Introducing characters and making them come alive is an important and challenging task. Listing character traits is unimaginative, uncreative and simply not acceptable. Your character may have a layered and deep character, but you have to pull off getting this across to your readers without them consciously noticing.
There are different ways to make your readers experience how your characters tick, but today we’re going to talk about showing character traits in their appearance.
The story is the center and focus that makes a book great, but your characters are what makes a story amazing. I cannot stress their importance enough, because they are soo essential for me. I’ve stopped reading novels when the characters and their descriptions where underwhelming. That’s how important they are!
If you manage to have a person embody some characteristics, you’re automatically creating a clearer idea in your readers mind. The impression of this person will be much stronger and more vivid.
One thing to remember are clichés. There are some typical visualizations that are used over and over again, like the villain who is a very ugly person or the miserable person who only wears black. While they do manifest some features, they’ve been (mis-)used way too often and you should handle them with care.
When figuring out suitable traits you want to make your character embody, I’d suggest concentrating on the major ones. The idea after all is to make this person memorable and a feature that’s actually not important to the story or the character would be kind of a waste.
Take Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter for example. She’s quite nerdy and strange and she shows this in her appearance and demeanor all the time. She does have prominent eyes, a dreamy and engrossed manner of communicating and her way of dressing is quite excentric.
Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings on the other hand is quiet, intelligent, adaptive and a born leader. He knows how to disguise his leading qualities as well as his high status by wearing ragged clothes and by having a low-key posture, though he exudes charisma and power when he sees the need to.
How does the typical personification of a wise old man look like? Just take a look at Albus Dumbledore or Gandalf. Both of them are quite tall and lean, they both have their white hair with long beards and their eyes are in both cases rather intense.
Take a look at your own characters. What are their prominent features? Maybe your person is especially intelligent. You could make them wear glasses or have a high forehead. If they are quiet on top, you could clothe them in timeless clothes of muted colors.
Your wise old man could actually be a wise old woman who is a colorful and energetic gypsy for a change. Or a buddhist child (think of the Dalai Lama).
An especially warm, outgoing and kind person could have a chubby physique, red cheeks and a warm sparkle in their eyes. A bitter person on the other hand could have a pulled down mouth or creases between their eyebrows. This and a thight hairdo could also apply to someone rather strict.
You could also make use of features that stand in stark contrast of their appearance, like Dolores Umbridge who is pretty darn evil, but wears a fake smile and lots of pink clothes. Playing with opposites is a nice way to create a distinct picture of a person and their character.
Embodiment of personality is a play with stereotypes and you have to find a balance for your own work. Try to not use clichés that were used over and over again, because you may come across as unimaginative. Try to find your own. The key is to make your readers actually relate to those embodiments, so you have to consider what people perceive as fitting traits. And don’t shy away from using the opposite of a feature if appropriate.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you wish you can leave a comment and share your own thoughts on the topic. I’d love to hear from you.
Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress is an amazing read on this topic if you want to learn more about characters.
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