The first thing people tend to describe is gender, the second is color, and the third is hair. So, here we are, all men, all basically European, and all with beards, but all very different. You can see that, right away. So describing a character as a "bearded white man" does a little but not much. Well, okay, you say, color of hair, jewelry, scars and clothes. Hm, a bit better, but still too stereotyped and kind of a waste of writing space. Curly hair? Color of eyes? Messy? Neat? Smiling, serious, old, young? This is like saying that we have to just get a bit more specific, but it doesn't tell us much about the character only about the thing. These things are not a "tree shaped tree" or "furniture shaped furniture" but drivers of the story, antagonists or helpers or the star of the show. And, when you look at these little sketches of faces, you can immediately tell something about the person inside. How can we do this? Prejudice? Stereotypes on expressions? On dress?
As an illustrator, if a man has a beard, there are hundreds of beard types. Young beards
are very different from mature beards and then different from middle-age beards. Eyes and
eyebrows are very different in shape, not just color. Many writers just give up and try
to go with a vague description and put character into action and dialog. This works
extremely well, Jane Austen certainly used it, but you lose a bit because you can pack a
lot into a first impression of a face. Austen fell back on expressions, like "he was a proud
man." What does that mean? Illustration books tell you how to draw expressions, but
writers don't learn how to bridge face characteristics, expressions, and physical description.
Let's try again. I know these characters, so I'll try not to load them, but I will give
you a clue as to their function and their place in the story.
1. He had long, straight, dark hair, a slight beard and dark eyes. He was muscular and
1. His raven hair made a sharp point on his broad forehead, feathering about his face and shoulders, down his back,
irritating in dry wind, at odds with the cords of his neck and his solid strength. His
was a face of irony, of skepticism, of curiosity and wicked humor, his crow eyes seeing
everything, darting this way and that under heavy, pointed brows. His mobile mouth was only
too quick to make some caustic comment; even his beard dotted the corners of his lips,
accentuating his dry disbelief.
Yes the second description is longer. Sometimes it is more important to give a more brief
description if the character is not that important. This character is central to the story.
2. He had long, curly hair bound by a fillet, and wore gold earrings. His beard was heavy
and his nose aquiline. (shaped like a beak)
2. Although his black curls and beard framed his face, his eyes that were not the
eyes of a dark man. Heavy-lidded and deep set with tragedy, light-colored as if veiled, they were
clear and brilliant with ancient grief. His gaze was measured, weighing, trying to get
into you, to see your soul and value you, for use or for judgement. His long face was
noble, boned and narrow, set by the golden jewelry of wealth. He watched and spoke seldom,
and was watched in return, waited for. Praise or condemnation?
People seemed to be stamped with some kind of basic emotion. In books, and especially in
stories, you cannot afford to let in a wide range of modifying emotions unless they help
to change or drive the character. Give us a hint to the character's past, what made his
face seem like the face of irony or the face of tragedy. Writings is about exaggeration,
but not about melodrama.
3. He was blond, his beard short, his hair long. He had the look of an
outdoors man. His blue eyes were bright in his tanned face.
3. His tanned, strong, regular features were of a man's man, an outdoor man, a man that
women would admire, but men would follow. His light eyes looked to the horizon, his
long hair windswept. He would sail the seas or hunt in
its woods, climb its mountains, or explore the ends of the earth. His was simple
face, a face with nothing hidden, wide and bright and heroic. Yet, one feature caught
my attention, his bearded chin was weak, as if he wanted the strength and would ultimately fail.
You can also hint in a face to the future, alluding to what strengths and weaknesses will
make or break a character. Play on stereotypes without using them: Americans like strong
chins, thinking that this shows strength of will. Of course we cannot see lack of will
in this man's face, just by his chin, but you can play on that if the character will fail.
4. His long, red hair was curly and messy. He had a scar down the right side of his face which
cut through his brow and across his cheek. His beard was tied in knots and he wore a white
vest with no shirt.
4. How could he be bothered with his tangled mass of fiery hair when his attention was
drawn this way and that, hurried and humorous, ready to joke, especially at himself? He
was a clown. All he did amused him. His knotted beard invited comment, his broad chest
invited comment, framed by a white vest that showed his golden skin to perfection. The
careless scar across his eyebrow exaggerated his devil-may-care attitude as he laughed
at the dour faces around him as a fire sparks at the dark.
Have fun with language and with characters. If a character is a trickster or a clown,
let your language spark and bark. Show that the man is a showman, not by telling us
that he was a showman, but by telling us that he desired an audience. That alludes to
his weakness and character flaw as well as tells us that he's extraverted and wild.
5. His long dark hair was curled into loose dreads, and his dark, sparse beard framed
his wide face. His eyebrows were arched over his upturned nose. His forehead
was wide and heavy and his eyes deepset.
5. He looked at us from under his modeled brow, marked by the arched bones. His eyes
rode high up under the anger brows, the whites brilliant in his golden face. His pointed
chin and pointed beard were like a sharp spade to dig out the truth from the mud. His
dreads curled around him, as if ready to grasp at what we said and rip it up out of
the muck of lies. Critical, determined, his heart-shaped face was without compassion.
At times, your descriptions can merely state what a mobile character's face is thinking
at the time, so that words are not lost or contradicted by the physical description. Too
often writers rely on the words to convey what is going on, when an emotional description
can then be dotted with abbreviated dialog that doesn't force the character to overspeak.
6. He was red-headed, with no eyelashes, green eyes and freckled skin. His long face had
a Celtic nose. He was a merry, pleasant character.
6. When he smiled, his wrinkled eyes were suddenly laughing, his long, flat nose, was
suddenly laughing, and the heavy lines of his cheeks were drawn apart, making his dour face
suddenly laughing, as if the sun had come out to add to his million freckles and bleach his
ginger hair with frosting. It was only in laughter that he made sense, for when solemn all
the lines of his face were the wrong lines. You wanted him to be happy with all your heart.
When he was not, he was lost, looking for the sun like a sodden tree, his face all wrong,
his wrinkles like crushed leaves underfoot.
You can tell us that he's a merry, pleasant character, but don't tell us that. Get the
reader's sympathy. This character has faced tragedy and will face greater tragedy, but
he refuses to go down and get cynical, so we need to sympathize with him and feel a need
for his merriment. Why should we care that he's pleasant? Let us know why we should care.