Humanize Characters By Appearance and Interpretation

Reading Time: 10 minutes

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see a person wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a hammer and sickle? How about a bright red baseball cap? How do you interpret their individual stylistic choices? How do others interpret those same choices?

Humans make subconscious interpretations and snap judgments based on appearances all the time. A T-shirt can say a lot about a person’s politics, religious leanings, intellect, principles, and more. A woman wearing a ballgown makes a different statement than one wearing fishnets and a miniskirt. A smoking jacket and a wooden pipe tell something different from a palmed joint or a blackened spoon. A person’s appearance gives us a glimpse of who they are, what they stand for, or what they like and often makes statements about their values.

In just the same way appearances offer much by way of characterization, our interpretations of those appearances and other facets of being human means each person has a different reaction to what they’re seeing with varying levels of intrigue, disgust, indifference, and deference. Some see a person out in the wild world—a stranger on a subway, a fellow shopper in Trader’s Joe’s, a hiker on a trail—and are horrified by what they see, can’t get away fast enough; some, however, crave knowledge about that person, wonder about their motives, or their background.

Years ago, I was having a blast driving along some well-traveled routes in Vermont and singing along to a mixed CD I had burned myself when what should appear but a blue pickup truck complete with a sunset mural over the back window and a colorfully painted surf board stretched the length of each side.

In case you don’t know this, people don’t surf in Vermont, even for that one hot week we get in July. While Vermont does have some beautiful waterfronts, there’s no ocean here, thus no waves for surfing. So, where did that surfer come from?

I did what many do when faced with questions for which there are no immediate answers: I made up a story.

The guy in the pickup truck was a young and wily man from Vermont who had a dream, bought a surfboard, and moved to Hawaii. But after an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, he was forced to hang up his board and return to his landlocked mountain home. Now, he spends his days creating blueprints for dream homes while thinking fondly of his own dreams and the good ole days he left behind.

(Side note: If you live in Vermont and happen to drive a blue pickup truck fitting this description, I’d frankly love to talk to you. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and all that. Anyhoo . . .)

The likelihood that the fiction I’d created was actually that driver’s story is so implausible that I’m going to go right ahead and say it’s impossible. Still, appearances and our interpretations speak loudly.

Last week, I discussed humanizing characters using dialogue, thought, and action. This week’s writing advice covers the last three facets of humanizing characters:

  • appearance
  • interpretation by another character
  • authorial interpretation.

Each of these facets of characterization has its benefits and limitations, and authorial interpretation may not be available to you depending on the point of view and perspective voice chosen for your story.

So, let’s explore.

Prompted by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly

Developing Characters Using Appearances

Have you ever walked into a room of new faces, the tension palpable as you scanned the crowd searching for a group of warm and welcoming souls with whom to rub elbows, a place to fit in? You likely looked for “your people” using the most basic of human senses. As you scanned, you mentally disregarded those with whom you didn’t foresee a relationship and favored those with whom you saw a relationship, even a single-serving one. All of this judgement happened in a fraction of a second.

Appearance prompts our initial reactions to people. While some writers shy away from providing detail about character appearances to allow tension and conflict to unfold from inner truths, appearances are the first thing you—and your readers—will see about your characters. Everything else presents some part of the inner self. When setting up important characters, give your reader a chance—right away—to perceive these other characters through the eyes of your viewpoint character, to form connections or aversions to these people based on your viewpoint character’s perspective.

Appearance as Embodiment

When writing well-rounded characters, your characters will express emotion, and that emotional expression can get messy. When showing big emotions, descriptions of appearances matter in a big way. The words you choose to describe the person being discussed must align with what the reader needs to take from the description. What single piece of clothing or facial expression perfectly encapsules the perspective character’s big emotion? And what words will you use to communicate that emotion in a tonally consistent way?

For practice: Your perspective character must identify the body of a close family member, someone who was prim and meticulous in life. Contrast the memory of meticulousness with the messiness of death using death-centric language (think: mottled bruises, hollow eyes, matted hair) to show the shock of the change your perspective character feels in that high-emotion moment.

For further reading on appearance as embodiment: Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

Appearance as Movement

Similarly to embodiment, the way you describe your character’s movements can clue readers in on how they’re handling some big emotion. Allow your readers to witness how your character moves in their space, to witness something fundamental and intrinsic about your character’s processing and personality that readers may not otherwise pick up from the clothing or features alone. Physical movements of characters can both distinguish them and add meaning to scenes.

For practice: Your perspective character has just received some big but terrible news. Allow your readers to see how your character processes this news by focusing on small details that clue readers in to your character’s emotional state. And remember: Small moments make big stories, so really dig into the details of the task or chore your perspective character is doing to work out their feelings (or avoid feeling at all).

For further reading on appearance as movement: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Use Appearance to Show Character

Picture your character at an intense moment in your story. Notice what your character wears, how they hold themselves, even the angle of their chin. What impressions of others does your character hold? What perceptions of themselves do they hold? Go beyond the obvious emotions here. Sure, your character may be feeling grief, but where does grief come from? Nostalgia? Guilt? Embarrassment? Look for those root-cause emotions and pull them to the surface. What clothing or accessories, body language, and movements can you use to highlight their emotions without telling readers how the character feels?

Developing Characters Using Interpretation by Another Character

Have you ever tuned in to gossip when out in the wild world, riveted, though you didn’t know the person being talked about? Maybe it was a description of a person that intrigued you, or a situation you found revolting. Or maybe, you were savvy enough to hear the judgments under the words, the judgments of insecure people speaking their jealousies into the universe. Think about all those randos in the world as tertiary characters there to fill in the background and setting while showcasing your journey to actualization or heroism or whatnot.

Your readers will form opinions about those other characters’ interpretations based on what they know about the hero and what they know about the character delivering the interpretation, especially when presented with interpretations that are mutually exclusive.

Interpretation By Another Character for Contrast

Not everyone is going to understand you, and not everyone is going to understand your character. To bring readers a balanced look into your character, the good and the not so good, use secondary character interpretations. Think through the internal landscape of your character and the reasons why onlookers may believe them to be the same or the opposite of what they believe themselves to be using speech or action, or using thought if you’re writing in a perspective that allows for secondary-character thoughts.

For practice: Your character is from an impoverished family but has celebrity-sized dreams. The character treks into the wild world to get discovered and become a star. When they arrive in their best outfit and accessories feeling beautiful, slightly risqué, and moderately confident, they begin looking for agent representation. The agent with whom they have a meeting, however, is more than a little put off by your character’s synthetic blouse and cheap shoes, say nothing of the bathroom makeup job. Contrast the hopeful emotional landscape of your viewpoint character with the less-than-supportive dialogue of the agent. Though the agent spits hard truths, is there a glimmer of hope your character can latch on to?

For further reading on interpretation by another character for contrast: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Interpretation By Another Character for Similarity

Have you ever heard someone say that their partner or best friend seems to know them better than they know themselves? Sometimes, an outside person seems to understand us even more than we understand ourselves, and the same is likely true for your character. This type of interpretation for similarity can help bolster the journeys of those who don’t perceive themselves to be brave but who demonstrate bravery, or the journeys of those who don’t believe themselves worthy despite showcasing their worthiness through actions.

For practice: Your character is a great performance artist and desperately wants to see their name under the big lights. However, despite their performance track record, your character believes moxie matters much less than money and fears that they will remain in poverty their whole lives because they don’t know the right people. Your character’s inner landscape brushes against radical individualism, though their words echo limiting beliefs and fears as long as they stay in their community. Show the similarities between the inner landscape of your character and the words of a supportive person in their social circle. Though the supportive person chooses kindness, in what ways can their dialogue or action, even thought when available, highlight your character’s uncertainty too?

For further reading on interpretation by another character for similarity: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Use Interpretation by Another Character to Show Character

Think about your character in a moment that matters, a moment in which they must make a choice. Consider your character’s emotional landscape, all their limiting beliefs, all their dreams. Contrast and compare the character’s emotions with the external actions, speech, thoughts, or reactions of others they meet along their journey.

Developing Characters Using Authorial Interpretation

Authorial interpretation describes the process through which you deliver character development information to your readers via summary and exposition to assist their understandings of your characters and their goals, motivations, values, backgrounds, and more. In essence, authorial interpretation happens when you give your reader some details or insights about a character outside of a more direct method. Like a well-placed info dump. Or, telling.

Now, this facet of character development is unavailable to you if you’re writing in the first person and is heavily limited if you’re writing in the third person (with one exception; we’ll get there soon). That’s because when you’re writing those immersive, limited perspectives, the majority of the prose in your story comes directly from the perspective character’s mind; there’s simply little or no room for the author’s voice. However, when you’re writing in a perspective that allows for a bit more distance from your characters, like the omniscient or the objective, authorial interpretation allows you to tell your readers—quite directly, despite being an “indirect” method of character building—something about a character they would otherwise not receive by observing that character.

Tell the Past to Explain the Present (and Predict the Future)

There are just some things you need your readers to know about a character that the character themselves cannot articulate without a (boring) “As you know, Bob” conversation. Using character appearances while telling provides clues to the character’s inner mind. This is one of those cases where artful telling increases reader immersion rather than breaking it.

For practice: Your character is a pirate, and your readers know the ship is caught in a heckuva gale. It would be inappropriate for the crew to shirk their duties for a lengthy conversation, so dialogue is out. Think about your pirate captain, his background, goals, physical appearance, will. What important piece of your pirate’s past creeps into and informs the present experience? What does your pirate want that they currently don’t have? And what are they willing to do to turn that desire into reality?

For further reading on authorial interpretation of character history: Dinotopia Lost by Alan Dean Foster

Zoom In to Get Specific

Readers often need orientation to get themselves into a scene or setting, especially when the immediate world of your viewpoint character is critical to the story at large. Start with a bird’s-eye view of the region, and zoom in, noting observations at each level until you eventually reach the focal character about whom the story is being told. The zoom-in technique allows you to introduce your character by introducing the setting first, a pseudo-cinematic twofer.

For practice: A little girl has a destiny: Stop the villains from taking possession of a mythical object by transporting the object to safety herself, despite the fact that she’s not even old enough to cross the street alone. When the story opens up, the little girl is playing in her room oblivious to the journey that awaits. Starting from the bird’s-eye view, choose several geographic or spatial markers that pull your readers into the girl’s room with her.

For further reading on authorial interpretation via zooming: All The Lights We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Interpretation from the Character’s Mouth

While it’s easy to see authorial interpretation at play when writing in the omniscient or the objective because the narrative voice is so distinct, there’s one exception for using authorial interpretation when writing in the first- or third-person points of view: via the character’s mouth. When done well, your authorial interpretations are delivered as character thoughts or dialogue, but they must be relayed to readers using the character’s words, cadence, and tone.

For practice: Your character is unhappy with her current reality and finds herself caught in a wormhole to the multiverse from which she may enter any parallel universe available to see what could have happened if she’d made different choices. Each of the possible lives she explores leaves her with a feeling of regret. Using the character’s voice, filter through some of the parallel universes and her status or station in each, focusing on the things she regrets: Not pursuing her dream job, not taking that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not marrying for love; not getting a cat. Your character may feel bad about herself, but you, author, know the good lesson coming. How you can show the hope underlying these regrets?

For further reading on interpretation from the character’s mouth: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Use Authorial Interpretation to Show Character

Consider your character during a moment of calm contemplation before a big event. What do you want the reader to know about your character’s background and present state? What should readers know about your character’s future prospects or dreams? And will exposition, zooming, or putting words in a character’s mouth work best to deliver that knowledge to readers?

TL;DR: Appearance and Interpretation Help Readers Build Connections to Characters.

When revising your story, examine the descriptions, internalizations, and externalizations present to determine whether and how well they show your readers specific parts of your characters’ personalities. Choose specific things your reader should know about your characters and ask yourself:

  • Can I show the reader these traits without telling them directly? How?
  • How will the characters’ appearances differ from or support their internalizations?
  • How will other characters add to or detract from the character’s experience?

Character development lies at the intersection of these aspects of characterization and more. So, do your characters always appear exactly as who they are? Are they always interpreted correctly? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy writing.

<3 Fal

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Fallon Clark is the book pal who helps you tell your story in your words and voice using editorial, coaching, writing, and project management expertise for revision assistance, one-on-one guidance, and ghostwriting for development. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website,, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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