Friday, October 7, 2022

Writing an Un-Put-Downable Character (Part 9 of 10): Observables

by A.C. Williams @ACW_Author

How important is it to know that your character is tall? Or that he has red hair? Or that she has green eyes? I am more of the opinion that your character’s other aspects are superior details to focus on, especially at the beginning of a story. Of course there are always exceptions, but generally that’s the case. 

However, knowing what your character looks like DOES matter. We need to have some sense of their features and physical presence. Though it may not be the most important detail to communicate, it’s still important for setting the stage and presenting a complete portrait of your character. 

This month we’re talking about the OBSERVABLES, which is a big lumped-together category that contains all the outside details about your character. 

We need to know if they’re tall or short. We need to know if they’re missing limbs or other parts of their bodies. We need to know if they have horns, wings, seven toes, or two heads. 

But, remember the writing rule every author hates: Show us, don’t tell us.

Physical description is the most obvious quality about your characters, which means it is the most difficult to represent effectively. 

There are times when it works to simply indicate that your character has green eyes. There are other times when the color of your character’s are important in setting the mood of a scene.

Like, a character who is staring at herself in a mirror and critiquing her appearance:

The face staring back at me is pale and thin with cheekbones too high and a chin too sharp. Murky gray eyes like a dreary autumn morning are dim beneath faded eyelashes. 

Or even in a character’s initial introduction: 

The man’s coal-colored hair clung in damp patches to his neck and ears, streaks of dirt and stone dust smeared amid the stubble along his jaw. Mismatched work gloves sprouted from the bib of his tattered coveralls.

Can you feel the difference in moods? Your character’s physical appearance can be a tool for how you establish a scene—where it’s located, what time of year it is, what your character does for a living, etc. It’s a far more effective method to help us SEE your character than just telling us she has gray eyes or he has black hair.

Physical description can also do more for our story than just show us what characters look like, though. It is also a tremendous tool for writing in a character’s perspective. You can learn a lot about someone from listening to what they notice.

Say you’re writing a character who is a fashion designer. What does she notice when she meets someone? It will be their shoes or their outfit. 

What if you’re writing a high school student? What will a teenager notice about another person differently than an adult would? 

Or a child? How would a child see a person differently than a teenager?

I just finished writing a short story that features a knight and a dragon, but the story is told from the dragon’s point of view. From that perspective, the knight is the villain. The knight is also tiny and weak and petty. What the dragon notices about the knight’s physical features is very different than if the perspectives were reversed. 

What’s important to note is that the dragon doesn’t spend time focusing on what he looks like. It’s not unusual for a dragon to have talons and sharp teeth and scales, so the dragon wouldn’t be in awe of those sorts of things. The dragon is going to notice the human, because in the dragon’s perspective the human is the oddity. 

In the grand scheme of your story, does it really matter that your male lead has bottle green eyes and freckles across the bridge of his nose? Well… maybe. It honestly does depend on the story.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for when to describe your character. But there is one question you should ask yourself as you are deciding when to describe a character: 

Does the character have a defining physical trait that affects the story itself?

Is your character missing a limb? Or an eye? Is your character blind or hearing impaired? Is your character exceptionally tall or exceptionally short? If this quality about him or her will play a major role in the story, then we need to know about it sooner rather than later. 

There’s nothing worse than getting five chapters into a book and realizing that the main character is missing a leg. As a reader, that makes you feel like you’ve missed something or that the author is trying to pull a fast one.

Like any of the other characteristics we’ve been discussing this year, the observables are tools that you can use to bring depth and relatability to your characters. Some amount of physical description is essential, but if it’s not adding value to the story, does it really need to be there?

It’s hard to believe we only have one more entry in this 10-step process! If you want to see the whole outline, here it is:
  • Personality 
  • Conflict 
  • Contradictions 
  • History 
  • Interests 
  • Language 
  • Internalization 
  • Dreams 
  • Observables 
  • Growth


Award-winning author, A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if she isn’t, her socks won’t match. She has authored eight novels, two novellas, three devotional books, and more flash fiction than you can shake a stick at. A senior partner at the award-winning Uncommon Universes Press, she is passionate about stories and the authors who write them. Learn more about her book coaching and follow her adventures online at


  1. Thank you, A.C., for these great tips. i especially appreciated your point that the physical trait should affect the story. Excellent advice!

  2. I need to have major character's physical traits described vividly. I've quit reading books that only give me a name, hair color, and eye color, especially when those physical traits are only mentioned when the character is introduced. I have to have something for my imagination to work with.