[What's Next?] How Do I Look?
Written by
Cait Levin
August 2013
Written by
Cait Levin
August 2013

Now that I’ve read through my manuscript a few times I’m starting to notice some little things that I never necessarily thought about during my first (or second or third) pass. I’m going through and carefully adding more layers to all of the characters so that they talk and feel like real people – complicated and varied the way we all know real people to be. During this process I can’t help but notice what may or may not be a big issue: I never described what my main character looked like.

I tell it from the first person perspective, which is I think what caused the oversight. Everyone else in the story has an entrance scene or a moment of reflection where they are described. But the main character? No such opportunity.

Now, I took diligent notes during school, so I definitely have the tools to describe my protagonist – she could be looking in a mirror, for (clichéd) example. But now that I’m really thinking about it, I wonder if I need to bother.

I have often toyed with the idea of not really describing what people physically look like unless it reveals something about that person’s personality or the way that he or she is feeling during a particular scene or time period. It comes from my personal desire to imagine whatever I want when I’m reading – maybe I want to envision a character with curly red hair and a limp! What’s that, you say? He’s 6’5” and athletic with frosted tips? Well, now I’m all messed up. I find that when I read I like for the personality to speak for itself, in a way – to paint the physical appearance of the character on its own. The #1 most upsetting thing for me when I see movie versions of films is that the actors often don’t look like my mental image of the characters they're playing - it really throws me off. Especially when the author of the book paints a specific picture of what that person is supposed to look like. (I mean, short Ron Weasley? I know they casted him when he was like eight years old, but still. I’ll never be over that one.) So I guess while I was writing I just didn’t get around to describing Grace, my main character.

And I’m thinking that it doesn’t really bother me. What she looks like just doesn’t matter. Not really. Maybe the little things – nails bitten down way too far, hair in desperate need of a trim, etc. – can be mentioned as manifestations of her anxiety and depression. But the color of her hair? Her height, weight, facial features? I don’t mind leaving that up to the imagination. I don’t mind everyone having their own little version of her.

So the question I’m hoping you will all help me with this week is this: Do you feel strongly one way or  the other? Have you noticed the physical descriptions in your reading? If you were to read something without a description of the narrator, would you be distracted by that? Or confused? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below!

Cait Levin is the Community Manager at She Writes. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Dawson’s Creek and actually writes more of a blog) here.

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  • Sheryl J. Dunn

    While I do dislike having the characters described in minute detail, and I especially detest it when each character is described using the same technique (whatever that technique may be), my editors and beta readers all mentioned that they couldn't visualize two of my main/dramatic characters sufficiently. So, it was back to the drawing board to add a few more hints/suggestions about those characters' appearances the first time I introduced them.

    As for non-dramatic characters, sometimes a brief hint is all that you need, e.g., "the guy with more dandruff than hair." You may see that guy as unkempt and with his gut hanging over his belt; someone else might see a wiry guy with a cigarette package in the rolled up sleeve of his T-shirt, but with a non-dramatic character, it really doesn't matter how the reader imagines him.

    The challenge for me when describing characters is to be fresh and original, no matter what technique I use (but never the mirror, of course.)

  • I don't worry too much about what my characters look like.  That's for my readers to supply.  I'll give something small away - eye color, the way they walk, etc.  As a reader, I want to know what's going on in someone's mind and heart.  That's a lot more important to me.

  • Carol Hedges

    I recently read a book where every single character was described, their clothes were described every time we encountered them. I got very tired very quickly! Show don't tell is the maxim. Maybe a second character could comment..'X was struck by Y's red hair and defiant pointed chin' and then this could be supplemented by Y's fiery temper and stubbornness. I often only pick out one physical characteristic and let the character's actions and the way they speak and interact tell the reader. 

  • Nicole Willson

    Personally I like having a mental picture of what the main character looks like. I do agree that it's really hard to do that in first person without resorting to something like the dreaded "look in the mirror" trick; I've been struggling with that in my own novel. It's not a dealbreaker, however -- I've read short stories where I couldn't even tell what gender the main character was supposed to be, much less what he or she looked like.