. But remember they’re not as important as showing us those characters in action—usually something that highlights their flaws.
As always when it comes to screenwriting there are very few things you “must not” do. The advice in this post deals with generalities —the best way to introduce most characters most of the time.
At the end of the day, go with what feels right for the character you want to write .
Character description practical exercises.
Here are a number of practical exercises you can do in order to begin writing better screenplay character descriptions.
1. Study great character descriptions.
Take a look at the screenplay character descriptions in these 50 Best Screenplays to Download and Read in Every Genre . Study the first times we’re introduced to any character, not just the protagonist.
Ask yourself questions like:
• Why has the writer chosen to introduce the character this way?
• Why are they doing what they’re doing?
• Are they actively doing something that highlights their current flawed state of mind?
• Or don’t they have an obvious flaw because of the film’s genre?
2. Compare to your own script.
Go through your script and compare your own screenwriting character descriptions. Take a look again at each characters’ introduction, not just the protagonist. Do they stand up to the professional versions?
• Who is this character at this specific moment in time?
• What’s their flaw and how do they obviously need to change?
• Are these things clearly shown through actions rather than told through adjectives?
3. Practice writing character descriptions.
Go back into your script and rewrite any mediocre introductions into great character descriptions.
If you’re not clear on the answers to the questions above, go back in and show them acting in a way that clearly communicates the answers to the reader.
Remember in most cases when writing character descriptions it’s a good idea to display their flaw in action.
• First, it’s just more interesting to be introduced to a character doing something active—preferably something unusual—rather than something we all do every day.
• Second, it gives you an opportunity to show not tell . You can show the reader who the character is as a person rather than simply tell them.
By working through the character description template you’ll learn how to introduce your protagonist in a more powerful way.
Your script overall will subsequently begin in a more powerful way.
Genre and tone will become clearer and the reader will be able to more easily emotionally connect with the protagonist and therefore the story.
In closing, keep in mind Truman peering into a camera in his apartment at the start of The Truman Show .
This seemingly static and unremarkable image actually reveals who he is at the beginning of the film: completely hoodwinked about the circumstances of his own life.
And this is how the writer chose to show us Truman’s essence in a way that’s as visually and thematically as clear and strong as possible.
We hope you found these character description examples helpful and feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments section below. How do you approach writing character descriptions? How seriously do you take each one? Let us know in the comments!
Liked this post? Learn more about writing character descriptions and more writing style hacks…
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I am writing my first script, based n my published book. The concept is unique but my characters aren’t. This article has given me insight into how poorly I have introduced my characters, particularly the main one(s). Thank you
That’s great to hear, glad it helped, Carol!
I enjoyed this. My characters tend to start out with a Holy C… moment. Before I started this method I though apperance was more important. Not sure what changed my view, but I’m glad I was listening.
Thanks for the comment, Ron – glad you enjoyed it!
On the off chance that you need to understand what a man resembles, investigate how he treats his inferiors, not his equivalents. Have a visit on my blog on The Value of Developing a Fictional Character I hope this will help.
Thank so much for sharing this information! It’s abig help.
Do character descriptions follow trends? Meaning is there a difference between today and 10 years ago?
Thank you very much for this great article1 🙂 I am not a screenwriter – but still it’s really helpful!
Great, thanks, Philippe!
Is it overdoing it to create a detailed description for even minor characters? or, generally, just stick to the major characters?
Great question. If minor characters have descriptions that are as detailed as major characters then it’s harder to differentiate the two when we first meet them. You’re kind of telling the reader “this is an important character so look out for them” but then they only serve a drink and aren’t seen again in the script.
Thanks and thanks for a great article.
Thank you for sharing i learn a lot about how to write better character descriptions
Thanks for reaching out 🙂
DL STICKLER Aspiring screenwriter with an idea, series bible, and pilot in his Google Drive reading some excellent advice on a website he just found while trying to figure out a way to get his work in front of some eyes that may be able to actually send him a check. His sense of cynicism and extreme frugality may prevent him from ever realizing his dream. Yet with gratitude in his heart, he comments sincerely that this post was exceptional in its value to him.
Keep at it, DL!
THANK SO MUCH for your new clear and concise lecture, supported by so many valuable examples and exercises! Adding a little: Such a description: short, specific, and arresting – three lines for one scene; just a thumb-nail description. Its content: the age, appearance, clothing, profession, activity, a state of mind etc.. Usually, in the USA, we identify people by their names/nick names and professions/working places. The core of character is a serious matter. It is point #3 in LINDA SEGER’s (LS) receipt of creating character as follows: 1. Getting the first idea (observation/experience). 2. Creating the first broad strokes. 3. Finding the core of the character (for consistency!). 4. Finding the paradoxes – read: the famous SRP-theory of flaws! 5. Adding emotions, attitudes, and values. 6. Adding details (for the specific and unique character). Source: LS, “Creating Unforgettable Characters,” Henry Hold & Co., NY 1990, p. 23.
Thanks for this, William – it’ll help our readers even more.
Thanks for the article, admittedly, I struggle with character introduction, but reading this post actually made me realize something, that I oftentimes introduce a character not considering the actual action that is currently taking place. The example you gave for Night Crawler was a real eye opener for me. For example, I had a character that I introduced as: “being both intelligent and powerful, the guy that could out wit you in chess and hand you your ass in the ring”, yet my following action did not show either of these qualities, so I realize that my introduction written like that is just hear-say, which can not be seen, where as the character needs to be visualized and then seen as described. Thanks for the help.
Thanks for the comment, Rachael – glad the post helped. You’re right – you want to always consider if what you’re describing in the description would be better served by showing us that characteristic in action.
Hi, I am a screenwriter as well and sorry but Greg is right: What is #4 really telling us about the protagonist? That she has passionate sex. Not much else. And shooting directions are supposed to be in shooting scripts. Directors will be turned off pretty quick when finding those in a spec script.
We’re simply saying that many aspiring writers introduce their characters in obvious, uninteresting situations unrelated to their flaw – as in the made-up Example #3. In the actual script, in Example #4, the description is doing much more than just showing Annie have passionate sex. As we say in the post, along with her Off-Screen dialogue with Ted, it reveals her flaw, where she’s at in life and a sense of the problem she needs to solve. It also hooks the reader in a much more interesting way than if we’d just opened on her in a restaurant chatting to Lillian. Do you mean “shooting directions are ‘not’ supposed to be in shooting scripts.”? It’s true you maybe shouldn’t overdo them but there’s no rule out there says you “must never” include shooting directions.
I’m afraid I must take exception to your article. First, are we writing a book or a screenplay? In a book, the writer must be very descriptive. In a screenplay, the writer does not have to be descriptive. So how much detail goes into a script? As much detail is necessary. But, the writer must be careful not to over describe and cross into directorial discretion.
Your example of Bridesmaids is terrible. First, most of the example is action, not character description. Second, use of closeups and jump cuts is directorial, not writing. Leave that to the director to decide how he will shoot the scene. Name me one Shakespeare play where he uses “close up”. Name me one book where they use jump cut. The writer is suppose to write the story. Not direct the film. Eventually, the screenplay will be turned into a shooting script; but, that is after a director is attached.
Third, how much detail do you put in to the script? As much detail is needed. Does it matter if the girl is wearing her hair in a pony tail or just pulled back? If the villain grabs the girl her pony tail as she tries to run away then it is important. But, does it matter if she wears a blue dress or a red dress? No, then it does not go into the screenplay. The director may have a color palette in mind. We recently shot a poster using blue – as in blue sky. So calling for the guy to wear a red shirt would not work for the director.
Now the problem is that most readers can not envision a story without lots of color. They need a book like Crazy Rich Asians or Harry Potter to help them visualize. But, what was written in the book is usually far from what makes it to the screen. A good producer or director can read a script and visual the movie without being encumbered with the writers vision.
Of course, most readers don’t have that vision; otherwise, they would be directing.
We’re a screenplay consultancy not a novel consultancy so the post is most definitely about screenplays. Examples #1, #3, and #5 are made-up character description examples by us from made-up spec screenplays. Examples #2, #4, and #6 are the real character descriptions by professional screenwriters.
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Characters: A Brief Introduction
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A Brief Introduction to Writing Characters in Fiction
These resources discuss character creation and development in fiction writing. They provide an overview of character archetypes and tools to aid in character building.
As you begin writing a work of fiction—whether it be a short story or a novel, though you may not know yet what shape your piece will take—you might think of yourself as a director of a play. You will cast characters, dress them up, set them down somewhere, and push them into motion. They might collide with each other, or they might avoid each other—it’s up to you. They will each have their own unique appearance. Barring, of course, writing about identical twins, and even then, there will likely be distinctions. Your characters will each have their own set of values and beliefs. On top of that, they will have wants and needs. You’ll have to sort all this out, help some of them gain their wants while thwarting others, until you reach some form of resolution. But before you can do all this, you’ll need to create characters.
A Heuristic for Building Strong Characters
Imagine you sit down to interview your character. You know nothing about them going into the interview, or maybe you can picture them, but you’re not sure what they’re like. You’ll want to ask your character a long list of questions to get started. Some questions to ask may include:
- How does the character feel about their parents?
- Does the character have any siblings?
- How does the character feel about their siblings?
- How does the character feel about their job?
- Does the character have good posture?
- Does the character make direct eye contact?
- Does the character have any nervous tics?
- Does the character have a significant other?
- What sort of person is the character attracted to?
- Does the character appear confident?
- Is the character physically healthy?
- Does the character have any medical conditions?
- Has the character suffered any trauma in their past?
- Has the character ever broken any laws?
Additional questions can be found on the Invention for Secondary School Students: Creative Writing page.
If you can answer all these questions about your character, you’ll have a great deal of material. You may find that you can use a lot of it, which is great. However, not everything you determine about a character will go into your story. “Obviously, you would never include the pages of information you have recorded about a character in this way, but your knowing the information…will make the character more developed in the story simply because you, the creator, know the character so well” (Knorr and Schell 166). In other words, you don’t have to include every single detail about your character’s history in the story. The best stories often allude to the past without being explicit about past events.
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Character Development: Creating Unique Characters [+Template]
This post is written by author, editor, and ghostwriter Tom Bromley. He is the instructor of Reedsy's 101-day course, How to Write a Novel .
In literature, character development is the process of building three-dimensional characters with personality, backstory, goals, and strengths and weaknesses to fill out a story. Done correctly, it will create a clear character arc for the protagonist in the novel.
All authors need to pay close attention to character development for their novel to resonate with readers. Even if you’re writing an action-packed, plot-driven book where the characters are robots, it’s the human element that will resonate with readers.
This article will show you how to develop a character who will linger in your readers’ minds long after they turn the last page. To write such a character, you'll need to:
- Establish the character's story goal and motivation
- Make sure the character has both strengths and flaws
- Give the character an external and internal conflict
- Decide whether the character is static or dynamic
- Give the character a backstory
- Develop the character's external characteristics to make them distinguishable
- Make the character stand out with distinctive mannerisms
- Make your character believable
- Steer clear of the biggest character development mistake
By the end of this process, you should emerge with a fully realized, multidimensional character . And don't worry — to help you build each of these elements, you can download our character development template for free.
Reedsy’s Character Development Template
A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.
Let's start with internal character development. You can think of internal character development as a concentric circle, radiating outward from your character’s fundamental goals and motivations. All the other characterization choices you make, from their backstory to how much they change over time, will flow from these two core elements.
1. Establish the character’s story goals and motivations
Your character’s current goal is why the story exists — and why it’s worth telling. It’s what your character wants from the book’s plot, and what will propel their inner journey. Without it, the overall narrative arc would fall totally flat.
Let’s look at a few character goal examples:
- Harry Potter’s goal is to defeat Lord Voldemort
- Bilbo’s goal is to help the dwarves reclaim the kingdom of Erebor
- Hamlet’s goal is to avenge his murdered father
Then there are the motivations behind your character’s goal, the 'in order to' that gives it meaning. What internal and external influences drive their desires? There can, of course, but more than one. For instance:
- Harry Potter’s goal is to defeat Voldemort... in order to ensure the safety of wizarding world — and to find closure from the murder of his parents.
- Bilbo’s goal is to help the dwarves reclaim the kingdom of Erebor... in order to bring some adventure to his life of creature comforts — and to impart his sense of home and belonging to those without a home.
- Hamlet’s goal is to avenge his murdered father... in order to prove he's not imagining the ghost who haunts him — and to demonstrate that he's capable of acting decisively.
If you’re struggling to nail down your character’s goal, try asking, “What would make the character feel happy or satisfied with their life?” This is their motivation. Next, ask yourself, “What could they do to obtain that happiness?” This is their goal.
Now, if you’re struggling to get to the crux of your character’s motivations, try playing the “why” game. This will help you develop a multilayered chain of motivations:
If your character’s goal is to connect with their long-lost sibling, their motivation might be because they are an only child who always longed for a brother or sister. Why? Because they felt lonely as a child. Why? Because their parents moved around a lot and they had trouble keeping friends? Why? Because they eventually got tired of getting close to people, only to say goodbye.
By playing this game to its logical conclusion, we’ve learned that the character wants to meet their long-lost sibling [goal] because they feel it will establish a bond stronger than geography [motivation].
Develop characters by establishing goals and motivations. Ask yourself: What is their goal? What are their specific motivations? What are they willing to risk to achieve their goal? What would happen if they simply can’t achieve their goal?
2. Give the character an external and internal conflict
Your character only becomes interesting when you put a few obstacles between them and their goal. If Frodo walked up to Mount Doom, dropped the ring in the lava, and made it back in time for second breakfast, it wouldn’t make for a very compelling story or a very memorable protagonist . It’s the obstacles — the army of orcs commanded by Sauron and the power the ring has over Frodo, to name a couple — that create conflict and tension in the story. That’s what makes it worth reading.
You'll notice in the example above that I mention two conflicts. One is Frodo vs. Sauron (character vs. character), and the second is Frodo vs. himself — his struggle to not lose himself to the ring. All characters should undergo an internal conflict that makes them question themselves and mirrors the external conflict they're facing. Even static characters who do not significantly alter over the course of the novel will face an internal conflict — you can find Sherlock vs. self, for example, in his fraught attempts to communicate with people.
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There are six primary types of conflict in fiction . While you are developing your character, you should decide which one(s) will make for the most worthy adversaries. The six types are Character versus...
Character. For example, Othello vs. Iago. Society. For example, Winston Smith vs. Big Brother in 1984 . Nature. For example, Robert Neville vs. the virus in I Am Legend . Technology. Victor Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein’s monster. Supernatural. Jack Torrance vs. The Overlook in The Shining . Self. Every compelling protagonist faces some conflict of the self, but a few examples include Jason Bourne vs. his own past, Harry Goldfarb vs. addiction in Requiem for a Dream , and Bridget Jones vs. self-doubt.
Develop characters through conflict. Ask yourself: What internal conflict will your protagonist face? Will they also face an external conflict? How will the internal and external mirror each other? How will the conflict(s) affect the characters’ pursuit of their goals?
How to Develop Characters
In 10 days, learn to develop complex characters readers will love.
3. Make sure the character has strengths and flaws
All the intrigue in your story will stem from how your character responds to their external and internal conflicts. To face these challenges, every type of character will need both strengths to draw upon and flaws that threaten to drag them down.
The iconic characters we know and love tend to have a nuanced mix of positive and negative traits. Harry Potter, for instance, is brave and loyal. But he’s also stubborn and reckless, flaws that have put himself — and his friends — in danger. Frodo, meanwhile, is selfless enough to take on a thankless and dangerous mission. But he’s also highly dependent on the protection of his allies, and very vulnerable to the ring’s seductive pull.
To give your adoring fans something to root for, your character should be plausibly able to overcome the challenges the plot throws at them, whether that’s destroying the ring or saving the wizarding world. At the same time, you need to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. That’s why there should be a real risk that your character will fail — whether they fall prey to the ring’s power at the very edge of Mt. Doom, or die in a burst of green light from the Dark Lord’s wand.
Writing a character with both strengths and flaws will help you maintain the tension in your plotting, but that’s not all it does. It’s also crucial to making your readers feel for the people at the heart of your story.
Your character’s strengths — whether that’s their sparkling wit, their skill at wind magic, or their unwavering moral center — will get readers to root for them, admire them, maybe even swoon over them. But don’t forget your character’s flaws: say, their recklessness, their greedy streak, the insecurity that makes them lash out at their more accomplished sibling. These very human weaknesses will make them relatable .
Not sure which flaws to give your characters? Check out this list of 70 fascinating character flaws to hit upon the perfect combination!
4. Decide whether the character is static or dynamic
There's a myth that characters have to fundamentally change over the course of a story — in other words, be dynamic — in order to be considered well-written. But the truth is, there are a host of great characters who emerge from a long internal journey without changing very much at all. These are static characters, and they're an absolutely valid part of your character development repertoire.
Let's dig a little deeper into the idea of static characters versus dynamic characters.
Characters who don’t change because that’s just who they are Captain America, Captain Nemo, and Sherlock Holmes are a few examples of characters who do not significantly alter over the course of the novel. In the case of Sherlock, it is his unchanging nature that makes him a compelling character. Unlike many of us, he does not feel the need to adapt to his surroundings. For Sherlock, that's both a strength and a flaw: he is always true to himself, but he often fails to learn from his experiences. This is a “traditional” static character.
Characters who undergo substantial change A dynamic character is altered by the conflict(s) that they face. This might be a subconscious change, such as Jack adapting to the island in Lord of the Flies by becoming as wild, unconstrained, and “savage” as the nature around him. Or the change might be more of a conscious decision, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy overcoming their obstinate pride and prejudice for the sake of love. This is a "traditional" dynamic character.
Characters who don’t change in order to effect change in the world around them
Writers often rely on complex, fast-paced plots with lots of external conflict in order to compensate for static protagonists. The world around them may try to shift these protagonists from their core principles, but they will rebel in order to try and alter their circumstances. This kind of character is both a little bit static and a little bit dynamic: even though they might not change much themselves, they're the cause of major change. A great example of this kind of protagonist is Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games. You can read about all about her unique characterization in our post on dynamic characters .
Reinforcing your protagonist through secondary characters Often times, authors write static secondary characters to act as pillars around which a dynamic character can develop. Think of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird : he changes little throughout the course of the novel. But it is his steadfast belief in justice that allows Scout to evolve from an innocent child into a girl with a strong sense of right and wrong.
You might want to consider writing a foil character : a character who contrasts with the protagonist in order to highlight particular qualities of the main character. For instance, Harry Potter’s foil is Draco Malfoy: privileged where Harry is scrappy, self-interested where Harry is recklessly selfless.
Develop characters by determining the shape of their arc . Ask yourself: How much will they change? What inspires their change? Do they change for the better? Do they change for the worse? Do they change the world and/or people around them?
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5. Give the character a past
Just as your history has contributed to the person you are today, your character's history has made them into the person we see on the page. You should develop your character’s past as much as possible, but it’s especially important to create and zero in on memories that inform exactly what we see in the story.
Develop characters through their history. Ask yourself: What moments from their past have played a pivotal role in who they are now? Do they have any suppressed memories? What are some of their happiest memories?
6. Develop the character's physical characteristics
Yes, the internal goals and motivations are the "heart" of a character. But that doesn't mean that their external characteristics should just be an afterthought. Sure, the fact that your protagonist has blonde hair may not impact the plot — but it might color how other characters respond to them. And it can only benefit you, as the author, to have a detailed image of them in your mind as you write your story.
Early in your character development, put a bit of time into sketching out your protagonist's physical features, including their...
- Appearance: What do they look like? Does their appearance play a role in the story?
- Voice: What do they sound like? Do they speak with an accent, or an unusual cadence? Does their voice appear to “match” their appearance?
To help give yourself a more holistic image of your character, I recommend checking out our ready-made character profile template . It will prompt you to define external elements like posture and distinguishing features, in addition to internal elements like their relationship with their mother and how they want to be remembered after they die.
Want to see how the greats build their characters' dialogue? Check out 15 passages of great dialogue, analyzed .
7. Make the character stand out with distinctive mannerisms
Figuring out your character’s external traits doesn’t stop at deciding on an eye color and a voice type. To make your brown-eyed alto stand out from all the other brown-eyed altos in the literary canon, you’ll want to round out that physical profile with some distinctive mannerisms . After all, a character’s physicality takes so much more than describing their body in isolation. It’s about how they move through space — and about how they interact with everything around them, from objects to other characters.
You’ll want to reflect on how your character responds to the world around them, including their….
- Communication style: How do they interact with others, and how does that shape their relationships? Does their speech have any idiosyncrasies or quirks ?
- Gait: How do they make their way around their environment, and how does this impact how they’re treated? Do crowds unconsciously gather to watch their fluid, graceful strides, or do others give them a wide berth because their heavy tread is intimidating?
- Tics: What do they do when they’re nervous, uncertain of how to proceed, or about to collapse from exhaustion?
Some character mannerisms will be situationally dependent, coming out only when they’re acting under the compulsion of some strong emotion. Harry Potter, for example, understandably rubs his forehead when his scar hurts. Similarly, Nynaeve from the Wheel of Time series tends to tug on her braid when she's agitated, and James Bond villain Le Chiffre, from Casino Royale, puts his finger to his temple when he lies or bluffs.
Other mannerisms, however, are part of a character’s default state — as essential to our view of them as their coloring. Just think of Draco Malfoy’s permanent sneer: it’s as much a part of him as his pale blond hair.
To make your character truly memorable, you’ll want to consider adding both these types of mannerisms to their behavioral repertoire. Anger shouldn’t look the same on everyone: someone might flare up like an inferno, going red in the face, while others turn icily polite, smiling insincerely.
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8. Do your research to make the character believable
When it comes to character development, empathy and imagination will take you far. After all, you can’t expect your readers to get into your protagonist’s head if you’re not able to think your way there.
But say you want to craft characters so lifelike they seem more flesh than sentence, capable of walking right out of the pages and moving around without the puppet-strings of your plot tugging on their limbs. Then you’ll want to go beyond the limits of your mind, and do some character research.
Character research comes into play when you’re writing about an aspect of your character that you don’t know much about off the top of your head. For instance, say you’re writing a British character when you’ve never set foot outside of Florida. You’ll want to do a bit of research when you’re scripting his dialogue .
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You absolutely don’t want to pepper your British character’s speech with American regionalisms. But you also don’t want to him sound like the wrong sort of Brit — he shouldn’t talk like a posh Oxonian if he’s supposed to be a working class guy from Croydon. Your character’s dialogue has to fit the background you’ve given him, and that requires some research.
Now, how do you go about that? Luckily, character research doesn’t have to feel like you’re cranking out a paper for school — it can be a lot more experiential. You can Google “croydon slang” and read the articles that come up, or hit up your library for some books on linguistic ethnography. But you could also watch some British-made TV set in your character’s hometown. You could even find some YouTubers from the area.
Note that research is especially important if you’re writing a character whose identity or experiences differ substantially from your own — say, someone from a different ethnic background, or someone with a mental illness you’ve only read about.
In that case, your research should start with reading. In addition to looking at the facts — whether that’s an article on Chicano culture, or a clinical description of depression symptoms — consider seeking out some memoirs and personal essays by writers in the relevant demographic. In addition, you might consider engaging the services of a sensitivity reader . Think of them as research assistants, committed to making your character development as authentic and nuanced as possible.
9. Steer clear of the biggest character development mistake
By now, you’ll have built up a character from the inside out, moving from the goals and motivations that define their role in the story to the mannerisms that make them stand out from the crowd.
Congratulations! You’re well on your way to giving your story an unforgettable human element. But your job isn’t over just yet. Now, you have to make sure you aren’t making the biggest character development mistake of all: making your character too perfect.
I talked about giving strength and flaws before, so you might think you’re covered. “My character is a heroic warrior who earns the well-deserved respect of her community, but I made sure she has some weaknesses, too!”
You might very well be in the clear. But the key now is to make sure that your character’s strengths and flaws are well-balanced. You don’t need to counter every positive characteristic with an equal and opposite weak point. But you do want to make sure your character has some flaws that are just as consequential as their strengths.
Say your protagonist is a gorgeous, violet-eyed sylph with a heart of gold, who fights like Mike Tyson and writes like Mark Twain… but she sings like a squawking parrot and once got a B- in math. Sure, her tone deafness and mathematical ineptitude are technically flaws. But all in all, they’re pretty inconsequential.
If your character has only a couple of minor weaknesses to balance out their tremendous strengths, they’ll still read as unrealistically perfect. Watching them dazzle their way through your story will have your readers rolling their eyes — or even worse, suspecting you wrote them as a wish fulfillment exercise.
So make sure your character has some meatier flaws, the kind of vulnerabilities that will actually play a role in her character arc. Maybe your violet-eyed heroine is brave and strong, but she tends to panic when the stakes are high, making tactical mistakes that can cost her dearly. Maybe she’s so hung up on a prophecy she’s supposed to fulfill that she has trouble thinking for herself. Maybe her tendency to be suspicious of everyone, so she has a hard time winning allies.
Once you’ve made sure your character is human as well as heroic, you’re well on your way to nailing character development. When those details are hammered down, put your knowledge of your protagonist to the test with these eight character development exercises , or request advice from a character feedback group such as CharacterHub . Before you know it, you’ll have acquired a new close friend (or mortal enemy) — even if they are imaginary.
Do you have your own tips for character development? Or any favorite characters from books you feel leap off the page? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!
07/06/2018 – 09:01
Indeed Indeed Indeed. Brilliant article. Everything is simple and difficult in the same time. But with this tips it is easier to create your full tutoriage character.
16/04/2020 – 19:50
clearly the writers of star wars episodes 7, 8, and 9 never read this article.
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The Ultimate Character Development Template
Unique characters drive compelling stories. Develop yours with our free template.
The Best Character Template Ever (100+ Character Traits!)
So you have an awesome story and want to bring it to life with some incredible characters, but organizing all those character ideas in your head can be tough!
I know, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there (trust me, I did a very legit survey of us all).
To help, here is a very thorough list of more than 100 different character traits you can use to understand more about your character than you do about your friends and family. Fill out this template with as many or as few details as you’d like. You can even grab your fillable PDF at the bottom of this article.
Readers will sniff out a half-baked character from a mile away, and you better pray they never find a poorly written character in your book. Luckily, this template will help you avoid both of those pitfalls.
How to Use This Template
Hopefully, this template is, for the most part, straightforward. But there are some options that might give you some pause. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to quickly go over the different sections of the template.
In general, the traits get deeper and deeper into the abyss of your character’s soul the further down the list you go.
Demographics are your basics. This is the sort of information someone could likely glean from a short conversation with your character or what the government might gather from a census.
Physical appearance is what someone would notice about your character if they looked at them. This goes beyond just hair, eye, and skin color, though. Things like your character’s gait or their fashion style can add a lot of depth for your reader.
History allows you to understand a character’s past. More importantly, it allows you to understand how that past affects their actions in your story. Some of this information might never see the light of day, but it allows you to craft dynamic, complex characters.
Psychological traits are those that aren’t readily apparent to an onlooker but are critical to how your character operates in any given situation. This is where you start getting deep with things like flaws , desires, and traits that make people (or non-people) who they are.
Communication is not only important for things like dialogue and writing, but they are easy ways for you to differentiate between your characters .
Strengths, weaknesses, and abilities are very vague terms but are quite important. This is especially true for genres like fantasy or sci-fi, and these traits can be helpful when crafting your main characters, including villains .
Relationships are important for characters, even if it means highlighting how alone they are. Relationships can go a lot further than immediate friends, family, or partners. Try and take some time to think about exactly who is involved in your character’s life.
Character growth is the most important category in this template. Here is where you include things like arcs, archetypes, conflicts, goals, and motivation. You need to pay attention to this section, because these ideas will be the ones that make memorable characters.
So check out the template below and think about how you can use it to build your characters.
The Best Character Template Ever
- Socioeconomic status:
- Other notes:
- Skin color:
- Hair color:
- Fitness level:
- Other distinguishing features:
- Fashion style:
- Coordination (or lack thereof):
- Birth date:
- Place of birth:
- Key family members:
- Notable events/milestones:
- Criminal record:
- Skeletons in the closet:
- Personality type:
- Personality traits:
- Educational background:
- Angered by:
- Pet peeves:
- Obsessed with:
- Bad habits:
- Favorite sayings:
- Languages known:
- Preferred communication methods:
- Style and pacing of speech:
- Use of gestures:
- Facial expressions:
- Verbal expressions:
Strengths, Weaknesses, and Abilities
- Physical strengths:
- Physical weaknesses:
- Intellectual strengths:
- Intellectual weaknesses:
- Interpersonal strengths:
- Interpersonal weaknesses:
- Physical abilities:
- Magical abilities:
- Physical illnesses/conditions:
- Mental illnesses/conditions:
- Partner(s)/Significant other(s):
- Best friends:
- Idols/Role models:
- Non-living things:
- Social media presence:
- Public perception of them:
- Character archetype:
- Character arc:
- Core values:
- Internal conflicts:
- External conflicts:
- Significant events/plot points:
Craft Amazing Characters With Dabble
Creating characters your readers will love (or love to hate) has never been easier than with Dabble. By keeping all of your notes about characters and your plot just a click away from your manuscript, you’ll be able to write a story that is bound for the bestseller lists.
You can click here to grab a PDF copy of this template, or you can just copy and paste the categories you want from this article directly into your Character Notes in Dabble.
That’s not all! We also have a handful of other resources that can help you make some awesome characters. Be sure to check out:
- Our complete guide to creating characters
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- A metric ton of character ideas you can use with this template
- 65 character development questions
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- A downloadable character profile
The best part? You can add all of these into your character’s folder in Dabble. Your character will be more real than you or I.
Enough dilly-dallying, time for Dabbling. Click here to get started with your totally free, no credit card required trial of Dabble and build your amazing characters today.
Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.
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90+ Character Traits List & Examples
Character traits are the individual characteristics and qualities that make characters from books, stories, movies, plays, and other art forms come to life for readers.
Use the following list of character traits as a guideline when writing book reports and essays about the different characters you've read about. Don't stop with this list, though; you can probably think of many more terms to describe your characters.
Search and explore the definitions of character trait with our sister company Infoplease's dictionary .
Values, Morals, and Beliefs Character Traits
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Just like real people, literary characters have behaviors, attitudes, traits, and beliefs that give them a unique personality. These can be surface characteristics, like personality or physical traits - or they can be deeply-held values and morals. Writers develop characters with myriad traits to help readers build empathy or antipathy, relate to the narrative, create realism, and develop various plot points and storylines.
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Creative points of view in character writing: 5 examples
The different points of view – first, second and third person POV – each offer creative ways to convey your characters’ voices and personas. Read 5 tips with illustrative examples from novels:
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First: POV definitions
Point of view, often abbreviated POV, is a crucial element of fiction writing. Ursula K. Le Guin gives a simple and clear definition of POV in her writing manual, Steering the Craft :
The technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is. Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft (1998), p. 83.
The person telling the story, whose ‘voice’ we read it in, is called the ‘viewpoint character’. In first-person POV, this is the narrator who says ‘I’. In second-person point of view, the narrator says ‘you’. An example of second-person POV:
You wake and everything has changed. You don’t remember drinking heavily, but it feels as though you’ve blacked out. The room is dark and you bump your head as you grope the walls for a light switch.
Third-person point of view is one of the most common points of view. This is the narrator who describes characters actions using ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, they, or a gender-neutral pronoun. For example:
It slowly lowers itself from the tree, slithering down the rough bark, before it slides away into the underbrush, on the hunt.
These types of narration have additional variations. In third person POV, the narration can be ‘limited’ or ‘omniscient’ . In ‘limited’ POV, we only read the thoughts and impressions of the character who is narrating. Other characters’ minds and feelings can only be known through what the viewpoint character experiences or believes.
In ‘omniscient’ narration, the author/narrator is free to move between different character’s viewpoints (the narrative isn’t ‘limited’ to a fixed perspective; it’s more like a fly on the wall).
Points of view examples and tips
Read these ideas of creative ways to use POV, with examples by well-known authors:
1: Use second person POV to make your reader the protagonist
Second-person POV is one of the least common in storytelling. Perhaps this is partly because second-person doesn’t allow as much character psychology. This is because the reader imagines themselves performing each action instead of a separate character.
Although uncommon, and a little jarring to read at first for some, this POV is often fun, too. It creates a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ effect, where the reader essentially becomes a character.
Italo Calvino uses this aspect of second-person POV masterfully in his mystery novel If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979).
In this novel, you, the character/reader, purchase a book of the same title, only to find there are missing pages. You return the book to the store and you’re sent on a wild goose chase trying to find the right book with the ‘correct’ story.
Here’s an example of how Calvino uses second person to create suspense:
Here is page 31 again, page 32… and then what comes next? Page 17 all over again, a third time! What kind of book did they sell you, anyway? They bound together all these copies of the same signature, not another page in the whole book is any good. Y ou fling the book on the floor… Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler, p. 46
The second-person POV works because Calvino assigns you, the protagonist of the story, dramatic, surprising, and comical actions and discoveries. The familiar element of characters with ‘real’ psychology thus isn’t missed. Because not knowing what ‘you’ will do or encounter next keeps you guessing.
[ Use the ‘Characters’ section of Now Novel’s story dashboard to outline detailed character profiles and build your story’s cast .]
2: Write third person points of view with personality
Narrator’s who use ‘I’ often endear themselves to us fast. Because the effect of the narration is to hear someone’s experiences, views and emotions directly from them. The story reads as the character’s most personal, private experience.
Charlotte Bronte’s line ‘Reader, I married him’ in Jane Eyre is a good example of this effect.
Third person, however, can also create this intimacy. You can do this by:
- Using colourful language in narration that a character might use themselves (for example ‘It was an effing travesty , and now there’d be all that malarkey for him to contend with’)
- Focusing narration on subjects, ideas and images that would matter to the narrator (for example, an artist might refer to light, colour, the composition of a room)
Virginia Woolf is a master of describing characters’ most private thoughts and feelings in third person. Here, in To the Lighthouse (1927), she describes Mrs. Ramsay’s unease when her children are rude about her husband’s friend, Tansley:
Strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being, oh that they should begin so early, Mrs. Ramsay deplored. They were so critical, her children. They talked such nonsense. Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927), p. 12.
Without Mrs Ramsay saying ‘I’ (she doesn’t say ‘I wish my children weren’t so critical’), Woolf creates a strong sense of Ramsay’s voice and values. She also shows Ramsay’s disappointment in her children not upholding these values.
The way Woolf includes the interjection ‘oh’, a word that would usually be said out loud, in narration, makes this passage come across in Ramsay’s voice.
The sentence structure towards the end, how Woolf adds ‘her children’ (almost as an afterthought) also creates the effect of a personal stream of thoughts and reflections from Ramsay’s viewpoint.
3: Change points of view mid-scene
Changing points of view within a scene may jolt readers. Especially if you change from one type of narration to another (for example first-person to third-person narration). At worst, this simply has a confusing effect:
I get up in the dark and fumble for the light switch. He finally finds it, turns it on and it’s blinding – there’s no cover over the bulb. I quickly turn it off again.
Because the action involving the light switch is continuous, we can guess the same character performs the action throughout. But when the pronoun ‘he’ first appears, we think ‘who is this?’ because we expect the ‘I’, the first-person narrator, to remain the actor in the scene.
Where changing points of view mid-scene works is when changing between different third-person narrators.
Example of changing points of view mid-scene
Virginia Woolf does this in many of her novels. Ursula le Guin offers a caveat about this type of POV shift in Steering the Craft :
A writer must be aware of, have a reason for, and be in control of all shifts of viewpoint character. Le Guin, Steering the Craft , p. 91 .
Here’s an example from To the Lighthouse . The Ramsays’ young son James feels irritated by his father competing for attention:
James, as he stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy. Filled with her words, like a child who drops off satisfied, he said, at last, looking at her with humble gratitude, restored, renewed, that he would take a turn [a walk – ed’s note …] He went. Immediately, Mrs Ramsay seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself…’ Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 44 .
In the space of one page, Woolf moves effortlessly from James’ feelings (his anger at his father demanding his mother’s attention), to Mr Ramsay’s satisfaction at being reassured and his departure. From here, Woolf switches to Mrs Ramsay’s POV, describing her exhaustion.
By giving different points of view in one scene, Woolf shows us the complex relationships between characters.
We can see in this small exchange James’s protective and possessive nature towards his mother, Mr Ramsey’s demanding need for emotional support, and Mrs Ramsay’s exhaustion at having little space from these competing male needs.
4: Create the patterns of an individual voice
First person point of view enables us to filter characters’ quirks into their narration.
Compare the cynical Holden Caulfield who narrates J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) to the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981).
Both books open with the first-person narrator sharing their backstory:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye , p.3.
Compare the voice of the disaffected teen (including angsty descriptive words such as ‘lousy’) with Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children :
I was born in the city of Bombay … once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more … On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Rushdie, Midnight’s Children , p. 3.
When you write in first-person POV, read examples such as the two above. How does Salinger create an angry teen viewpoint character? With forceful slang (‘lousy’, ‘crap’) and his implied rejection of authority and how he ‘should’ tell a story (his rejection of ‘David Copperfield kind of crap’.)
Rushdie, in contrast, creates his thoughtful, gifted character by using speech patterns – pauses – to show him as a character who takes pains to find the right words. The two narrators are clearly distinct.
Similarly, use elements such as word choice, grammar and sentence structure to make your first person narrator’s reflect their age, environment and outlook.
5: Switch points of views between chapters well
Although authors like Woolf are skilled at changing viewpoint characters within a single scene, it’s more common to change POV between chapters or sections.
There are multiple ways to do this. One way to show the reader that a different character is narrating is simply to title each chapter with its narrator’s name.
William Faulkner does this in his poignant novella, As I Lay Dying (1930). Each character in the Bundren family (along with several secondary characters) narrates a chapter.
You can also do as Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) and simply signal a shift of viewpoint character with the wording of your new chapter’s first sentence.
Fermina Daza’s husband has died. She spies a former suitor, Florentino Ariza, who has come to the wake to pay his respects. Florentino is the viewpoint character when the next chapter begins. Here is the tail end of Fermina’s chapter, followed by the viewpoint change:
Only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband. * Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, had not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago. Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera , pp. 51-53.
It’s clear who the focal character is with the change in chapter. The moment Marquez chooses to shift between the two points of view is brilliant because we see how both characters react to a reunion long in the making.
Struggle with character description? Get our workbook How to Write Real Characters: Character description for practical tips and exercises to write memorable description.
- How to write multiple points of view in a novel: 8 tips
- 6 creative writing exercises for rich character
- Plot structure examples: Creative plot lessons from stories
- Tags first person POV , how to create characters , point of view , POV , second person POV , third person POV
Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.
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Writing Tips Oasis
21 Top Examples of Creative Writing
By Rofida Khairalla
Let’s be practical: anyone can be a writer.
Sure, practicing the skill and perfecting the art takes a certain modicum of natural interest in the profession.
But the thing that so many people can often overlook is that being a “writer” isn’t defined by how much you write.
So many times we can get hung up on trying to write a bestselling novel or groundbreaking book that we can forget that there are so many other types of writing out there.
Take a step back for a moment and think about it this way:
Whether you have a blog, a social media page, or spend all day texting that special someone, there’s probably an inner literary genius inside you waiting to burst out on the page.
Maybe you don’t have the time or the patience to write a novel, and that’s okay. There are plenty of different types of writing out there and you can most likely find one category, or several, that allow you to get your thoughts on paper in a way that works for you.
If you’re curious to know more, or are just interested in trying out a new writing genre, we’ve made it easier for you by compiling a list of the top 21 examples of creative writing.
1. Novel Writing
A novel is probably the most popular example of creative writing out there. When you think “creative writing” an image of Stephen King typing madly at his computer is probably the first thing that pops into your head. And that’s okay. Given that novels have been a popular form of entertainment for centuries, it’s not surprising. Typically what distinguishes a novel from other forms of writing is that novels are usually works of fiction that are longer in length and follow a set of characters and plot structure.
2. Short Stories
When it comes to examples of imaginative writing, not unlike its longer counterpart, the novel, short stories also follow a set plot and typically feature one character or a selection of characters. However, the thing to keep in mind about short stories is that they typically resolve in fewer than 50 pages.
3. Flash Fiction
If you’re up for a real challenge, try your hand at some flash fiction . This type is similar to a short story or novel in the sense that it follows some form of a plot. However, flash fiction usually resolves within a few hundred words or less. There are a few kinds of flash fiction that exist: the six word story, the 50 word story, and the hundred word story. Additionally, flash fiction also has another faction known as sudden fiction, which usually tells a full story in about 750 words.
As an example of imaginative writing, the incredible thing about poetry is that there are so many kinds. From narrative to lyrical and even language poetry there’s so many different ways you can express yourself through a poem. You might be especially interested in pursuing poetry if you enjoy word play or experimenting with the musicality behind words.
Although rap is somewhat of a subcategory of poetry, it’s one of the few forms of poetry that can often get over looked in academic classes. However, it’s probably one of the more contemporary types of poetry available while still sticking to many of the classical rules (or tools) of poetry, including rhyme. Also, it’s one of the areas where the best writers are really produced. The reason for that is because rap forces writers to think on their feet in a way that many other genres don’t.
Playwriting is another great writing style to experiment with, especially if you enjoy the idea of seeing your work come to life. Typically, playwriting involves developing a script that both clearly sets the setting, plot, and characters while also minimizing the amount of description used. One of the key elements of a play is that it’s a collaboration of minds, even though they often don’t work together at the same time. Yet the final product, the performance, is always the end result of work done by the playwright as well as the director, actors and even set designers.
7. Scripts (T.V./Movies)
Like traditional plays, movie or T.V. scripts are often the result of collaboration between a team of people including the cast and crew. However, the big difference is that when you’re writing a T.V. or movie script , you’re often working together with the director and the actors as part of the production team.
Not a fiction writer? No problem! You probably have a unique story worth sharing: it’s called your life. Here’s the deal when it comes to memoirs: the biggest thing to remember is that not everything in your life is considered readership-worthy. In fact, most things probably aren’t. But, most likely, there is a unique angle or perspective that you can take when examining your life.
For example, if you have a really distinctive family history and you’re looking into exploring it, that could be a great subject for a memoir. Maybe you have a really interesting job that exposes you to lots of different people and events on a regular basis; you could write a book about your experiences in that field. The key to writing a good memoir is knowing what angle to take on any subject.
9. Non-Fiction Narratives
Of course, a memoir is just a subsection of a category known as the non-fiction narrative. But not all non-fiction narratives are memoirs. Take for example author Tim Hernandez, who wrote the book Mañana means Heaven . Hernandez writes in a style that is inherently descriptive and interesting, despite the fact that the book’s narrative is mostly based on research and interviews.
Another sector of poetry, songs and lyrics are also a great place where you can express your thoughts and emotions not only through words, but also through music. Whether you’re writing a love ballad or a hymn, there are lots of reasons to enjoy working in this genre. While a lot of this genre is relatively unrestrictive in terms of what you can create, it’s a really good idea to get familiar with the basics of song writing. Especially in an era where so much of the music we hear is impacted by technology, the more you know about the art of song writing, the freer you will be to experiment.
Speech writing is another great way to express yourself and also reach a wider audience. The thing about speeches is that they are both a form of oral and written text, so the key to writing a really good speech is to take into consideration your phrasing, word choice and syntax. More importantly, the way a speech is delivered can really make or break its success. Practice strong enunciation, confident body language and invoking a clear voice.
12. Greeting Cards
You might hear a lot about greeting cards when people talk about how to make easy money as a writer. But the truth is, being a greeting card writer is anything but easy. You have to be able to keep the greeting card expressions short, catchy and, in a lot of cases, funny. However, if you’ve got the chops to try your hand at a few greeting cards, practice writing limericks and other forms of short poetry. More importantly, read lots of greeting cards to get an idea of how the best writers go about creating the really fun cards that you enjoy purchasing.
It used to be that blogs were the place where teenagers could go to express their teenage angst. But nowadays, blogs are also a great place to be if you’re a writer. There are an unlimited amount of topics you can successfully blog on that will garner attention from audiences. You can use your blog as a forum to share your writing or even reflect on current events, the stock market—really anything! The possibilities are endless, but the key is finding a subject and sticking to it. For example, if you decide to start a blog dedicated to rock music, stick to rock music. Avoid long tangents about politics or other unrelated subjects.
14. Feature Journalism
Feature Journalism is a great place to start if you want to get your feet wet if you’re interested in reporting. Why? Because there are a lot more creative aspects to feature journalism compared to news journalism. Feature stories typically allow you more flexibility with the kinds of details you put into the article, as well as more room for creativity in your lede.
15. Column Writing
If you like the idea of journalism but feel you could never be a journalist in light of your strong opinions, column writing is another avenue you can take. The thing about columns is that they’re typically based in ideas and opinions rather than fact. Yet, because columnists are considered experts in their respective fields, their opinion tends to hold more sway with readers.
As part of the non-fiction narrative family, the personal essay, or even the academic essay, has plenty of elements that are creative. Whether you’re writing about personal experiences or a science project, there are lots of opportunities you have to be creative and hook your reader. Even the most mundane reports have the opportunity to become interesting if you know how to present your topic. As with a lot of non-fiction writing, the secret to writing a good essay is all about your framing. When you begin writing, think about explaining the issue in the most engaging way possible. Just because your writing should cut to the chase doesn’t mean that it should be bland, boring or bogged down in technical jargon. Use anecdotes, clear and concise language, and even humor to express your findings.
17. Twitter Stories
With only 140 characters, how can you tell a story? Well, when you use Twitter, that’s exactly what you’re doing. However, a new phenomenon that’s currently taking over the site is a type of flash fiction called Twitterature, where writers tell a full story or write a poem in 140 characters or less.
18. Comic Strips
If you have a knack for writing and drawing, then you might be especially interested in working on a comic strip. Comic strips are harder project to tackle because they require a lot of preplanning before you start writing. Before you begin drafting you need to know the plot and have a strong outline for how the graphics will look.
This is typically a writing exercise that writers do with other writers to expand on their creativity. Essentially the way the exercise works is that one writer will start a story and another will finish it. You might be especially familiar with this kind of work if you’ve ever read the work of an author that was completed AFTER their death. However, collaboration is just another way you can bounce ideas off another person. You can also collaborate with other writers for world building , character development and even general brainstorming.
An example of creative writing, a novella is essentially the love child of a short story and a novel. Although the novella does feature a plot, the plot is typically less complicated compared to that of a novel. Usually novellas are about 50 pages.
21. Genre Writing
Another type of writing that fiction writers can do is genre writing. If you think of popular writers like Stephen King, Nora Roberts and James Patterson, then you’re probably familiar with genre writing. Essentially, genre writing is when a writer explores different stories in one particular genre, like romance, fantasy, or mystery. There’s a huge market out there for genre fiction, which makes it definitely worth pursuing if you a have preference for a particular kind of literature.
The important thing to keep in mind as a writer is that experimentation is never a bad idea. If you’re genuinely curious about one or more items on this list, give it a go! Some of the best literary works were created by accident.
What did you think of our list of 21 creative writing examples? Do you have experience in any of these types of creative writing? Do you know of any other creative writing examples? Please tell us more in the comments box below!
21 Top Examples of Creative Writing is an article from Writing Tips Oasis . Copyright © 2014-2017 Writing Tips Oasis All Rights Reserved
As a graduate from the University of Arizona in English and Creative Writing, Rofida Khairalla’s love for classical literature and post-modern fiction extends beyond the realm of books. She has provided her services independently as a freelance writer, and wrote on the news desk for the student-run newspaper, The Daily Wildcat. As an aspiring children’s book author, she’s refined her craft amongst the grand saguaros of the Southwest, and enjoys playing with her German Shepherd on the slopes of Mount Lemmon.