What Makes a Character: Appearance

A series considering the elements and factors that define a character. This essay looks at appearance.

Image Credit: 
© 2019 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Attitude

Characters need to become separate from the writer, fully existing in their own rights. By understanding how a character speaks, thinks, and is, a writer can give them life, and the character can express themselves. This, finally, is where their appearance comes into play.

How a character looks is the last step in their creation. Characters are not defined by what shade their hair is, or what clothes they are wearing, or by the colour of their skin; they are defined by who they are. Once that is established, then you can consider what they look like, as their appearance will be the result of their personality—not the other way around.

The way you appear is a mixture of choice and not—some things about how you look are outside of your control, but even they have been shaped by the factors which influence your speech, thought, and attitude. Similarly, character appearance is in part defined by these factors. Where they are in the world, their age and what age they are living in, their heritage and familial genealogy (including race and societal attitudes towards this, which will be influenced by where and when they are living), their gender and how that is perceived within their world, their class and what that means to them, and how they were raised and by whom. Add in how they think—they will either be predominantly sight, sound, language, or action-based thinkers—and their attitude including their outlook, bravery, conformity, confidence, and reliability, and you will have a fully-realised individual who looks in a certain way because of these things, many of which will be put upon them from their parents, and their grandparents, and so on back through their ancestry, whether they are aware of it or not.

With all this in mind, there will be conscious choices a character makes regarding their appearance, which will also be influenced by their personality. Every decision they make will be rooted in a personality trait which will be clear through studying how they talk, they way that they think, and their attitude.

The four factors that define appearance beyond those, however, will be linked—either directly or indirectly—to conscious choices.

1. Vocation

On a simplistic level, this can be the character’s job; on a deeper level this is what the character does to give them purpose. It is more than simply to pay the bills—if you have a money-motivated character, their vocation will be different to another who is driven by a self-imposed sense of justice, even if they both hold down the same job. Consider the driving force behind why, not simply what.

2. Expectation

How do they feel they are expected to appear, and do they live up to that? No one knows the actual expectations placed upon them by others, only their perceptions of them, and they are the variable which can be embraced, rejected, subverted, or mocked.

3. Tribe

Individuals, in one form or other, are part of groups, and through social interaction become tribal. The tribes the character is part of may have specific uniforms, or could be based on loose assumptions of appearance, yet there will be some influence.

4. Identification

Finally, the reader needs to understand who each character is without necessarily remembering their name. A simple identifier—a certain type of coat, a ring, shoes, as examples—which the character has chosen to integrate into their appearance is a useful tool for writers. Hair or skin colour or similar should not be used as the identifier, but instead as part of the overall appearance. Fine detail is also not required, as by this point the reader will see the character in their own mind’s eye. A simple element of appearance that is either a direct or indirect choice of the character, rather than a predetermined factor, is enough to clearly identify the character amongst others.


By allowing the character to define their own appearance within the variables they can, the writer lets them take their life and run with it. The character will feel real to the reader—clearly defined and fully-formed, with a personality and history that works despite contradictions—and so will be accepted as authentic. Moreover, the character will evoke a reaction from the reader, and that is the ultimate response any writer could want. Make your characters real and they will reward you by coming to life.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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