How do you describe your main character?

Recently in the comments section of one of John G’s posts, a TKZ’er asked, “What is the best way to describe a main character in a story?”. 

As tjc and John suggested, there are a few generally recognized rules you should  keep in mind when describing your protagonist:

* It’s considered cliche to have your character gaze into a mirror or something similar to deliver physical description. 

* Physical descriptions of the main character are best provided from the POV of secondary characters.

* For your protagonist as well as secondary characters, avoid using “description dumps.” Here’s an example of a description dump:

A woman entered the room. She stopped and drilled me with intense blue eyes. She was in her mid-twenties, tall, thin, and blonde.

This type of a straight-on physical description right after a character’s introduction will bring your story to a grinding halt. (Note: Credit for “description dump” goes to Chris Roerden, whose excellent books about the craft of writing, including DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, deserve to be on any writer’s shelf.)

* If your main character has any specific physical traits which will be used later, make sure to spell those out up front. Otherwise, your reader may form an image of your character that clashes with later scenes. For example, if your character is particularly tall or short, old or young, that’s likely to come up in later scenes in relation to other characters. If your reader  has already formed a specific impression that doesn’t agree with your details, it’ll be jarring note.

Even though most writers are aware of these rules, it’s amazing how often they violate them. In book after book, I get irritated by an author who brings his story to a full stop every time a character is introduced. Other books, including best sellers, freely use the mirror cliche to convey physical description. I suppose they do this because it’s hard to convey physical description in a fresh, original way. I’ve tried various approaches to describing the main character in my series. Kate Gallaher is a television reporter, so I’ve used cameras, secondary characters, and her own anxiety about her looks to convey what she looks like. And yet people continue to ask, “What does Kate look like?” Their reactions to her appearance are like a Rorschach test for their own attitudes. Some readers can’t believe that a woman who is 25 pounds overweight can be attractive enough to lure men.  Others see her as a modern-day Venus.

What approaches do you use when describing characters in your stories. Do you have any other do’s and don’ts to add to my list?

21 thoughts on “How do you describe your main character?

  1. RE Description Dump

    Since you want your description to feel out of the head of the POV character, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with a char dumping about the gorgeous he/shes taking in for the first time.

    That would be natural.

    The character wouldn’t do that for his mother…

    Just keep it appropriate for the character and the dump works GREAT.

  2. Good point about keeping the dump POV-specific and appropriate to the observing character, Mac. So often people don’t do that, though. They just dump in a description like it’s something they’re expected to do; I think it’s often just lazy writing.

  3. I find myself looking for different ways to introduce my characters. Sadly I’ve used the mirror gag (maybe more than I should) often. I try and use secondary characters to help give my reader a better view of my lead character. I have also used flashback memories like I did for the character Caleb Johnson in my book New Kingdom. His flashbacks of the Civil War helped convey physical and mental scars as well as other attributes.
    It can be repetitive when describing characters and I’m proud of myself when I come up with something new.

  4. Kathryn, I try to avoid specific descriptions of my protagonist, only throwing in small details from time to time: “She curled a runaway strand of tea colored hair behind her ear.” The reason is that the picture of my protag is strongest in the mind of the reader without my help. Other characters are described a bit fuller, but not much. I believe that avoiding detailed descriptions means avoiding clichés.

  5. Joe, do you get questions from readers about what your character looks like? When you do introduce physical details like the curling, tea-colored hair, do you do that early, so that the reader hasn’t already formed an alternate impression?

  6. Yes, I’ve received questions, but more often than not, the reader’s I meet tell me what my protag (or antag) looks like. I had one guy tell me he was in love with Cotten Stone. I asked why and he said among other things that she was so beautiful. That was purely a conclusion formed in his mental image of her.

    And yes, the tiny tidbits like the tea colored hair usually come in the first chapter.

  7. I’m with Joe about minimalism vis-a-vis the main character. The reader’s mind is the most vivid screen. And I’m with Mac re: other characters, so long as the description does indeed tell us something about the POV character as well. IOW, Philip Marlowe would offer a different description than David Copperfield.

  8. I guess my issue is that too many character descriptions sound generic and rote, and are not written from a strong POV. But again, that’s just lazy writing. you can write almost anything if you do it well enough.

  9. I’m usually purposefully vague about descriptions unless it comes from another character’s POV. I also tend to be generic if I describe things from the main character’s POV-ie. He ran a hand through his dark hair. These descriptions come early in the book, but I build on them through other characters (in their eyes) so I can stay true to my thoughts on POV.

    I’m sparing on clothes descriptions, usually choosing to throw in details in context to the narrative that can be strung out through a scene-ie She threw on a windbreaker before she headed out the door. A windbreaker, in this example, denotes casual attire and serves a dual purpose.

    In YA, it seems descriptions are more important, but I try to use the same methods. I just make more of a point to do it early with a bit more detail. And I sneak in ages, which is important to my publisher.

    Great post, Kathryn. Now you’ve got me thinking about my WIP. Ha!

  10. Like Joe, I tend to avoid describing characters because readers will form some opinion of how they look without my help. But if I think how a character looks is important to the plot then I will provide more description. The thing is, when we see a picture, we often make assumptions about what that person is like based on what we see, so if we turn that around and allow the reader to form an opinion about what the character looks like based on the actions of the character, then there is no conflict between the image in the reader’s mind and how the character acts. Besides, I generally forget what the author said about the character’s looks five seconds after I read it anyway.

  11. In third person stories I describe people as little as possible; let the reader build the picture, except for things I want to be distinctive.

    In forst person stories, I have found the POV character can be characterized by what he notices, so sometimes I get fairly detailed. Once in a while in a PI story I’ll do what I call an abbreviated full Chandler, and give a whole paragraph to a description. It’s my little homage.

  12. In a multiple-viewpoint story, it’s tremendous fun to see the MC through the prisms of the other characters eyes, tarnished by reputation to some, endearing to others. The physical descriptions are important, but not nearly as much as the conflicting perspectives. None of us are seen the same by all so why should our characters be.

  13. I’m confessing to the mirror gag in a current short, because the character’s looks are a key element and in this particular genre, a head-to-toe description is expected.

    In more mainstream, I like the subtle cues rather than the blow-by-blow description for one reason.

    When a writer says she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and then goes on and on with particular traits, he is describing his ideal of beauty and it may not agree with mine. Bam, connection lost.

    Give me some clues. They can be cultural (say she is Japanese and an ideal immediately pops to mind or a typical midwestern beauty). Go with the subtle as in tea-colored hair. I’ll fill in the blanks with my own ideals.

    And no fashion reports unless the garment plays a role! Mega-star Vince Flynn, in “Term Limits” gives a tedious list of his MC’s “sexy” girlfriend’s outfit components that, to me, makes her sound like a waitress at a banquet. Bleah, connection lost. I no longer cared one bit about her.

    Ten years later I still use this as a huge DON’T example. Actually, as much as I like his plotlines, I can only tolerate Vince Flynn in abridged audio where they edit out all the descriptions.

    Best description of slinky sexy I have ever heard comes from a cornball country-western song:

    “She walks into Smokey’s one hip at a time, like a broken field runner slippin’ through the line.”

    Any doubts about her sex appeal? Any doubts about the setting or the mood? Any doubts that trouble is brewing?

    And if I asked you all to write a description of this character, no two would match. And, to me, that is part of the magic.

    Nuff rambling, back to work!


    PS: word verification “muzaxe” The generic song playing in the background when a stupid victim is running from a serial killer.

  14. I have used the mirror thing in the past, but now try to do it via secondary character POV.

    For instance Marcus ‘Mojo’ Johnson is described by his wife who laughs at the bright white spot of sour cream against his brown skin, some of which had splashed into the ebony waves hair pulled back from his forehead. Later the reader gets a more intimate view of him, adding depth to his character and physique, when she touches the lace of white shrapnel scars (“as if stitched by a drunken weaver”) on his washboard abs.

    On a similar note, here’s a full meeting between the two main male protags in my current book:

    Marcus hadn’t seen his friend in more than fifteen years and wasn’t sure if he’d even be able to recognize him. He scanned the sea of people that moved past but saw no one familiar. Then a face popped briefly into view catching Marcus’s attention. The forty something man was tall and handsome, with tanned skin, and light brown hair peppered with enough strands of white to give him a professorial look, or the visage a retired special forces operative. Steel gray eyes peered from above a slightly crooked nose. His left cheek was scarred with the one identifier that confirmed his friend without a doubt, the L shaped knot of flesh put there by a Somali warlord in ’93.

    I think it is important to let the reader meet the character and get to know them, including the important physical characteristics but then let them design the person as a whole in their own mind.

    And then there’s my recurring CIA hitman Kharzai with his huge “Arab-Fro, thick black beard and entirely too bright toothy smile”, that’s the only description they really get of him other than the fact that he dances, he laughs, he jokes, he kills…good thing he’s on our side.

  15. A textbook offering, Kathryn. Definitely a keeper.

    I try to describe a protagonist in dribs and drabs, through the eyes of one or more of the other characters in the story. That being said, I try not to describe everything; I like to leave a few things open so that the reader can fill in the blanks that are left.

  16. Is it okay, then, to leave out major descriptions of characters and let the readers form their own ideas of what they look like? I’m really struggling with working in how to describe them.

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