Friday, June 08, 2018

How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Characters?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Does that character need a full-on dossier or just a brief mention? Do you give all the details or just a few? It's not always easy to know how much description you need to do with a character.  

At some point in your story, you'll have to decide how much to include about the physical description of a character. You don't want to describe your characters to death, but you also want to use enough details so readers can get an idea of what they look like. How much is too much and how little is too little?

This is one of those things that's really up to the author. I dislike a lot of description, and I admit, I skim a passage when it's clear it's a big "this is what stuff looks like" paragraph. Even description about a character. I'm much more interested in who they are and what they'll do than what they look like.

Because of my personal feelings, I tend to be sparse when I write my own character descriptions. In fact, if I didn't know there are readers who love knowing every detail about what a character looks like, I'd probably skip them altogether. But that's just me, and my way may not be your way--nor should it be.

So, quick answers first:

How much is too much?

If it bogs down the story, it's too much.

How much it too little?

If there's no sense of who the person is, it's too little.

How important is it to describe a character?

Some authors never do. If it's important to you, do it. If not, don't. 

The Long Answer

Description, be it about a character or a place, has the potential to bog down a story because description typically stops the action. It's not about doing something, but observing something. We want to be careful about how we slip it in and how much we use.

We also want to keep in mind the type of story we're writing and how much our readers expect from their description. Genres such as fantasy or historical fiction are often much more descriptive, as they're set in worlds readers are usually unfamiliar with. Literary fiction is usually more descriptive because the language is part of the readers' enjoyment. More contemporary genres or books use people, places, and settings readers know, so less description still conveys everything readers need to know.

My personal rule of thumb is, the more character details you add, the more you want to keep those detail in your point of view character's voice. Let them judge what they're seeing so the details do more than just describe. They also characterize and possibly do some world building at the same time.

(Here are three things to consider when writing descriptions) 

Let's look at some examples:

Example One:  
The man was tall, six feet six inches, with broad shoulders. He had short blond hair and brown eyes, and wore a olive green double-breasted suit.

This, I'd skim. It tells me details, but so what? Unless this is the exact description of the killer, it does nothing to move the story along. This tells me nothing about who this guy is or who the person looking at him is.

Try the same details from a character with a solid POV and voice.

Example Two:  
He was tall, like, basketball tall, with shoulders wide enough to block any jump shot. But no star athlete would wear that haircut, even a blond one. His brown eyes sparkled with more intelligence that you'd think at first glance, as if he knew what he looked like in that too-fancy-for-just-lunch olive suit. And come on, double breasted? In this neighborhood? Please.
Here we learn just as much about who the POV character is as we do what the guy looks like. The POV character knows sports, or at least basketball, they don't think too highly of folks who are dressed a certain way in that area, suggesting some type of prejudice. This is a person who sees things and immediately judges them. But they're also perceptive, since they noticed the subtleties of the eye sparkle.

(More on describing your first-person protagonist here)

You don't have to flesh out a description as long as this, though. You can sum up a quick description in a way that still feels like your POV character.

Example Three:  
The man stood out. Six foot six, olive suit, blond hair, brown eyes, broad shoulders. He was worth keeping an eye on.
Much shorter, and with a tone that suggests whoever is keeping an eye on him might have some police or military background. The details are taken in quickly, but what comes before and after those details is judgment about them. That turns this from bland to interesting.

Of course, you can also describe without giving away too many details.

Example Four:  
He was the kind of guy who belonged on the cover of a romance novel.
I didn't give one detail of actual description, but I bet every one of you pictured something specific. Very likely the broad-chested, well-muscled guy with long flowing hair, either blond or black (Fabio, anyone?) This image has become a cliche, and you can use that cultural knowledge to fill in the blanks.

(More on making the most of your descriptions here)

When describing characters, you don't have to put in more (or less) than you feel the story needs. What's more important is what those details bring to the page than what they are.

How much do you describe? Do you like knowing what a character looking like? Why or why not?

*Originally published January 2011. Last update June 2018.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. For years (when I was a teen, that is) I thought it was a requirement to have a chapter devoted to description, because I read Little Women. I'm just not that good at it, so I used to agonize over it. Oops! So glad it's not really writing law. :)

  2. This is great, of course. Like Su, as a teen I thought pages of description were necessary. I remember writing my first novel--if you can call it that--and describing everything the way Dickens did in the books I was reading. Needless to say, I got too bored to finish it.

  3. This is just the sort of thing I needed to read. I'm starting on a new MS at the moment and I've always struggled with how best to use descriptions, particularly of characters.

  4. Examples 2 and 3 are the kinds I like reading. #2 is kind of long, but it's in the narrator's voice so it moves the novel along. And #3 is short and sweet, doesn't interrupt the flow and still gives the reader a good sense of what the character looks like. Great examples, Janice!

  5. Su: I did the same thing with setting description because I read fantasy, and they always went into great detail with the worlds. So glad it wasn't true there, either ;)

    Tracey: You know you're in trouble when you bore yourself, LOL.

    Paul: I'm glad it helped. Good luck with the new MS.

    Laura: Thanks! I'm a fan of shorter myself.

    1. HELP!!! I am a 15 year old girl, and I am trying to write my VERY VERY VERY first book but when it comes to describing characters, I don't know what to do. And I really want it to turn out good. Any ideas on what I should do?

    2. First, relax (grin). No matter what you write, you can always revise it later. It doesn't have to be perfect or even good in the first draft. There's a lot of information and tips in this post, too.

      Next, what you describe is really up to you. What do you want readers to know about these characters? What matters to the story? What is critical to understanding who these characters are?

      What point of view you use also factors in. For example, if you're writing in first person, you probably won't describe your narrator, since he or she can't "see" themselves. But if you have an omniscient third person point of view who can see everything, they might describe all the characters in a certain way.

      Description of any types works best when it's integrated into the story and not dropped in. For example, you might not say "She was tall", but show her ducking under things, or getting stuff off a high shelf for someone. Show what a "tall person" would do.

  6. As always, so timely! My current goal in revising is to find a way to make it clear my male protag is super dreamy without turning him into Edward Cullen. *g*

    (Actually, descriptions of places are what I have the hardest time with. I'm not a visual person *at all* -- I'll have to meet someone four or five times before noticing her hair color, and I'll *never* notice eye color unless it's pointed out to me -- so I don't have much mental image of where things are happening. My more serious goal is do enough scene setting that it no longer reads like every scene happens in a void or a plain white room with no furniture...)

  7. Great eamples of how to do it wrong and right. I too tend to skim too much description.

  8. It depends on the story and the setting. Sometimes you need a lot of physical description, sometimes nothing, like Kafka and Joseph K >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. This is another awesome, and timely, post. I am currently polishing my first manuscript and I've noticed I'm somewhat sparse with descriptions of both characters and places. I'm making sure I have enough, but I can't stand getting bogged down in unnecessary details when I read a book and in reflects in my own writing.


  10. Funny story -- my Haunted series has a 13-year-old boy at the first-person narrator. One of my male writing friends had commented that he hates reading "boy books" where the author is obviously a middle-aged woman. (Don't let my name fool you, I'm female.) I asked him to look over the manuscript, to see if I'd made mistakes. He suggested taking out most of the description of other characters, even the woman the narrator has a crush on. He said a boy wouldn't be analyzing her long, curly dark hair, etc. -- it would be more of a visceral reaction, like a punch to the gut. So I did that.

    In the third book, The Knight in the Shadows, the beautiful woman is in a Halloween costume and there is finally a brief mention of her curly black hair. My husband read the book and said-- wait, but she's a redhead! I had to show him that the earlier books included no physical details. He had pictured her as he thought she should be, based on the narrator's reaction.

    Chris Eboch
    Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs, The Riverboat Phantom and The Knight in the Shadows
    Read the first chapters:

  11. I prefer to keep my descriptions vague so readers can fill them in with their own visions. And good point about making sure they're in the POV of the character doing the describing. A cop will notice things one way, a socialite another.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  12. My descriptions tend to start off like example 1: a bland, straightforward listing of facts. In one story, I had a few paragraphs where one character completely assessed the other's clothing. Granted her background permitted that sort of analysis, but it didn't fit the situation. So I rewrote it, used about half of it, and what I did keep was much like example 2.

  13. Great tips!

    That's how I try to do the description. It's actually more about how something impacts the character than just repeating what they are seeing.


  14. Anybody read the Babysitters Club Books growing up? Remember how they had a whole chapter at the beginning of every single book describing each of the girls? How many people skipped that chapter? *raises hand

  15. Ooh! I loved your examples. You're right. Its all in the execution. Thanks for the helpful post!
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  16. Yeah, after a book or two I always skipped that chapter in Babysitters Club.

    I did have complaints in my creative writing class that I wasn't describing my first-person narrator in a way anyone could picture. Mostly that's because he's a water sprite, though. The fact that he can't set around thinking `I'm a basically humanoid creature, but with a dorsal fin down my back, and more fins on my elbows and ankles' makes him a little hard to describe. I'll have to see if there's any way I can turn some of your examples and advice toward self-descriptions. :)

  17. The amount of description also depends on the genre. A romance reader wants more description than a mystery reader does, for example.

    Also, read what is being written NOW in your genre, not what was written ten years ago, let alone a hundred years ago, to see how to do it. Narrative methods have changed drastically through the years.

  18. I have a first person POV with a troll. Sadly, some of my beta readers thought this meant she was green. Since she would never look in a mirror and describe herself to herself (gack!), the only thing I could do was work in a line about something turning her normally dark skin to a cafe au lait color.

  19. Becky: What works for me is to describe the things that matter to the POV and help illustrate something important about the world. So then the description becomes part of the storytelling and just just "setting." For example, if I wanted to show that my city had a lot of soldiers and folks were scared of them, I'd have Nya spot soldiers and keep her head down, move to the other side of the street, show other people doing the same, etc. Right away the reader can see "soldiers = bad here." It makes deciding what derails to use a lot easier.

    Natalie: Thanks!

    Cold As Heaven: Yeppers.

    Tracey: Same here. I always have to go back and add some. I have a great crit partner who is wonderful with description and she makes sure I don't slack off. That world building technique I mentioned above to Becky can help with fleshing out details.

    Chris: That's so funny. We do get pictures in our heads. Great example of how the author can be "wrong" because the reader pictured something different. That would be a good argument for adding *some* details even if it's just a word here and there.

    Terry: POV is my favorite writing tool. If I have a problem with something, odds are a strong POV will fix it :)

    Jaleh: Nothing wrong with that :) That's what first drafts are for.

    Misha: Exactly ;)

    Sarah: I never did, but I would have been one of those people for sure.

    Raquel: Most welcome!

    Chicory: First person descriptions are really hard. Anything you say is going to sound weird. Who thinks "I brushed my long blond hair"? I've found comparisons really work well. My protag describes herself by looking at her younger sister and noting differences that fit the scene.

    Marilynn: Both are so true. There are still ranges, though. Fantasy is known for it's description, yet I tend to write sparse.

    Holly: Thanks!

    Suzi: Eek, I'd be one to think green. Blame World of Warcraft, LOL. You might think about getting something in right away to squash that assumption. That way readers know early on not to imagine what they might naturally assume. I did that by adding crocodiles right away to The Shifter to show it was a tropical setting, not a traditional fantasy medieval Europe setting.

  20. Oh yes! great stuff here. And I love that describing OTHER characters can tell you about the MC, the person observing that character. Your examples are spot-on, and yes, they are more interesting to read when they are more than a flat run-down of hair and eye color, etc.

  21. Nice post and it SO depends on both the genre and POV. I tend to be slight in my physical descriptions because I want the writer to put in their own ideas of, what a wizard looks like, or a vampire (not sparkly I hope), what mom would wear, or the typical lawyer.

  22. Great post and something I struggle with.
    In life when you see someone you instantly (I'm told it takes 2 seconds!) sum up a person you meet. Build, race, hair colour etc, perhaps smaller things like eye colour you might not notice at once. I feel each important character needs a line about them when they are first introduced so that the reader knows if they are old/young/ nice looking etc,etc but then as the plot unfolds more of their character (perhaps the way they spend hours preening etc) explains more about them. This can be hard to do without sounding like a police description.

  23. Carol: One of my favorite aspects of POV is that you can filter everything through your protag's eyes and explain stuff naturally that you never could otherwise. Better still -- you can make them wrong and it all works! Because that's what they think. I love that part.

    Lori: It really does. A crit partner of mine writes mysteries, and she does so much more description than I do. But I know that's the norm for her genre, so I keep that in mind when I crit her stuff.

    Mary: It can be tough. I like to use them as world building opportunities when I can. Pack a lot of info into it. Takes some more thought but it's worth it.

  24. I've always kind of wondered if my descriptions were good. I think I have done a decent job it just comes down to practice

  25. I thoroughly enjoy reading all your tips and insights; keep 'em coming! Here's my personal issue with character descriptions: I like a multi-racial cast in my YA novels. As a black writer I just have no interest in an all-white world, but my characters's race isn't important per se. I may have a group of girls and one of them is black. Well, I want my reader to know that, but at the same time I don't want to blatantly describe her. But when I'm fifty pages in and then something is said that makes it clear she's black, it feels like I'm doing a "gotcha!" to my reader. At the same time I really don't want a reader imagining the characters as all being white just because my black, or Japanese, or Indian characters aren't stereotypical. It seems to be a problem in each story (except my latest which is fantasy and steers away from the whole issue of Earth races).

    1. It's the same with my mixed-race cast. If I describe them at all (clean-shaved, dark eyes, black hair, etc.), the reader has no idea until the character says something about being Mexican... or Black. Readers sometimes assume. In fact, I have a group I mostly describe by attitude to a stranger among them (nervous, youngest, indifferent, etc.). But I usually just give the basics & want the reader to imagine the rest how they want. Sometimes those little details are a lot more fun that way. Love this post. Gale

    2. It can be tough, because as you say, people do assume things about characters. And it can be weird to point out race if it doesn't flow naturally in the story.

  26. Anon: That's pretty much how most writers feel about writing in general, hehe. And it's true.

    Read Anything: Thanks! I'd suggest using your POV and letting them see and judge those folks however they would do it. Find little hints that aren't so blatant and slip them in where they feel natural. You might only need a word or two to show she's black, and there must be something your POV can observe that suggests race.

  27. Cool post. I've found beta readers invaluable with this. I had a scene I thought was "slow" because there's a good bit of description of a city, but since winning the city is the main plot, betas said that showing how amazing the city was actually raised the stakes. Now I ask myself if giving extra description will add or deflate tension.

    Oddly, for how little physical description there is in The Shifter, I can see everyone very clearly. Maybe fewer details are easier to remember?

  28. MK: I think the *right* details are easier to remember. If they add to the story and have meaning (like your example of the city) then readers remember. If it's just background noise, they forget.

  29. I tend to err on the side of sparse descriptions as well. I feel that readers often put some of themselves into the characters and require just a point in the right direction. Of course, that said, I just had a critique of my work, and while some were quite comfortable with my level of description, a few asked over and over for more details, n characters and also in setting.

    Actually, I'd love to read mother article like this about setting description.

  30. YES! Unless the visual is truly important, I mostly don't want to know what the author pictures, I want to put myself in the scene. That's tough with everyone creating green-eyed red-heads! I also tend to skim description (I can read Lord of the Rings faster than anyone this way!) and my crit partners do have to beg for a minimum level, which I do since some people like it and the rest can skim if they want!

  31. Emily, I think I have a similar one on setting, so I'll dust that off for tomorrow. :) A holiday week is a good time to run the oldies but goodies.

    GSMarlene, I also have a crit partner who I trust to hit me with the description stick :) She makes sure I don't slack off. Handy folks to have, aren't they?

  32. What I don't like is feeling like I'm getting their vitals. I'm not a nurse, I'm wanting to be nursed by the fantastic voyage of the read :-)

    For my novel that I released, I wanted to avoid the whole look at the mirror type of description as much as possible. One particular description was used to describe the MC as well as describe the change that had overcome the character she was interacting with at the time.

  33. Angela, that's a smart use of it.

  34. Hi Janice,
    The way you clarify your posts, makes writing seem effortless. I know it's not, but that's why I keep coming back to learn more.
    Personally, I liked the second example.
    Happy Thanksgiving

  35. Tracy, yay! Thanks, nice to hear what I'm doing is working. That's my whole philosophy behind the blog--to make it easy for fellow writers to understand. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

  36. I don't like to have paragraphs of description, but I think you do need to give the imagination something to work with. I like to slip in details like hair color and so on into normal prose, or when it would be appropriate for characters to notice them, and trust that readers who care about how I imagine my characters look will pick up on my little descriptions and remember them.

    1. That's what I like as well, both to read and to write. The more that's backgrounded, the more immersive the world and story becomes.

  37. Doesn't this depend on the genre? In a romance novel, you'd clearly want to spend more time describing the characters, since that's really a part of the story. But in an action-thrill probably not so much.

    1. It does indeed. Some genres do expect more detail than others.

  38. I was working on a fantasy that, in the prolgue, has a small love scene. I use Third-Person-Limited and instead of describing her love-interest is actually spread out among different paragraphs.

    You'd see one detail in one paragraph, then as he did something else, she'd point out the difference in his usual personality and add another detail.

    Is that good?

    1. That's how I'd do it. Spreading it out makes it feel more natural.

  39. Thank you for the excellent advice.

    I just finished my first draft of a YA novel, and was shocked at the extremely low word count. Looking it over, I noticed that my subconscious had interpreted 'show, don't tell' as 'don't include any descriptions whatsoever'.

    As I usually skip over physical descriptions, I started wondering whether I really needed to include them. Fortunately, your post set me straight on that account.

    With your helpful tips in mind, I'll start working on a second draft immediately.

    One question though: How would you go about incorporating physical characteristics of your main character?
    Since I don't usually go through my day thinking 'I have brown eyes', I wonder how to give the reader that information without pulling them from the protagonist's POV.

    The Noveling Novice

    1. If it'd first person, I did an article on that:

      If third person, I've found comparisons work well, as someone might compare physical features. Or the occasional "She pulled back her brown hair" is acceptable, even if we don't think that way (just be wary of doing it too much at once or it tends to sound distracting or self absorbed)

      And remember, if you don't like doing a lot of descriptions, just don't do them. Nothing says you have to provide detailed descriptions of what the characters look like. If you want to add just one or two details to cover the bases that's fine.

  40. I like like to drop a description here and there, like: 'She tucked a blue curl behind her ears, and picked up her dagger.' And then move on, keep doing that until that character is described in full but only when it fits into a scene. I might be wrong as I'm new at this, sill so far their are no complaints.

    1. That's the way I do it. :) As long as your readers enjoy it, it's not wrong.

  41. I definitely agree on using POV to describe character's physical description and honestly it makes the description less repetitive when having to describe appearance of different characters.
    But one thing I am having trouble with is imagining and describing character's face. How would you approach this??

    1. If it's not your POV character, just have someone look at them and describe what they see (I know, that sounds simplistic). Think about how that character would see another person and what they'd notice (and why).

      If it's the POV character, describing their own face is much harder. It feels weird to have someone describe their face in detail. I've found comparisons work well. For example, a character might compare themselves to another and mention the differences and why it matters to them at that moment.

      Here's a link on an article I did about that:

      If it's a third person omniscient POV, then you'd just describe the character however you wished.

      Of course, you don't have to describe the face if you don't want to. If the details don't matter to the story, a basic sense of the person is fine.

  42. How do you simple your character descriptions? I have 18 characters.

    1. However your point of view character would see them. If they're the type of person who just notices general details, they might just say it was a blond woman or a dark-haired man. If they're observant, they might describe more. There's no "right" way to describe a character, so whatever fits the book works.

      In general though, the less important a character is, the less they'll be described. So if someone is just a walk-on or minor character, they might not be described much. A main character might be described more.

      But some authors never describe their main characters, so anything is possible.

  43. Thank you. My characters have dark hair, raven hair or are burnette and also mer-folk. Some of the mer-folk have bronze, cream or mocha colored skin. I was going to revise this.
    Rina picked names for her children from the seven-letter word
    “Mermaid”. Then Rina chose the name Mera for the clan. The mer-folk in
    the Mera clan had only three hair colors: raven, brown, or auburn-that
    was long for the mermaids and short for the mermen. Their eye colors
    ranging from turquoise, blue to green, or indigo or changing with
    their mood. They had different colored mer-tails ranging from blend of
    two colors, turquoise, fuchsia or indigo. Their skin stones varied
    from light brown to bronze and cream. At age of ten the merfolk got a clan
    tattoo. The royals only had runes on their lower back and they also
    had powers healing, telepathy and visions! The Mera clan had about
    three hundred.

  44. Another fine column, one that raises at least two interesting questions of scale in a sentence: ". . .if I didn't know there are readers who love knowing every detail about what a character looks like, I'd probably skip them altogether."

    Writing for the reader (marketing) or writing for the writer (creative).

    Heavy description (reader manipulation) or no description (reader participation),

    And, of course, these scales interact with each other to form a matrix of sorts rather than a linear determination.

    Thanks for an nice way of opening another door into the relationship between literary theory and wirting practice.

    1. Thanks! It's a fine line, since we want to write for ourselves, yet we also want to keep the reader in mind. The goal is to tell them a story. But you never want to go so far over that you're trying to please everyone and not telling the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it.

  45. Make that writing practice while I work on typing practice.

    1. -grin- no worries, I speak fluent typo.

  46. I get indecisive when it comes to descriptions. It isn't so much what I want to tell my readers but more of when and where in the story these paragraphs should come up.

    1. That's normal for a lot of folks, I think. I do that, too, but with other information(like backstory). We put it where it feels right, and sometimes better options come along after we've written it.