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?

Fiction Techniques for the Technical Stuff

When a mystery I’m editing includes a great deal of specialized or technical information, I help the writer find more effective ways of presenting the material. Too much explanation not only slows a plot’s progression, it stops the story. Agents, acquiring editors, and other readers reject progression derailed by digression.

Yet the technical stuff might be needed for understanding the story, the situation, or the protagonist’s actions. Jargon may be essential for authentic-sounding dialogue.

What’s a writer to do? In my case, what’s an editor to do?

I’m a developmental and line editor, my full-time occupation for 44 years in publishing, starting in NYC. Coping with family transfers, I moonlighted for eight of those years by teaching writing for publication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

I was also an instructor of writing for the University of Maine-Portland, then for SUNY-Rochester. One memorable summer I spent in the mountains near Seoul teaching conversational skills to South Korean teachers of English-as-a-second-language. They understood our grammar better than most Americans do.


Notice that the preceding information is a digression. In fiction, that kind of content is called backstory. You probably keep reading such action-stoppers, at first, but after a while you’re likely to skim and skip ahead whenever the content seriously veers off topic.

Skimming and skipping are easy when only a paragraph of tangential information intervenes. Besides, most backstory and explanations can and should be cut. (Really.) But essential material that continually interrupts, especially if it’s technical, needs cutting and restructuring.


Catalyst: A substance that starts a chemical reaction but which is not itself chemically changed.

The above exemplifies a method I suggest of opening each chapter with a paragraph containing the least amount of technical data required by that chapter. Format the information as if copied from another source, using italics or a font different from your main text.

You can also set off the paragraph by indenting from both side margins. Instead of double-spacing, use one-and-a-half lines. Similar formatting and placement make it easy for readers to glance at the technical stuff, yet find it again if they later choose to see what it says.


In Southern Discomfort, Margaret Maron starts each chapter with an epigraph from an actual U.S. Navy manual on construction. Be sure the source you quote is in the public domain. (Government publications are.) Or concoct the “quotation” yourself in the style of a legitimate-sounding source.

The above definition of a catalyst is one of many chapter openings in 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy. This debut thriller by L. A. Starks follows the woman who must discover and stop a foreign plot to sabotage Texas oil refineries. The resulting gas shortages are shockingly real and unexpectedly deadly.

Definitions placed at the opening of many of Stark’s chapters allow the thriller’s pace to move like fire through an oil spill.


A similar device is used by Deb Baker in her delightfully humorous, nontechnical Dolls to Die For mystery series. Each is supposedly excerpted from a book on doll restoring and collecting “authored” by a character in the series, the missing mother of the protagonist. Here’s an example:

When attending a doll show, a repair artist must be prepared for any doll emergency. Aside from standard stringing tools such as elastic cording, rubber bands, and S hooks … (and so on).

Each of Baker’s epigraphs is followed by this authentic-appearing credit line:
—From World of Dolls by Caroline Birch


Death Will Get You Sober is an insightful, engaging mystery by Elizabeth Zelvin, a psychotherapist experienced in treating alcohol addiction. Her first-person protagonist translates the jargon of the AA 12-step program with brief, unobtrusive asides within the narrative itself. The explanation below follows a line of dialogue spoken by a minor character obviously unfamiliar with acceptable AA practice:

“The man’s an asshole,” he told me.

“You mean you don’t like his sobriety,” I said. An AA way to register disapproval without actual name-calling. Step Four was taking your own inventory, not someone else’s.

Another example from Zelvin’s debut novel offers an even briefer, equally straightforward explanation:

“You take care of yourself,” she admonished me. “Don’t you dare go AMA before you’re discharged, and don’t get into any trouble.” She meant leaving against medical advice.

If you have your own examples of explanatory asides in third-person, or other effective techniques, I hope you’ll share them with me.

CHRIS ROERDEN wrote the Agatha Award winning, Anthony and Macavity nominated DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY and its all-genre version, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION.