Describing Your Main Character(s)

Last week I met with a writer working on her first novel. I tried to explain how the writer needs to give the reader a character or characters to care about right away, that a complete physical description isn’t needed, but there should be enough information that the reader can form some sort of image of the character. With that in mind, I decided to look at how some writers I admire (writers whose books are on my shelves) handle this.

I started with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Page one of the prologue we have an image of the villain: mountainous silhouette, broad and tall, ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. Irises were pink with dark red pupils. Not someone you want to meet day or night. In Chapter One, we get a description of Robert Langdon. First his academic credentials, which gives us an idea of his intellect, then the physical description. Usually sharp blue eyes looked hazy and drawn. A dark stubble was shrouding his strong jaw and dimpled chin. The gray highlights were advancing, making their way deeper into his thicket of course black hair. He had a bookish appeal. We soon know he’s forty-something and good looking and that he has an unusually low, baritone speaking voice—chocolate for the ears.

In Sandra Brown’s Hello, Darkness, chapter one does not have a physical description of Paris Gibson, but we immediately learn she’s a radio DJ, that she had voice lessons to develop a “sound,” a perfected inflection and pitch, and that she cares about the callers to her show. I think this works especially well in this story since most of us who have ever listened to a late-night radio DJ form a picture of the man or woman from the voice. And because Paris Gibson is immediately dealing with a caller, whose voice is described as barely above a whisper, and who has threatened to torture and then kill a woman, their voices are the feature we latch onto.

In Tami Hoag’s Prior Bad Acts, we meet the “hero,” Chris Logan, on the first page of chapter one and immediately have his temperament (strong opinions and stronger emotions) as well as a physical description. He was tall, broad shouldered, athletic, with a thick shock of black-Irish hair now threaded with silver. Forty-five years old…

Painting a word picture of a character is rarely a list of features: age, height, weight, eye and hair color, etc. In each of the examples above, even when a physical feature was described, there was generally a bit more to it: Dark stubble shrouding his strong jaw; thick shock of black-Irish hair threaded with silver.

How much is necessary in the beginning of a story depends on the story, but I’ve often heard new writers say, “I describe her later.” Well, later may be too late. I want to know why I should care what happens to this person, so give me a little bit about her or him. You can add on to that description later, a bit here and a bit there.

By the way, my thanks to all who followed my blog hop for A Killer Past. I was pleased to send Mike Bratek a $15 gift certificate from Amazon. I am now in the middle of a blog hop for Eat Crow and Die. Do visit one of the sites and enter for a chance at another $15 gift certificate.  (Today (Wednesday) check out and )

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20 Responses to Describing Your Main Character(s)

  1. Diane Burton says:

    Great examples of describing main characters. As a reader, I get an image in my head of the character that lasts through the book. I’m always glad when the author “shows” me what the character looks like. As a writer, I find this very hard to do without “cataloguing” their physical features.

    • Maris Soule says:

      What I liked, Diane, when I looked at these authors and how they wrote the descriptions, was the extra bit that was included. Not just black hair, but a thick shock of black-Irish hair. That really adds to the image.

  2. Nice suggestions.

  3. Very good advice and examples. We do need to have some physical description to get an image of the character, but also some action which makes the reader feel sympathetic toward the character to carry the reader into the book.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Jacqueline. Simply telling what a character looks like isn’t enough. I want to see (read) how the person acts around others and thinks.

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful examples. I love that we can learn more about the characters than just what they look like, we get an idea of how they sound and their personality from the descriptions.

  5. Outstanding post. A lesson in writing easy to learn and use right away. Thank you.

  6. Maggie Mendus says:

    Thanks, Maris. These are useful suggestions.

  7. Dianna Morris says:

    Thank you for this post. Sometimes the description of a character helps to foreshadow how a character will respond to their storyline. Thinking of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher off the top of my head.

  8. ann bennett says:

    I recently read a biography, Roxanna Britton, by Shirley S. Allen. The story was not that complicated but was engaging simply due to the woman whose life was chronicled.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Although I tend to be plot oriented, I have learned that it’s the characters we remember, the characters that we have to make memorable.

  9. Sandy Parks says:

    Nice reminder of the initial descriptions of our main characters, where they can occur and how creative they can be.

  10. Teresa Blue says:

    Great post Maris. I’m constantly learning too, and especially on your blog. : ) I read the post on adding
    actions several times. Thanks so much!