How to Describe Your Main Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Going to be a long post today, so pack a lunch. And be prepared to add to the discussion. The issues are important and come to me by way of an email (quoted with permission):

I know what 3rd Person Limited is, how it works, etc. based on the books and writing groups, etc. One issue that keeps coming up in my critique group about my characters is I don’t describe them early on (i.e. first couple of chapters) as the three POV characters haven’t met or interacted as of yet. I know the reflection scenario is cliche, etc.

The question- do you know some different techniques that could be used to provide character description in the 3rd Person POV? For example, would something like this be okay?

Maxwell rubbed at the double cleft of his chin or His thick fingers combed through his mop of black hair picking up the oily grease used to mat it down.

The issues raised are these:

1. How much description of a main character do you need?

2. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

3. What role does genre play in all this?

  1. How much description?

In days of yore, authors often began in an omniscient voice for a description of the protagonist before dropping down into Third Person POV. For example, here’s the first paragraph of Gone With the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

And the opening of The Maltese Falcon: 

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

And this from page 2 of For Whom the Bell Tolls: 

The young man, who was tall and thin, with sun-streaked fair hair, and a wind- and sun-burned face, who wore the sun-faded flannel shirt, a pair of peasant’s trousers and rope-soled shoes, leaned over, put his arm through one of the leather pack straps and swung the heavy pack up onto his shoulders.

There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these. It’s a style choice. And I don’t think readers care that much, as long as the description is short and sweet, and we get to some action soon.

But styles change, and today the preferred method is to keep the POV consistent from the jump.

The real question is this: how much detail do we need? And I’m going to say: not much.

Why not? Because all readers form an immediate picture of a character the moment they appear on the page. Without any description at all, we create a visual image, usually based on the actions and dialogue going on.

And you know what else? That picture will usually defy writerly details. Does anyone really picture Sam Spade as a “blond satan”? (I know, it’s probably because of Bogart…but even so, I can’t imagine Spade ever as being blond.) My picture of Spade emerges from the way he talks and how he treats the other characters.

In Dean Koontz’s Sole Survivor, Joe Carpenter wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching his pillow, calling out his dead wife’s name in the dark. Koontz describes the spare apartment he’s in. No bed, just a mattress. No other furniture. He goes to the refrigerator and gets a beer. He sits on the mattress and drinks.

We never get a physical description of Joe. We don’t need one. Just reading the first few pages I have a picture of Joe in my mind. It’s not the same picture you have, or any other reader, and that doesn’t matter. I see him, but more importantly, I sympathize with him. I don’t need to know the color of his eyes, or his hair, or his height.

There is, however, one detail that is usually important for the reader to know, and that’s age. Readers will assign an age to a character. They will “see” a picture in their minds. You can help them along by giving them dialogue and actions commensurate with the character’s age in the story. For example, a cop arriving at a crime scene and jumping out of his cruiser is not going to be pictured as Walter Brennan.

But sometimes the age must be specific. If so, find a place where the character might logically think about his age. For example, he’s about to walk into his workplace. At thirty-three, he was in his fifth year with the company. So why was he feeling like a complete newbie?

What we would call normal physical features are not usually crucial for the reader. What is important are any unique features that help to characterize: A scar on the cheek. A broken nose. Long, unkempt hair. Being tall. Being short. These are the details you’ll want to emphasize.

  1. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

The general rule is, never describe something in words the character himself wouldn’t use. In the example from the email, above, would the character think, “I’m rubbing my thick fingers through my black hair”? No. He knows his fingers and he knows his hair color. I recently read an opening page that had something like this:

Haskins looked around the room with his piercing, blue eyes.
“Over here, chief,” one of the cops said.
Lifting his lanky frame out of the chair, Haskins walked over to the cop.

Would Haskins think this way? No, this description is coming from the “outside,” that is, from the author, which makes it omniscient POV. Is this some egregious violation? I wouldn’t say so (though some editors might label it “author intrusion”). I just don’t think it’s that effective.

So what’s the alternative? Try a dialogue exchange. Have another character do the describing for you. In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted readers to know this is a guy who is strong and in shape. On page one Mike is jogging when he stops to admire the flowers being tended by a woman who is around sixty. After some initial chat:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.
“Mike,” I said.
“Happy to meet you, Mike. Except …”
“Yes?”
“You don’t look like a flower man.”
“What do I look like?”
“Football player, maybe?”
I shook my head.
“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”
“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

This is First Person POV, of course, but is equally applicable to Third Person.

The other physical detail crucial to Romeo is the tattoo on his left arm. It’s Latin script: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Other characters naturally ask about it. One character wants to know if his name is “Vincent.” Another character can actually read Latin. And so on. The tat is remarked on in each book, giving me a chance to naturally reiterate what Mike Romeo’s drive in life is all about—Truth Conquers All Things.

Be sure to give these distinguishing details early in Act 1. If you wait until page 240 to reveal that your hero has one green eye and one blue eye, the change will be jarring. The reader will actually feel cheated. Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?

Yet it doesn’t have to be on page one either. If it’s early enough, readers will happily adjust their picture as needed. In the first Jack Reacher, Killing Floor (which is told in First Person), Reacher is sitting in a diner when cops come in to arrest him. He’s taken to a station for questioning. It’s not until page 16 that we get any description of Reacher. A cop explains that a murder took place, and a man was seen, “a white man, very tall, wearing a long black overcoat, fair hair, no hat, no baggage.” This gives Reacher as narrator a natural way to drop in the following:

Silence again. I am a white man. I am very tall. My hair is fair. I was sitting there wearing a long black overcoat. I didn’t have a hat. Or a bag.

Or, in the alternative, the cop could have said, “Just like you. What’d you do with the hat and the bag?”

So, the fundamentals are:

– Use description only for unique features.

– Use other characters to spell them out or, in the case of First Person, have a legit reason to mention them.

– Drop these details in early enough in the book that it won’t jar the reader later.

  1. What role does genre play?

My friend, bestselling author Deborah Raney, reminds me that in a romance eye and hair color (even if vague like “pale” or “dark”) are important because those are things the heroine will notice about the hero and vice versa.

In a literary novel where style is often a selling point, a lush description of the main character is more acceptable.

In a historical novel, the way a character dresses is usually important because it shows the reader something about the era the story is set in.

And in an experimental novel there are no rules, so do whatever the heck you want.

Whew. Okay, enjoy your lunch now. And take over from here. What questions or comments do you have about main character description?

13+

40 thoughts on “How to Describe Your Main Character

  1. I write in Deep POV, and I’ve often broken the “don’t have a character alone in the opening scene” rule, although I do try to make sure there’s action. I tend to wait until there’s another character around, as JSB suggests, to show my main characters. I wholeheartedly agree that people don’t think about their body shape, their features, hair length, etc., and I grit my teeth when I read those. I think Michael Connelly said he had about 80 words of description for Bosch in his first batch of books. I also noticed his descriptions now make Bosch look like Titus Welliver. John Sandford says he hits the high points about Lucas Davenport, and then that’s it. However, it’s a shallower POV.

    A lot of my characters are cops or covert operatives, so it’s natural for them to assess another character. I also think it’s good for a reader to see the protagonists (romance genres require hero and heroine) through the other character’s eyes.
    In my newest release, the only ‘self-description’ of the heroine in the first page is
    “Cursing her hands, painful after so much time holding a steering wheel, Morgan fished the keys to the house from her purse, zipped her windbreaker up to her chin, and pulled the hood over her head. Wouldn’t matter. At the slightest bit of humidity, her hair frizzed into a million wild corkscrews.”
    But in the next scene, the hero sees her and can offer a little more for the readers.
    “He made sure his uniform shirt was properly tucked in, adjusted his nametag, and grabbed a clipboard with its stack of report forms. In reception, a woman—late twenties, early thirties, he guessed—sat in one of the four chairs. Her hair was a mass of tight, dark brown curls, glistening with water droplets. She wore black slacks, a gray pullover, and black leather slip-ons. A damp blue windbreaker lay on the chair beside her. … “Damn, her eyes reminded him of a fawn’s. He shifted his gaze down a fraction to her cheeks, the color of his morning latte after stirring in the whipped cream. Wide mouth, full lips with a peach-colored shimmer.”
    And you’re right about romance readers. They like to fill in their own personal blanks about what makes a character handsome/beautiful, and over describing can shatter those images.

    It’s similar to avoiding AYKB–stick in another character who doesn’t know so the explanation becomes logical.

    • Terry, superb examples. She WOULD think of her hair frizzing at that point, and in those words. And you render wonderfully the man noticing her … and with more than a passing glance.

      Love “a million wild corkscrews” and “the color of his morning latte after stirring in the whipped cream.”

      That’s how it’s done!

  2. Excellent post, James. Recently one of my critique partners and I was chatting online. We talked about some of my past characters. I gave vague descriptions through the eyes of another character (I write romantic suspense). Her idea of how the character looked was far different than what I imagined. And that’s okay. Other readers likely make various other observations. That’s one reason I hate books with characters plastered on the cover (popular in romance). As a reader, I like to have my own visualization.

    (And I can’t imagine Sam Spade as a blond, either!)

    • Joan, I have several romance writer friends, and have heard a couple of horror stories about cover art not matching the description in the book.

      I was fortunate when the cover designer for my historical series, which begins with City of Angels found a model who looked EXACTLY as I pictured my heroine, Kit Shannon.

  3. This topic is interesting because it brought up several reactions in me and shows why writing is never quite as simple as you hope it will be. LOL!

    First, I don’t mind small doses of omniscient at all–but the trick is it has to be done smoothly. When omniscient POV is done poorly it glares back at you from the page.

    Second, I had two different reactions to the first 2 examples presented. Scarlett O’Hara’s description worked very well. Artfully done. I’m not even a Gone with the Wind diehard.

    In the Maltese Falcon example, I was thinking “If I have to hear about the “v” one more time I’m going to punch you right in the “v”.”

    Both describing the character, yet one a welcome description, the other quite an annoyance. I have not read The Maltese Falcon (gasp!) but I have read Gone With the Wind. The care and effort in Scarlett’s description was absolutely necessary given how much of a focus she was for the story. Don’t know if that’s true for Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon.

    Third & last, I may not be in sync with “most” readers, but I WANT character detail (not Scarlett O’Hara length, but specific detail) and I do not care for vague or absent description of character. The reason I read a book is to see the AUTHOR’S vision of their story and characters. If I want to see my OWN vision of a character I write my own book. And if reading is to be an escape, then I don’t want to have to do work trying to figure out what a character looks or moves like, etc.

    I’m looking for specific detail, but not lengthy. Enough that I have no doubt what the character looks like in my mind as I read about them in their story. If character description is vague & I have no clear idea of the writer’s vision, it feels like a cheat on the part of the writer.

    • I agree, BK, about GWTW. It’s written in a “lush” style, which fits an epic historical romance. Whether that style still holds for modern readers is another question. A writer has to be awfully confident, and a real wordsmith, to pull it off. There have been many failed attempts to replicate GWTW.

      • Amazingly, GWTW was Margaret Mitchell’s only novel. Diana Gabaldon wrote Outlander as an experiment to see if she could write a novel. The fact that she has written a very successful series that was made into a Starz TV series is a testament to her ability to do so. I have often wondered what it is that makes someone able to write a blockbuster bestseller right out of the gate. Any ideas?

  4. Thanks for a great (and timely) post. I’m currently going through my WIP to examine character detail. One of my beta readers wanted more detail, and earlier in the book. A book you suggested to me, WORD PAINTING, by Rebecca McClanahan, was very helpful in understanding the telling details of character description. What I struggle with is how much up front, and how much gets dribbled in with action and dialogue.

    Thanks for the post and discussion.

    • It’s one of the big challenges, isn’t it, Steve? How much and where? Opinions will vary from writer to betas to editors at publishing houses.

      In the end, take in all the suggestions, then go with your gut!

  5. here’s how I put in a brief description of my POV character who’s a reporter after she’s been in a fight with a heckler – “Mother lifted my chin. “Please be more careful. We can’t let anything happen to that beautiful face.” I wasn’t beautiful. A guy once told me I had an interesting face which I interpreted as not model material, but I’d do. My nose was too long and my hazel eyes sat too far apart. I had decent cheekbones, but way too many freckles. But, in my profession, not being beautiful had its advantages. Like the time I’d scored an interview with the mother of a kid accused of carjacking. She’d picked me out of a pack of reporters clamoring on her doorstep, because she said I had an honest face. I knew damn well she wouldn’t have trusted me if I looked like Margot Robbie.

    The freckles later come into play after she’s had sex for the first time with her new love interest i.e. as he’s leaving, he turns and tells her he loves her freckles. And she thinks “And I didn’t think he meant the ones on my nose.”

    Thanks as always for an insightful lesson, James. There’s always more to learn, isn’t there? And I agree with BK – WAY too many v’s for my taste in the second passage.

    As for cover art, my friend the romance novelist got her first cover back and the heroine had bangs and a tan line. For Highland romance in the Regency period. She insisted they change it.

    • Maggie, in your example the First Person narrator has a natural “excuse” for giving out that information to the reader. It works. Nose and freckles figure in the moment (and later on). Hazel eyes not so much, IMO, but if it’s a speed bump it’s hardly noticeable.

  6. I go sparse with descriptions of my heroes. I hope the reader will see what he does and then come up with an image similar to what I see. The character in my WIP rides a horse and fights with an axe (this is a historical piece). He does this to earn his keep with the lord of a large estate (western England – Wales, 1150). He’s been doing this for more than a decade. I don’t feel it is necessary to describe him as “fit” or “muscular”.

    I do the same with heroes written in modern stories. Perhaps men who use guns to make a living, use them for good or for bad, fit into some kind of “default” physical makeup. And it doesn’t really matter to me if the reader sees a blonde man while I’m seeing a redhead. If a trait will have later consequences or be relevant in some way, I’ll drop it in early.

    Thanks for the great post, Mr. Bell.

    • Well said, Carl. You’re exactly right. The actions do more than vague words like “strong.” And there is a certain “default” we all have for certain roles, and it matters not that a reader might see things a bit differently.

      Though it still is jarring for me to see Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

      • Yeah. I saw the first film before I read my first Jack Reacher novel and was more than a little surprised Child got a description of the hero. Tom Cruise was already in my head.

  7. Sound advice. I’ve seem many first drafts bog down in too much description up front, especially of the protag. Truth is, every reader has his own experience with the story. Sometimes readers create their own image of the protag despite the writer’s efforts, as you rightly point out in the case of Sam Spade.

    • It’s a common mistake, as is too much exposition and backstory up front. Authors think readers need that to know what’s going on. They don’t. It’s better if they figure it out from the action.

  8. This is very thought-provoking. I also don’t mind some omniscient narration, but I write in third person and I’m trying to color within the lines of the times.

    At this point in my writing, I’m trying to get inside the reader’s head. If I can figure out what they’re thinking at each point in the story, maybe I can manipulate their emotional response. (Does that make any sense?) When I think it’s time for the reader to understand a little more about a character than the physical description, I do something like this:

    “Phil saw her as soon as the truck rounded the turn. She was standing alone in the shadows in the middle of the trail wearing a loose-fitting gray running shirt over shorts, her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.
    She was looking down at her cell phone and, although he couldn’t see her face clearly from a hundred yards away, he knew the resolute expression she was wearing. It was what he called her “Kathryn zone.” Her mind had locked onto a thought and was pursuing it to the exclusion of all others. You couldn’t break into that room — she had to open the door and let you in.”

    • Kay, it’s not only acceptable, but essential for a main character to note the features of another character. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Less is more for the Lead, but not for the others. That’s because what the Lead notices is part of his/her characterization.

      If I can figure out what they’re thinking at each point in the story, maybe I can manipulate their emotional response. (Does that make any sense?)

      Not only does it make sense, it is the very essence of what we do! Great fiction is an emotional experience first and foremost, and to become a master “manipulator” is what our craft is all about. Manipulate away!

  9. Excellent advice, Jim, and spot on with my own suggestions to writers whose fiction I’m editing.
    As both a reader and fiction editor, I’m not a fan of omniscient writing — it feels dated and intrusive, sometimes even jarring or heavy-handed. I prefer to experience everything filtered through the thoughts, feelings, and observations of the POV character for that scene. That seems so much more natural to me — just as each of us only experience and react to the world around us through what we perceive and feel, filtered by our background, developed attitudes, and current mood.
    Thanks again — I’ll be sending writer clients to read this!

    • Thanks, Jodie. Maybe the reason it feels dated is that it really is, because we are so much more visual today than in the past. We’ve grown up with TV and movies, something unknown in the days of Dickens and Proust.

  10. P.S. — and yes, I hate it when newbie writers have their protagonist thinking about the color of his eyes or hair to impart these details to readers. I also hate when the action comes to a screeching halt because the writer feels we need an extremely detailed description of a character who just walked in.

  11. I had this exact page-one issue on Monday. My son/proofreader said, “I can see the assailant, but I need to see your protagonist sooner.” Here’s what I did. Does this work?

    Approaching closer, he walks like a thug she should cross the street to avoid. Yet, in her dress, tights, and ankle boots with heels, she can’t run very fast, and she’ll need more than the house key [protruding through her fist] to fend him off.

    • I wish I could read the first part, so this may not fit with what you wrote before it, but here are my suggestions (I’m a editor):

      1. The first words tell the reader the subject is the “thug” when it’s actually “her.” So start with “her” to let us know whose POV we’re in.

      2. What size is she compared to him? That’s critical, not just what she’s wearing.

      Try something like:
      She anxiously looked around as he approached her like a thug locked on a target. She was several inches too short and too slender to escape his powerful build, and the house key was a pitiful defense. If she was in her running shoes instead of a nice dress and fancy boots, she could talk off and probably outrun him. But what could she do now?

  12. In real life, wherever we go, we INSTANTLY grab snapshots of everyone around us. We (unconsciously) notice everything and draw conclusions in seconds. So I believe all books about people should be written as though the reader were IN each scene, viewing it the way we do in real life. We instantly notice a person’s height, weight, approximate age, hair color and style, skin color, clothing, posture, movements, and if up close–their eye color, unique facial features.

    If a writer leaves those details out, it’s like “watching” a movie with the lights out and only hearing voices. We can’t help it–we will fill in the blanks and imagine our own characters in full detail, then when the lights go up, we are frustrated when the characters are portrayed differently. Same with writing. It pulls us out of the story and frustrates us when we’ve imagined the characters very clearly all along, then the writer describes them completely differently.

    It’s easy to slip in all the pertinent details about a character right away–just do it as in real life. Go outside and look at someone–notice what you see instantly. Watch interactions between people (in person or on TV with the sound off) and describe your scenes like that. Excluding a blind person, we ALL notice every detail about people unconsciously. Unless you treat your readers as though they are blind, they should see everyone exactly as they do in real life.

    As an editor, I have a checklist for my authors to use to slip in all the pertinent details realistically in every scene from the get-go. Then those details don’t need to be mentioned again because the reader has a solid visual. If it’s night or the person is behind a closed door, as soon as they appear in a scene, a reader should see them instantly as they would in real life. Since we rely on our own senses and observations more than anything, readers can’t help but be pulled right into the scenes if THEY are observing everything exactly as in real life.

    • Provocative response, Lora. I’m going to disagree with your premise, viz., So I believe all books about people should be written as though the reader were IN each scene, viewing it the way we do in real life.

      Fiction is not real life. It’s a stylized and purposeful facsimile of real life molded for emotional effect. We don’t need every detail for that. Indeed, every detail would detract, IMO.

      Further, in real life we may “see” but not really notice every detail. Again, the ones that stand out are what we notice. If we are questioned later about someone, we’re more likely to say, “Yeah, he had a real severe limp” than “He had blue eyes.”

      Thanks for your input. A good hearty debate is always welcome at TKZ!

      • By “every detail,” I certainly don’t mean lengthy descriptions!! I mean the things we can’t help but notice about a person in real life. I’m sure if you saw me in person you would notice a LOT more about me than my eyes. 😉 You would definitely note I’m only five feet tall and have a small build. If you were close enough to see my green eyes, you would definitely see my brown curly hair and fair skin. Even in fiction–such as movies, we notice every person’s unique look.

        • Then perhaps we do agree, for the key word is “unique” (as I emphasize in the post). Then we, as authors, choose the unique features which we wish to emphasize….again, for emotional effect.

          Actually, now that I think about it, I would say a good “rule of thumb” in this regard is no more than two features for emphasis. Beyond that, the effect may be diluted.

          • Actually, I personally believe there needs to be more than two details. I gave you five details about me above. If you saw me in person, you would also know approximately what age I am–those five details in a book wouldn’t be enough to determine if I’m a teen, young adult, middle-aged, or older adult. That would have to also be added in.

            The many things (ALL unique since everyone is unique) that we notice about people–unconsciously–register in our brains in a nanosecond, along with that “sixth sense” of forming an impression about the person. Personally, I feel it’s cheating the reader to make them guess or figure it out–only to find out later the writer was imagining someone completely different.

            But every person’s writing style is different, and there are readers for every writing style. 🙂

          • If it stops the story, it’s too much. There’s a well-known, best-selling mystery author who my husband stopped reading because “He spends too much time describing everyone. Whenever there’s a new character, he has to describe what he looks like and what he’s wearing.”
            I haven’t given up on this author, but I confess I skip most of these descriptive passages.

            • Terry, of course, every person writes differently. If you don’t like it, they probably aren’t doing it right. Describing characters takes finesse and expert skills to do seamlessly and effectively. 🙂

            • Great point, Terry. Remember what Elmore Leonard said? Don’t write the parts people skip. Too many innocuous details is one of the things he was thinking about.

              • Hence the need for an excellent editor. I’m both a writer and an editor. As a writer, I can’t see my own flaws–and my editor is a “sniper”! She nails me on everything that someone would get bored with or skip. She is relentless in tightening up my writing. As an editor, I do that for others.

                There’s an old saying, “The eye can’t see the eye.” Everyone needs an expert to look at their writing with a professional eye to point out things like areas people would skip.

                Aside from that, everyone has different preferences, so (assuming the writing is quality and has been edited professionally), one person will love a book and another will dislike it. That’s great because there is room for all kinds of stories. 🙂

  13. I’m late to the discussion, but there’s a great book called Creating Characters: How to Create Story People by Dwight Swain that is a worthy addition to any collection of writing books.

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