Using show don’t tell to write better character descriptions

Writing good character description can be hard, but you must stick to the principles of showing, not telling, to avoid a reader becoming bored and disengaged from your novel.
In this article, you’ll discover the importance of showing, not telling when creating good character description. You’ll find out what Stephen King meant when he said ‘writing was telepathy’, and you’ll unlock the secret to writing great description that hooks the reader and keeps them interested in your story and its characters.  

The Secret of Show, Don’t Tell

It would easy to simply show you a range of description examples and say, 'just do this'. That is unhelpful in the long term. If you are going to consistently write character descriptions that capture the reader, then it is important you understand the concepts behind the writing. A character's description is not something you can just conjure without thought. 
Therefore, before we look more closely at character descriptions, we must first consider the role of showing, not telling. 

One of the most common reasons a reader stops reading a book is that they become bored. 
Your role as a writer is to keep the reader engaged. Fortunately, this process is not too complicated.
When reading a book, the reader must feel part of the story. They must feel as if they are ‘in’ the story, experiencing what is happening. You must take steps not to remind the reader that they are not part of the story. Whenever this happens, the reader will turn off and become disengaged from your novel. 

This means you can't just write description without thought.
The best way to keep a reader engaged is to treat the reader as an active observer to a scene. 
This means that you SHOW the reader all that is happening, not TELL them.
For example, if you were to write this character description:
‘The woman was happy.’
This would be TELL. You are TELLING the reader the woman’s emotion. However, if you wrote this character description…
‘The woman smiled and jumped in the air, clapping her hands.’ 
This would be SHOW. 
The description is showing the woman’s actions. You are showing the reader how she is acting. You are not telling the reader she is happy; you are letting the reader work this out and remain an active part of the story. 
By SHOWING, not TELLING, emotions, plot and backstory you are forcing the reader to ‘lean into’ the book. This keeps them engaged and part of the process. 
Each time your description TELLS the reader something about the story, the reader is pushed onto the back foot and disengages, too much TELL and they stop reading. 
Your aim is to use your description to create a narrative space between the character and the reader. 
Showing the reader what is happening, but not telling them, forces the reader to work out the reasons for themselves. This way, they build their own picture of your characters.

Writing is Like Telepathy

Creating a work of enduring value can be a difficult but rewarding process. 
At some point on their writing journey, most writers discover that transferring the world that is in their mind into a story that engages and excites readers can be a frustrating experience. 
We have seen how important it is for a writer to to use description to show, not tell, but this becomes even more important when describing locations and good writing character descriptions.
Many famous writers have tried to sum up the writing process in short, witty, and intelligent sound bites, but none seem to be more successful that horror writer Stephen King. In fact, his book, On Writing, seems to be an endless treasure trove of short quotes that cut to the heart of what it means to be a writer.
King provides us with the perfect analogy for writing…
“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”
What is King saying?
The best way to think about writing is a process of transferring an image from your mind to the mind of the reader. As a writer, you conjure a mental picture of a scene; a location, populated by characters who say and do things. You can see the characters, the location, and the action. It is crystal clear.
Your job is to take this image and put it in the mind of the reader.
See? Telepathy.
The problem you face is in taking the crystal-clear image from your mind and transferring it to the reader’s mind.
This is where many inexperienced writers go awry. Their instinctive approach is to describe the picture from your mind’s eye in as much detail as possible. The theory being that the words on the page will conjure the same image in the mind of the reader.
And why not? This makes sense; the more detailed your character descriptions, the better the image you produce … right?
Actually, this is a bit of a rookie mistake.
Firstly, this is a short cut to telling, not showing. It is all too easy to just tell a reader what a character looks like and how they feel. It is easier to say a character is happy, rather than describe a happy character. 
The result is that, if your main character has blue eyes, the inexperienced writer will make them “piercing blue” or an “unusual shade of bright blue” or a “shade of blue that would bring the angels from the heavens”.
The problem is that, although the words of the English language are pretty good at describing stuff, they are nowhere near as detailed as the mind of the reader. The reader’s mind is full of detailed images, which go far beyond any written description.
As soon as you, the writer, try to pin down the description of an object, person, or location, you are moving in the wrong direction.
The key here is the opposite of what you think.
Less is more.
What experienced writers know is that their job is not to describe an object/person/location in detail but, instead, to give the reader just ENOUGH description to get the reader’s mind engaged and working, just enough description to allow the reader to recall a stored image within his or her mind.
As a writer, you are not trying to transfer the exact image in your mind but, instead, get the reader’s mind to build its own picture, using its own stored library of detailed images.
Let’s go back to those blue eyes.
What’s wrong with just saying they are blue?
What happens when you say blue is that you leave a gap. 
The reader’s mind needs more than blue. The result is that the reader’s mind jumps to fill in the gap. It uses its library of images, all intensely detailed, to conjure a suitable set of blue eyes. This set of blue eyes will go far beyond anything you could have described.
This is why we show, not tell.

How Much Character Description?

Many writers shy away from writing character descriptions.

This is understandable, it can hard hard to write good character description in a way that develops character traits. 

But character introduction and character development are essential parts of any novel. Add to this the fact that physical description is just the start and you can see the problem. 

I often feel that the best place to start is to understand that you are describing two things: a character's physical attributes AND the character reaction to emotions.

Yes, having 'black hair' is an important description but so is the way a character's body and face reacts to emotion. 
I am not suggesting that you have pages of flowery prose describing physical attributes, but that you have adequate description to allow the reader to ‘paint’ a picture of the character in their mind’s eye.
Writers will also often be tempted to short cut the character descriptions and write things such as ‘John was happy’. As we’ve seen, this is tell, you are telling the reader John is happy. Tell is always bad. Instead, describe john acting in a way that shows he is happy.
As we have seen, Stephen King describes writing as an act of ‘telepathy’. He said the job of a writer was to pass a picture of a scene from the writer’s brain into the brain of the reader. 
You have to get the images that are in the writer’s mind into the mind of the reader. The way this is done is via character descriptions. There is no need to go over the top with these, but it is important that you give the reader enough to paint a picture. 
The key is to use just enough words to allow the reader to paint a better picture than you are describing. In addition, these words describe the character and their actions, they never tell the reader what a character is feeling.
The reader is constantly painting a picture of the book’s current scene in their mind’s eye. You must also be constantly updating this picture, giving the reader enough information to ‘see’ the picture as you wish. This sounds a little complex, but the technique is actually pretty simple. 
Here are a few rules:

  1. If a location changes then add a new description of the location. This means that if a character walks from one place to another, then you need a new description.
  2. If a new character enters a scene, add a character description of that character. 
This throws up the question of how much character description; again, there are a few simple rules…
If the character/location is minor, then add a small amount of character description. The waiter who makes a fleeting appearance delivering a meal might simply be ‘the waiter’. Don't get overly drawn into detailed descriptions of physical appearance.
However, if the character is going to linger in a scene, but only one scene, then you will need a couple of lines. In this case, the waiter might become ‘the waiter was tall, perhaps six foot with neatly cut black hair, but with bushy eyebrows’. In this case, physical appearance is important. 
If the character/location is major, then you need a large amount of description. As a general rule of thumb, if a character will be in more than one scene then they/it needs to be treated in this fashion. 
The best way to approach this type of description is to initially provide a couple of lines of description, then as appropriate, continue to layer in an occasional line of description, this way the reader can build an increasingly complex picture in their mind’s eye. 

Final Thoughts

Writing good character description is tough, and as we have seen a character's description can't just be plucked from the air. It requires thought and the use of the techniques shown in this article. Show, don’t tell has become a cliche, but that’s for a reason, it remains a foundational part of the writing character descriptions. 

When writing character descriptions it is important that you consider the way in which they are being presented to the writer, as well as character traits. Rather than short cutting the reading process, your character descriptions should be providing additional information about the character and their internal world. Good character descriptions will act as a small window onto the character's internal turmoil. 
The reader will constantly be creating an image in their mind of your characters, locations, and the world you are trying to create. You must constantly be updating this picture with sufficient character description.
However, you must resist the temptation to short-cut this process and simply tell the reader how a character is feeling. This will lead to the reader becoming bored and disengaged. 

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