When J.K. Rowling introduces new characters you can visualize them almost instantly:
J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, excels at writing unforgettable physical descriptions of her characters. I want to show you the magic behind her technique.
Read this, and you will be able to create your own vivid characters in just a few short strokes of your writing quill...
The boy who lived…
What does he look like?
I bet you can picture Harry Potter in your mind:
J.K. Rowling knew one trick to physical description that most authors (yes, even professional authors) can’t seem to remember:
“If you want to write a physical description of your character that sticks with your audience, focus on the single most interesting characteristic, and build your character around that."
What characteristic should it be?
Harry’s lightning scar represented the incredible power of a Mother’s love. In many ways, it was the reason (or at least the catalyst) for his greatness.
To Harry, it reminded him of the family he never had.
To everyone else, it reminded him that even in the face of death, here was the living embodiment of hope.
When you focus on the single most interesting physical attribute of your character, you can form a memorable character - and you’ll be able to avoid the “physical description laundry list.”
I’m reading a book called Ancillary Justice. It’s fantastic so far, but there was one passage I read that made my mind go blank:
“...slight, dark hair, brown skin, and brown eyes unremarkable, unlike the aristocratic lines of her face, including a nose she hadn’t quite grown into yet.”
It took me about five seconds to forget every word of that character description. Actually, I've forgotten it again. What color is her hair now?
When you read a list like this:
Does this actually help you visualize a character? Rarely.
Most readers glance over lists like these, or they read it and forget all of the details in seconds.
Don’t build a birdhouse with a hundred nails, when you could just use one.
It slows down the pace of your story. It kills reader immersion. And, worst of all, it’s not going to add anything to the story.
As with all “writing rules,” this one has one major caveat:
Sometimes, laundry lists are part of the story.
Let’s look at American Psycho, a story about a sociopath who is obsessed with appearances.
The main character is a sociopath, so every time he sees someone he lists everything he notices about them.
But the author uses this to great effect: He tints the list with emotional details.
Usually, the details are shallow ("he was still wearing last year's Armani suit"), but sometimes they're meant to disturb us ("and a slender, white neck that was made for bruising"). This is an excellent way to show off his "casually psychotic" personality.
You might also see instances of the laundry list in mysteries when the detectives analyze a victim or potential criminal. Even so, the best ones usually focus on characteristics that are:
David Mamet, the screenwriter behind Hannibal and Glengarry Glen Ross walks you through how to build a succinct character "profile" in his MasterClass course. He covers the 4 key elements (no more, no less) when crafting characters.
The idea is to quickly create a realistic character that gets your readers hooked.
Check out his full-length course here. For writers who like to improve by watching others, it's very good stuff. Strongly recommended.
In these examples, I also want to show you why the Authors chose to focus on these physical characteristics:
In the books, Hermione always had one obvious, identifying feature:
A mane of bushy, brown hair.
Harry could always tell it was her by the tangle of hair sticking out over some ancient, arcane textbook.
Rowling used this unique characteristic for several plot reasons:
Here’s a little more on Rowling’s physical description of Hermione:
Red Hair. Freckles. Hand-me-down clothes.
This one is a bit of a cheat, since it’s several characteristics combined into one.
However, the true physical description here is that Ron’s looks single him out as a Weasley.
Rowling uses this unique physical description as a constant point of conflict between Ron and his family, or Ron and his family’s enemies, and even serves to connect Harry to Ron (Harry always dreamed of having a family, whereas Ron’s looks mean he can never escape his).
Doesn’t have a nose.
The first time we meet Voldemort, he is literally a face on the back of someone’s head. If that’s not a unique physical description, I don’t know what is...
Later on, his unifying characteristics are his snakelike attributes that prove his evil, Slytherin blood…
Hey, nobody said Rowling was subtle.
This description becomes an important plot point in the second book, and causes conflict for Hagrid through out the series.
In the first book, she uses it to create atmosphere - to show you the kind of magic that is possible in this world.
Actually, Rowling does something clever here. She uses Hagrid’s imposing physical size as a counter-balance to his soft, warm-hearted personality. This was a really clever way to show that “not everything is as it seems” before Harry even enters the magical world.
The name alone conjures up a wizened, gentle face…
But I bet you’re picturing his beard, aren’t you? Waist-length and silver as the rising Moon.
The beard is a symbol of his wisdom, and implies his lengthy experience too. You see it, and you think, “he’s not just old, he is ancient.”
J.K. Rowling could paint a picture of a character just by focusing on one or two key physical characteristics…
By doing this, she planted images in our heads that would last for years. Maybe much longer?
You can play around with idea with most of J.K. Rowling’s characters. I bet by listing a single feature, you can guess these next three:
Check out these other physical description examples from some of my other favorite authors:
I love Roland Deschain. He’s one of my favorite characters of all time. Cool, calm, collected, and hard to kill.
But I have two problems with his character:
Usually, you see Authors say “and his eyes were a piercing blue.” Sometimes it’s green.
Eye Color as the distinguishing feature has long since entered "trope-hood." White authors especially tend to write characters with "piercing green or blue eyes."
Some would consider this lazy, unoriginal writing - but don't take this as a rule. If it helps you build your character, use it.
I think Stephen King did a much better job describing Randall Flagg, the central antagonist in The Dark Tower series.
Watch how he nails the physical description of this character in the first four words of the entire series:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Pretty good, right? Makes you want to read more, but it also clues you in to what kind of character "the man in black" might be.
A series that is dear to my heart, one of the first Fantasy Epics I ever devoured.
I think R.A. Salvatore (the Author), also falls into the "eye color" trap here: his character is special because his eyes are violet, whereas most dark elves have red eyes.
Some people argue this is important because he is supposed to be different than every other dark elf - he's not as vicious, mean-spirited as they are. He is the bridge between the red-eyed Underdark, and the blue-eyed elves who live above.
A better physical of Drizzt might be his dual scimitars.
They show that he is not just an ordinary swordsman. Dual weapons are a very rare fighting style, even in Drizzt’s world. In many ways, they are the reason why he - and he alone - is able to escape the fate that besets all male dark elves.
I wanted to show you this example, because I want you to know: physical description is not all about faces and bodies. It can be the things your characters choose to take with them, as well.
Rincewind the Wizard was once described as…
“The magical equivalent to the number zero.”
What a fantastic description, right? I bet you can picture him in your head already.
Droopy, ill-fitting robes. Long, lanky limbs. Probably walks like a scarecrow.
Here's one last tip:
Your main physical descriptions don't need to be physical at all. Metaphors can create far more powerful mental images than any single physical description.
Look at your latest cast of characters.
What makes them unique? What is the first thing you would notice were you to meet them in real life?
Build your characters around those one or two defining features, and your readers will remember them for years to come.
Pick five hero characters - either from your current work, or from your favorite books, and pick out their defining physical characteristics.
Feel free to list them in the comments below! I'd love to hear from you.
Related: Hemingway's 7 Tricks to More Immersive Dialogue