The best science fiction and fantasy books aren't just about amazing ideas, or huge vistas — they're about people. So part of the key to a really successful SF/fantasy book is to describe people in a memorable, cool fashion.
A good description of a character goes a long way to letting you get to know that person — but it's a tricky business. The best way to learn this challenging skill is by studying how others have pulled it off in the past. So here are some examples of our favorite character descriptions from science fiction and fantasy books.
Top image by Tomasz Jendruszek.
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (page 10):
"Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain." Nice construction, telling us how other people see Peter, but then juxtaposing it with the more visceral way that Ender sees him.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (page 30):
"… Face like the moon, pale and somehow wavering. I could get the gist of his features, but none of it stuck in my mind beyond an impression of astonishing beauty. His long, long hair wafted around him like black smoke, its tendrils curling and moving of their own volition. His cloak — or perhaps that was his hair too — shifted as if in an unfelt wind. I could not recall him wearing a cloak before, on the balcony. The madness still lurked in his face, but it was a quieter madness now, not the rabid-animal savagery of before. Something else — I could not bring myself to call it humanity — stirred underneath the gleam." This is full of lovely imagery, including the hair and the cloak moving like smoke — and it leaves you with a really sharp impression even as you don't ever get a clear impression of him, because Yeine doesn't either. It's like a painting that sticks with you.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (page 11):
"He was not conspicuously tall, his features were striking but not conspicuously handsome. His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backward from the temples. His skin seemed to be pulled backward from the nose. There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was difficult to say what it was. Perhaps it was that his eyes didn't seem to blink often enough and when you talked to him for any length of time your eyes began involuntarily to water on his behalf. Perhaps it was that he smiled slightly too broadly and gave people the unnerving impression that he was about to go for their neck." This description of Ford Prefect is sparky and full of action, you can practically see him smiling unblinkingly at you.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (page 274):
"The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars." You can almost feel night gathering as you read that passage, from the gray of evening to the appearance of the night sky, and the overall impression is one of great age despite the claim of agelessness.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (page 98):
"She's the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It's impossible not to think of a bird." A lot of the best character descriptions have action or a element of movement to them, so you not only see the character, you see her in motion. (Doris Lessing has a good passage about this in one of her Martha Quest novels.) Here, we get Rue's physical details, but we also have an indelible sense of how she moves.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (page 39):
"Black-haired and slender, wearing the huge new dust-filtering glasses, she approached his car, her hands deep in the pockets of her brightly striped long coat. She had, on her sharply defined small face, an expression of sullen distaste." The body language, with the hands deep in the coat pockets, is super clear — you can practically see her hunching over. And you have to love the giant glasses and the "sharply defined small face."
Soulless by Gail Carriger (page 8):
"The fourth Earl of Woolsey was much larger than Professor Lyall and in possession of a near-permanent frown. Or at least he always seemed to be frowning when he was in the presence of Miss Alexia Tarabotti, ever since the hedgehog incident (which really, honestly, had not been her fault). He also had unreasonably pretty tawny eyes, mahogany-colored hair, and a particularly nice nose." What's great here is that you digress into backstory that gives you a tantalizing hint about this character's bad temper, and then suddenly you're snapped back into very concrete physical description — but the physical description seems sharper because you've gotten this impression of Lord Maccon as a person.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (page 2):
"These sharps were dressed in the heighth of fashion too, with purple and green and orange wigs on their gullivers. Each one not costing less than three or four weeks of those sharps' wages, I should reckon, and make-up to match (rainbows round the glazzies, that is, and the rot painted very wide). Then they had long black very straight dresses, and on the groody part of them they had little badges of like silver with different malchick's names on them-Joe and Mike and suchalike." Describing the three devotchkas, Burgess gives us a crash course in dystopian future fashion.
Dune by Frank Herbert (page 459):
"Through the door came two Sardukar herding a girl-child who appeared to be about four years old. She wore a black aba, the hood thrown back to reveal the attachments of a stillsuit hanging free at her throat. Her eyes were Fremen blue, staring out of a soft, round face. She appeared completely unafraid and there was a look to her stare that made the Baron feel uneasy for no reason he could explain." Your immediate impression of Alia is one of power and disturbing intensity. But there's a lot of implied violence in the description too — the hood that's "thrown back" and the emphasis on her bare throat. It's immediately intense and gripping.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling (page 8):
"If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins." The idea that Hagrid is "simply too big to be allowed" is fantastic — it's the Dursleys' viewpoint seeping through, but also maximizes how big and unruly he seems. And his feet are like baby dolphins! It's comical and totally lodges itself in your brain.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (page 23):
"He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola." I love the pithiness of Vonnegut, the quirky images that say a lot in a few words.
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (page 22):
"Without the coat, her body had a lean look to it — as if she worked too long, and ate too little or too poorly. Her gloves and tall brown boots were caked with the filth of the plant, and she was wearing pants like a man. Her long, dark hair was piled up and back, but two shifts of labor had picked it apart and heavy strands had scattered, escaping the combs she'd used to hold it all aloft." This is another description that gives you both the physical details but also a sense of who Briar is, and exactly how poverty and hard labor have affected her.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (page 12):
"She was a bold-looking girl of about twenty-seven, with thick dark hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times around her waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips." I love the irony of the anti-sex sash bringing out the shapeliness of Julia's hips, but also the repeated suggestions that she's bold and fast-moving.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (page 7):
"There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing alike." I love how the first sentence sets you up to believe the two characters are almost identical, and by the time the expectation is subverted, you've gotten a very clear impression of both of them because you've been paying extra-careful attention.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (page 4):
"He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered." It's not exactly a description, but it gives us a vivid impression of Guy Montag, his creepy smile and his burnt face.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (page 12):
"Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it." I love the idea that his movements can be both huge and completely controlled, and that his face tells you what the two proper responses to it are.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (page 4):
"Tall and rather thin but upright, the Director advanced into the room. He had a long chin and big rather prominent teeth, just covered, when he was not talking, by his full, floridly curved lips. Old, young? Thirty? Fifty? Fifty-five? It was hard to say." It's funny how a lot of descriptions leave some things unresolved, like the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning's age — but you know that he's someone who "advances" into a room rather than strolling in, and he's always talking and displaying his giant teeth.
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (page 40):
"Fifteen years past, when they had ridden forth to win a throne, the Lord of Storm's End had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden's fantasy. Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men, and when he donned the armor and the great antlered helmet of his house, he became a veritable giant. He'd had a giant's strength too, his weapon of choice a spiked iron warhammer that Ned could scarcely lift. In those days, the smell of leather and blood had clung to him like perfume.
"Now it was perfume that clung to him like perfume, and he had a girth to match his height. Ned had last seen the king nine years before during Balon Greyjoy's rebellion, when the stag and the direwolf had joined to end the pretensions of the self-proclaimed King of the Iron Islands. Since the night they had stood side by side in Greyjoy's fallen stronghold, where Robert had accepted the rebel lord's surrender and Ned had taken his son Theon as hostage and ward, the king had gained at least eight stone. A beard as course and black as iron covered his jaw to hide his double chin and the sag of his royal jowls, but nothing could hide his stomach or the dark circles under his eyes." Instead of a contrast between how other people see a character and the POV character sees him, as in Ender's Game, you have a lovely contrast between how Robert appeared in his prime and how he appears now — which serves to accentuate his present decrepitude far more than a simple description would.