How do you feel about writers who don’t describe their protagonists? How much description do you want to see?

I saw this question on a list serv today, and it hit home because I asked myself this same question yesterday. It occurred to me that there is almost no discussion of my protagonist’s physical appearance in my new novel. In the first Detective Wade Jackson mystery, readers get a brief description of Jackson from another main character early in the story. But in this installment, there is no opportunity for that. So anyone reading Secrets to Die For who did not read The Sex Club has no idea what Jackson looks like— except that he’s taller and heavier than a suspect who is coming at him.

I feel compelled to fix this. But there are limited options. He’s not a man who will look in a mirror and assess his appearance. I may be able to sneak in little bits of physical information here and there, but it will not amount to a full description early in the story.

As readers, how do you feel about this? Are you okay with coming up with your own visualization? What happens when you picture a character as blond, blue-eyed, and stocky, only to learn 100 pages into the story that he’s tall and dark? Is it disturbing, or do you just roll with the image?

As writers, how do you handle describing your protagonist if you don’t have another character who can do it for you?

  1. Don’t “fix” this–it ain’t broke. I personally find a detailed description of the protagonist distracting. It slows down the story, and it’s something I’m likely to skim as a reader. Dropping a few hints, and letting the reader’s imagination fill in the rest, is enough. In fact, it’s more than enough, it’s preferable IMO. One of the reasons I prefer reading to watchin movies/TV is that I co-create the story in my mind as I read.

    If you’re going to describe the character, though, definitely do it as early as possible. I’ve found that, when a description appears 100 pages into the book that doesn’t mesh with my image of the character, two things happen;

    1. It throws me out of the story.

    2. I end up ignoring the intrusive description and sticking with my own image, anyway.

    It sounds like you’re opening with some strong action–which is definitely not the time to slow things down even with a description of the character’s looks. I remember a several-books-into-the-series mystery that opened with the female protag about to confront someone in a potentially violent situation, and she was thinking about how she’d worn jeans on her slim frame and pulled back her brown curly hair into a ponytail (or whatever–I don’t recall the exact details). It was psychologically unrealistic and a drag on both the tension and the action.

  2. i’m obsessed with knowing how characters look. i dont’ want it info dumped, every character who appears then described, but i do want to know who im reading about. i handled the revelation of my hero in a cliche way, in the mirror. but he was sick, so it was revealling how he looked to himself as well. other characters i have done by being compared to him, which reveals something abotu him as well, or just him commenting (it’s first person) i think appearances are important. we judge people on them in real life, and we judge them by it in a book as well. tho it does get difficult to think of new ways of describing people.

  3. I rather like to know what the character looks like, but not in a big dump of description, not in the middle of a tense or action scene, and not in the mirror (sorry Fran). I’m happy with snippets that fit in with what’s happening.

    And do it early in the book. Knowing a bit about how the character looks gets that character established in my head.

  4. I’m not a huge fan of description of character. I’d rather know about the psychology and character traits of the character than the looks. But I try to put in enough descriptive elements that the reader can get a sense of what the person looks like, without deep details. And sometimes it is very important to know certain things about a character physically – for instance if the character has a handicap or is a child too small (or large) for his age. Physical things like that inform the mental and emotional character of the person, and so must be inserted early on.

    The only time the “less is more” is a problem is when I go see a movie and the person playing the role is nothing like I imagined! But I find if they play the spirit of the role properly, I tend to forget that they don’t match the image in my head.

  5. I am with those who don’t cre to have a dump of infortmation about a character or how he or she looks. I would rather get bits of physical description dropped in where appropriate.. “Thw breeze lifted a strand of her blonde hair and brushed it across her face…” That was taken out of a book I’m reading right now. The only other description was, “She stood before me, as beautiful as ever. Long legs sheathed in denim and a….” That was a perfect way to get the description in because it was in the POV of the central character.

  6. I’m an all or nothing person. If you’re going to describe your protagonist, start dropping me hints early on so I can start visualizing. If you don’t want to, don’t describe them at all, and let me make up something.

    The only thing that bothers me is when they’re described so late in the book that I’ve already pictured Viggo Mortensen and now I have to change it to Tony Shalhoub.

  7. I like to “fill in the blanks” of a protagonist as I read. Stephen King, in his “On Writing” explains that the reader is going to visualize a person anyway, you don’t have to describe every detail. Still, I like to have at least a general idea of what the character looks like. If Detective Wade doesn’t admire himself in the mirror, you can have the reader learn what he looks like through the other character’s observations of him. “She looked into his dark charcoal eyes” for instance. But I agree with Helen, I don’t usually go for a whole paragraph of physical attributes delineated all in one “dump.”

  8. I say, the less description, the better. I was reading a story recently where a dog was described (the dog was actually an important character in the story, so it counts!) and the cover art actually had a picture of the dog. I kept flipping back to the picture as the dog was described because the description didn’t really click with me. “Axe-shaped head?” Axes come in so many shapes! If you’re going to describe, I’d say no more than one or two details at a time.

  9. I do like some description, and you have an easy out with Jackson…. describe how his kid is similar to/different from him in appearance. That’ll give us some clues. I should say “more clues” since we get hints – his girlfriend is tall, he doesn’t think he’s as good-looking as her ex, he’s a bit out-of-shape. We have markers. 😉


  10. As everyone said — early in the book! I’m not very visual, but I like a little description — you know, the basics: male, female; black, white; tall, short; fat, thin; old, young. I -don’t- want to discover on page seventeen that Les is not the elderly, fat, white man I’ve pictured, but a young, slender, black woman!

  11. I like to have enough to form a mental picture early on, but REALLY hate the info dumps. “Melissa stared at herself in the mirror, disatisfied with what she saw. Her lips were too full, her chin too found, her eyes too big, her nose too perfectly straight for conventional beauty. And her long mane of honey blonde hair was too thick and wavy to be coerced into the current styles.’

    Not to get down on the mirror ’cause I have seen that technique used really well….

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