Creating Characters Part II: Physical Attributes

(If you missed Part I, you can find it here.)

I’m going to have this disclaimer in every part of this series, but here goes: I am not a professional writer, so feel free to completely disregard my advice. But otherwise, please read on.

So…physical descriptions. *hears cough from back of the class* *crickets chirp* Okay. Physical descriptions.

Basically, if you make your character too physically “perfect”, then they’re a Mary Sue (more on that term in the next part of the series), but if you go the opposite way, unfortunately, no one’s going to fall for a non-typically attractive male lead or deformed protagonist. It sucks. But that’s how it is in most cases (the only exceptions I can think of are Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern, and to a lesser extent, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and North of Beautiful by Justina Chen. If you can think of any more, please tell me).

So let’s start from the basics: height and body shape. This again depends on your character’s background—for instance, if their parents are short, they’ll probably be too, and if their parents are thin and wiry, they’ll be thin and wiry too. Take genetics into account, but also consider environment: if your character is living in poverty, chances are they’ll look malnourished, and if all they eat are chips and donuts, chances are that they’ll be on the overweight side. And as with part I, keep in mind your character’s ethnicity and make sure your character’s appearance makes sense within their ethnicity.

Another thing to consider is how cliché you want your character to be. In general, clichés should be avoided in writing. You know what I’m talking about—the busty blonde cheerleader with a perfect hourglass figure or the giant football captain with the wicked smile and an eight-pack. Don’t do this. Not everyone can get abs—some people are genetically unable to have a six pack because no matter how fit they are, they have a certain amount of body fat. The same goes for girls—not everyone can have a thigh gap (and they really, really shouldn’t try to get one) because of their bone structure and genetic makeup. Look at the people around you—how many of them have perfect bodies?

As a reader, I want flaws. No one’s perfect, and character’s shouldn’t be perfect either. Our flaws are what make us human, and if your characters have flaws too, then they’re real. Make your characters unique. Give them an interesting (but no red/violet, please, unless you’re writing sci-fi or futuristic and that’s part of your plot) eye color; write a short girl with choppy hair and a bird-like figure. Give them birthmarks. Give them scars. Make them imperfect. If you’re going to give them the perfect body, explain why they have it—do they run competitively? Are they a professional dancer? Are they obsessed with being “perfect”, so they work out all the time?

Lastly, don’t be afraid to change your character’s appearance as you write the story. As you’re writing their personality, you might decide that a different hair colour would suit them better, or that they need to be a bit taller. As you mature as a writer, your characters mature along with you.

Some helpful links:

  • This character description help masterlist. You can find links to description words as well as more character description guides.
  • This detailed list of descriptive words, organized by part of the body. Super, super helpful.
  • This list of character descriptors.
  • This graphic of 12 different female body shapes. The details for each body shape are listed in the description below the graphic. I’ve used this resource for all of my stories.
  • This eye color list, complete with descriptions for each and pictures, as well as different ways to describe them.
  • This list of words to use to describe brown eyes.
  • And finally, this random body type generator off tumblr, if you want to put together a character quickly and don’t know what you want them to look like.

Part III will be on creating personality and should be up next Monday. 🙂

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