4 Simple Ways to Describe Your Main Character

Character descriptions weren’t my forte for a long time. At one point, I even had to put a sticky note on the corner of my laptop, reminding me to describe new characters or settings the moment they were introduced. And perhaps the hardest of all descriptions is the main character. Most realistic people don’t go around thinking about how they look, which leaves only a few options for describing them. Below, I’ve outlined four possible ways to do it:

  1. The mirror (AKA, the cliché way). The main character stops in front of a mirror, takes a quick moment to assess how they look, and moves on. The danger with this is that it’s really easy to make a character seem narcissistic; after all, why are they checking themselves out for no reason? One trick I like to use is putting something out of place, like hair that’s not behaving. Then, the character’s attention to him/herself is only a passing side benefit of looking in the mirror, and not the reason for it.
  2. The hard description (AKA, the obvious way). The main character is described by the narrator, without any gimmicks. This works alright at the very beginning of a novel, but if it forces a pause in the narrative it becomes jarring.
  3. Compare and contrast (AKA, the sneaky way). Simply mention qualities of another character, and then explain how they compare to your main character. This style of description takes a long time to finish, unless you have your main character run into another major character (preferably of the same gender, since it would seem stupid for a girl to be interested by the fact that she had longer hair than a boy).
  4. The insult (AKA, the mean way). Someone says something mean about the main character, forcing them to pause and reflect on their appearance (ie: ‘I did have red hair and a slightly swollen nose, but I certainly did not look like a pig.’).

The general rule is this: if something happens within the narrative that provides a logical point for the narrator to pause and describe the main character, it will work well. However, if the narrator pauses without a logical stopping point, they can pull readers out of the story. Since descriptions of the main character always are (or should always be) one of the first orders of business within a novel, this can be especially disastrous (a reader just starting out is less forgiving, since they don’t have anything invested in the story).

Before I close out this post, I’d like to mention one other thing. Certain methods work well for certain points of view, and terribly for others (one example would be attempting a hard description in first person). As with most other writing judgment calls, the best bet is to let your inner reader decide.

I hope you found this post informative! If so, please like, share, or leave a comment. I love hearing from all of you, new followers and old followers alike!

7 thoughts on “4 Simple Ways to Describe Your Main Character

  1. Yes, this is a thing that is often found to be tricky. My own approach is to go completely minimal and let the reader build their vision of the character’s appearance based on the dialogue and the action, the context and their sense of who that person is.

    It’s often the case when you put down a book that you’ve really been engaged by and you have a strong sense of who the characters are and what they look like, that if you go back and look for the descriptions of their height, hair and eye color and all of that – it ain’t there at all!

    Equally, the author may have written pages detailing every hair and pimple and you can’t remember what the person is supposed to look like.

    Certainly, the last thing you want is something that reads like a police dossier. When it comes to character descriptions, this is one case where the old ‘less is more’ rule really holds fast.

    You can get away with wordy, detailed character descriptions in some genres – perhaps an element is required in lush romance for example – but that may just be a convention that still needs breaking.

      1. It’s worth experimenting by looking critically at your own favorite books that have evoked the strongest sense of a character for you, and taking them apart – there’ll probably be some surprises!

        With the exception of 19th century stuff. They had more time on their hands back then!

  2. What I often do is that I just describe the characters ‘on the way’. For example, if they are running, I can describe how their clothes flaps on them or for example how their long ponytail swings in the air. I’m not really a fan of too detailed descriptions all at once, it seems very unnatural. Surely, there must be more descriptions at the beginning of a book, but they should be subtle and they should come in some sort of little packages, in my opinion. That way, it’s not that harsh.

    1. I definitely like that idea (and absolutely agree that authors who take time out for page-long descriptions are just tedious as all get out)! The only hard part with doing descriptions on the fly (especially when it comes to main characters) is that it’s hard to give readers a ‘whole’ idea of what the character looks like. For example, it would be weird to specify that an MC’s ‘blonde hair was bouncing as she ran,’ since unless her hair is unusually long she won’t be looking at it. Which means the only image the reader would be left with is ponytail-ed hair of an unspecified color. Some readers are okay with that, but it’ll drive others crazy.

  3. Yes Valerie, it is tricky to describe your protagonist. I agree with 1. Mirror and 3. Compare/ contrast techniques which I used in my YA novel. While the mirror could be narcissistic, my character has been assaulted and in the mottled mirror of a public bathroom, gingerly checks out the damage. I think this is a realistic action of a person who needs to see how seriously she has been hurt; and in the process, the reader can glimpse what she looks like. The Compare/ contrast is useful too… The character may envy features of another, and in doing so the reader gets an insight into vulnerabilities/ flaws of main character.
    And yes, I agree that in a key part of the narrative, take a logical step to describe the key protagonists / antagonist further. This will flesh out each one’s motive too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s