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November 4, 2015

Back in 2011, when my fledgling web site first launched, one of my flagship articles was Describing Characters. I want to revisit that article because it recently came up during the development of not only a video I’m having made, but from an accumulation of discussions over the past few months with people at my writer’s group. Below is the original article, updated with my latest tweaks.


In the good old days, it used to be almost mandatory to describe your characters, down to the most minute detail. Not too many decades ago, it was common to see the old cliché of the character looking in the mirror (or seeing their reflection in something like a department store window) describing themselves through internal dialogue or through narrative. One way or the other, you had to describe each and every major character and most of the minor ones. This went right along with the literary bent of describing everything in excruciating detail. Some of that spilled over into genre writing.


No longer was it mandatory to describe characters in detail. The author could leave it up to the reader to draw their own picture.


Is there one correct way? Not really. There are, as usual, both extremes. Describe in detail or don’t describe at all. Either method works. Which one is right for you? From the trends that I’ve seen, unless you’re an established author, or write chick-lit or romance, the most common method to describe characters, especially for male-oriented stories or general appeal novels seems to be to drop an occasional hint and let the reader draw their own picture.


I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. One of my big no-no’s was the character looking in the mirror (or seeing his or her reflection) cliché. That was the place to describe the character in detail, which became a list (another bad idea). I left nothing to the imagination. A consequence is that if you happen to describe a character with physical traits the reader doesn’t like, they may be biased against that character throughout the story, no matter how the character acts. Maybe the character reminds them of someone they don’t like.

A second big nono was comparing a character to a celebrity. I’ve read plenty of stories where authors have done that. It usually doesn’t work very well. In fact, it can backfire. Never EVER describe a character as looking like “Danny Glover” or “Megan Fox” or “Katy Sagal” or “Brad Pitt.” By doing so, not only are you being lazy, but you’re biasing your reader. What if your reader hates that actor? What if that actor or celebrity does something extremely controversial in real life, like a certain pitch man did recently? Or, that actor plays a character so far from what your character is doing? It will draw your reader out of the story.

Detach, the hero in my Gold series fudges the rules a bit. I describe him as looking either like the late Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, with hair, or a crazed biker. Is that comparing him to a celebrity? In a way I used to think so. The reason I decided to keep his description was as much an inside joke with the other characters in the story as it was the fact that most people today have no idea who Lenin was. A few years ago, I saw a documentary on Lenin and saw him in disguise with a wig on. Detach didn’t look a thing like how I pictured him with hair! That was when I threw in the crazed biker description. His real description came from a biker I once knew who somehow reminded me of Lenin. Crazy rationale, but it worked.


In certain genres, such as women’s fiction and romance, the readers like the character described in detail. In that case, you still have to be very careful how you draw the character! Even if you’re describing Brad Pitt, or Fabio or George Clooney, make sure you don’t actually describe Brad Pitt, Fabio or George Clooney by name. You may describe them exactly in your mind, but your reader is likely to paint a different picture.


For most genres, drop a hint here and there. Joe stretched his tall frame as he got out of the car. Mary rubbed her blue eyes in the smoggy air. Andy tugged on his goatee while he pondered his next move. Throw these little things out but spread them throughout scenes, not all at once. Gradually draw a picture.

When I originally wrote this article in 2011, I kept track of character descriptions for about two dozen books. Not a one of them directly described a main character in detail. I thought about it and for most characters, I had no idea what they looked like except for a general idea. You know what? I didn’t care. What they looked like wasn’t important. The story was what mattered. Of course, I wasn’t reading romances so I’m sure that was a factor. Since I normally read thrillers, icky bug and mysteries, the only characters that are ever described in detail are occasional bad guys and special characters, usually to magnify evil or bad traits (sometimes in stereotypical fashion). However, the main characters usually don’t get that kind of detail. As of 2015, that still applies.


I’ve learned and still apply to this day to keep my descriptions vague. I don’t want to bias my readers and pigeon-hole my characters into a description (with notable exceptions like Detach) except in the vaguest terms so that the readers can draw their own pictures. If the reader want’s to fancy a character after themselves, their cousin, sister, mom, dad whoever, I want to give them the freedom to do that.

I’m not telling you not to describe your characters in detail, but you don’t have to. It’s something you can leave to the reader’s imagination if you want to.

This subject came up again at our meeting last night (as I publish this). There was a section in the presentation on describing characters in detail. Though I understood why the presenter did it, I also cringed because it’s so far from how I approach it. What’s that tired old cliché, apples and oranges?

Happy writing!

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