Character description examples: Create people, not caricatures (2023)

Great character descriptions show how fiction has the power to make fictional characters seem like old friends. Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “When a writer writes a novel, he must create living people; people and not characters. A character is a caricature”. Read examples of character descriptions that build character and persona, as well as conclusions from each excerpt:

Examples of character descriptions and what they teach us

The following example character descriptions show how:

  1. Describe characters based on appearance

    Margaret Atwood demonstrates how to use characters' clothing to suggest personality.

  2. Describe characters through various POVS

    Virginia Woolf shows how multiple points of view can form the various sides of a person through the perspectives of an ensemble.

  3. Use metaphors to reinforce the character description

    Arundhati Roy illustrates how metaphors enrich characters and add descriptive depth and specificity through comparison.

  4. Make character introductions unforgettable

    Charles Dickens shows how to combine broad information and specific details to create a memorable character description.

  5. Create characters through actions

    Toni Morrison shows how describing past or present actions helps suggest a person's broader personality.

  6. Describing personality through language and dialogue

    JD Salinger shows how what characters say (and gesture in mid-dialogue) reveals a lot about personality and desire.

  7. Use comparison for a contrasting character description

    George Eliot shows how comparing and contrasting two characters can make them more real.

  8. Change narration voice over time

    James Joyce's narration shows how you can make your narrator's voice reflect fundamental changes in your arc, such as: B. getting older.

1. Describe the characters based on their appearance

If youdescribe what a character looks like, think about how appearances indicate personality.

In Margaret Atwood's Booker-winning novelthe blind killer(2000), for example, Atwood's narrator Iris opens the story by recalling the death of her sister Laura.

Atwood creates a clear sense of Laura's troubled personality when describing her outfit:

I picture Laura's smooth oval face, the tight bun, the dress she'd wear: a shirt with a sash around the waist and a small round neck, in a sober color—navy blue or steel gray or hospital green. Penitent colors-less like something she wanted to wear and more like something she was trapped in.

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000), S. 4.

Atwood's description is specific in detail and there it is.References to Laura's depressed character in the colors 'sobriety' and 'regret' (meaning expressing penitence).in Atwood's description.

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2. Describe the characters through various points of view

One of the great things about a story with characters from multiple points of view is that you canCreating impressions of people through different facets of their personality.

For example, revealing a man from an adult friend's point of view versus a child's point of view (as in the example below).

It adds depth and complexity to the characters and their relationships as different facets emerge depending on who they're with (and whose point of view you're reading).

Example of character descriptions from various points of view

Modernist author Virginia Woolf specializes in combining the points of view of multiple characters (even in a single scene) to create a complex sense of ensemble and emotion.

Here Woolf describes a friend of Mrs. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, who came to spend the summer the lighthouse:

[Woman. Ramsay] looked at him. He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all bumps and dimples. He couldn't play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a snarky brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best - walking, walking and walking with Mr. Ramsay forever, saying who won this, who won that...

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927), p. 11.

We see a clear sense of dislike from the children and a sense of how Tansley sees through their eyes as they are being watched by their mother. Mrs. Ramsay further notes Tansley's pompous and academic way of speaking (his constant efforts to prove his intellect because he is from a working-class background, and his admiration of Mr. Ramsay's own accomplishments).

Shortly after the above description, Woolf switches to Tansley's point of view and we get a more romantic sense of Tansley and how he sees things (and how he sees Mrs. Ramsay herself):

... and suddenly he realized that this was it: - she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
With stars in his eyes and veils in his hair, with cyclamen and wild violets - what nonsense was he thinking? She was at least fifty years old; she had eight children.

Woolf, S. 18.

Woolf combinedconcise and clear physical description("All the Humps and Hollows") with a deeper sense of personality revealed by the characters' feelings for one another.

We see Tansley's "boring", academic and non-sporting, but also Tansley's romantic dreamy side through her own point of view.

Woolf makes Tansley and other characters three-dimensional and full of human contradictions by combining outside perspectives with her own.

Many character description examples show what a powerful comparison tool is –literary means such as metaphor and parable– to build animated characters.

Bei Arundhati RoyThe god of small things(1997) Roy's character Estha shuts down after a traumatic experience and stops talking.

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Roy's use of metaphors in this character description example is much more effective than saying Estha is "sad" or "traumatized":

When the calm came, it stayed and spread across Estha. She reached out of his head and wrapped him in her swampy arms…tongue.

Arudhati Roy,The god of small things(1997), S. 11-12.

Meanwhile, Roy conveys Estha's grief by describing Estha's silence as a living, parasitic entity.Avoid more empty and abstract terms.

Character description examples: Create people, not caricatures (3)

Main character description basics

Get a detailed character description guide with exercises and videos and create an unforgettable cast.


4. Make character introductions unforgettable

the victorian authorCharles Dickens was a master of characterization.

When introducing a character, Dickens often uses an extended metaphor or simile for humorous effect. Along with tics and flaws, Dickens also takes physical appearance into account in order for a character to stay with us.

Here Dickens describes the arrogant and conceited Mr. bounderby inHard times:

He was a wealthy man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and so on. A tall, boisterous man with a stare and a metallic laugh. A rude man, who seemed to strive to make so much of him [...], always proclaiming his old ignorance and old poverty in his metallic trumpet voice.

Charles Dickens,Hard times(1854), p. 18

Dickens creates a memorable character description in this example:

  1. Use parallel sentences starting with "A man..." and "He was a [quality] man." This repetitive element is remembered.
  2. Let's move from the rough details of describing Bounderby's profession to the specifics of his appearance and voice, back to the broad and abstract (poverty, humility - features that Bounderby's trumpets have, although they don't exist).strictly speakinghave, showing that he is a hypocrite).

The combination of details creates a clear sense of personality and the fact that the way a person sees themselves is not necessarily how others see them.

5. Describe characters with action

To avoid explanatory bulges in the character description,show characters and backstoriesuse action.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison does just that on the first page of her novel,Jazz:

I know this woman. She lived with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. I also know her husband. He fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deep, frightening loves that made him so sad and happy that he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, came to the funeral to see the girl and opened her dead face, they threw her to the ground and out of the church. So she ran through all the snow, and when she got back to her apartment, she took the birds out of their cages and put them out of the windows so they could freeze or fly away, including the parrot that said, "I love you."

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Morrison,jazfrom (1992), p. 3

Morrison's character description at the beginning is excellent because it tells us so much about Violet's past.

It depicts Violet's grief over a very specific event (the funeral of her cheating husband's murdered lover).

Morrison does not say, "Violet was mad with grief, to the point of disfiguring a dead girl when her lover betrayed her."right on the first page.

Develop characters with their help100 questions to delve into character arcs.

6. Describe the personality through language and dialogue

Describe the characters through conversationsit's another way to make your characters feel like real people.

A big advantage of using dialogue to describe characters is that you can contrast what the characters say to each other with their hidden, unexpressed feelings.

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JD Salinger does this in a scene between college student couple Lane and Franny in his soap opera.Franny and Zooey:

Suddenly he leaned forward and put his arms on the table as if he was going to wave the thing away, but Franny spoke in front of him. "I feel terrible today," she said. "I'm just away today."
She found herself looking at Lane as if he were a stranger or a poster advertising a brand of linoleum in the aisle of a subway car.(S. 19)

J. D. Salinger, Franny und Zooey (1961), p. 19.

Salinger alternates the focus of the narrative in this dialogue between the two characters.

We see Lane gesture mid-dialogue as he tries to "work it out".

Showing what Zooey and Lane say to each other and the frustrations and feelings they express in actions rather than words creates a believable sense that both people have rich and complex inner lives.

7. Use comparison to highlight key differences between characters

Many writers struggle to make each character distinct. Each main character must have its own voice, appearance and worldviewset of motivations.

One way to make characters distinct is to compare them.

George Eliot makes a clear distinction between the two sisters who are introduced first.mid march. We meet the pious Dorothea and her younger sister, the more worldly and materialistic Celia:

The rural opinion of the new young women, even among the peasants, was generally favorable to Celia, as she looked so kind and innocent, while Miss Brooke's big eyes, like her religion, looked very unusual and impressive. Poor Dorothea! Compared to her, Celia's innocent appearance was smart and worldly.

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George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871),available through Project Gutenberg

Since Dorothea's pious nature is crucial to Eliot's plot, the counterpoint of her "worldly" sister draws our attention to this important character trait early on.

Traits such as piety are just some of the traits that describe characters. read onfull guide to descriptionfor example descriptions of characters and settings.

8. Change the narrative voice over time

A narrator's delivery style can also indicate a core aspect of their character.

If your entire story spans a week, it might not make sense for a narrator's voice or appearance to change significantly.

But what if your story is abildungsromanor coming of age story, or does your character change in some other significant way?

By James JoyceA portrait of the artist as a young man, he chooses the experimental way of having the narrator's voice use a child's vocabulary while his hero Stephen is a young child and the voice is aging:

Once upon a time, well and good, a moo down the street and that moo down the street met a cute little boy named Baby Tuckoo...

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 3.

The narrative briefly skips forward to Stephen's school days and is told in the sharp language of impetuous students:

Rody Kickham was a decent guy, but Nasty Roche was a skunk [...] Nasty Roche had big hands. He called the dog-in-the-blanket Friday pudding. And one day he asked:

- What is your name?
Stephen respondeu: Stephen Dedalus.
Then Nasty Roche said:
- What's that name?

Joyce,portrait, p. 4.

It shows how you can make the narrative style itself suggest changes in a character's age, vocabulary, and worldview (this may be more subtle than Joyce's use of the device).

What is your favorite from the examples above? Or who is your favorite author to starkcharacter description? Tell us in the comments below.

Create character sketches to make them more alive. use now novelsStory planner for writersBrainstorm ideas quickly.

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