A few comments came in late on the last post, so you may want to check them out before or after you read this.

On April 29, 2011, Jill wrote, Shakespeare would spell words differently or make up words to make his sentences sound “pretty” and Daphne du Maurier never said the name of the narrator in Rebecca.
    I have a story and I never want to describe her appearance because I want anyone to see themselves as her. With this and the other examples, do you like it or not? Who else did things like this?

I don’t know examples of works in which the main character isn’t described although there may be many. In some genres – romance, for example – physical description is pretty much required. Mystery as well, I think.

As a reader, I’m not sure. I’m reading a novel now, The Good Son by Craig Nova (high school and above), which is told from alternating first-person POVs. I don’t remember if one of the POV characters is described, but I’ve fashioned a mental picture of him anyway. He’s a he, obviously, and I still manage to identify with him. So far I find him the most sympathetic character in the book.

Jill, I’m not sure if you’re making a distinction between identifying with a character and seeing oneself as that character. The first can happen, usually should happen, the second can’t and probably shouldn’t.

One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Anne of Green Gables, and one of my favorite moments was when Anne breaks her writing slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head . I identified totally with Anne, but in real life I never would have hit anyone’s pate with anything, regardless of the provocation. My delight in Anne’s defiant act was complete. She surprised me and I loved her for it, but I couldn’t have seen myself as her.

We go to books, in part, for alternatives to our narrow selves. After reading Anne of Green Gables, even if I still couldn’t avenge myself physically, maybe I could figure out a satisfying retort to an offense. At the least, I could take pleasure in imagining what Anne would have done.

As we write, our characters make decisions. They can’t be Everyman because each man acts differently. As a reader – and a writer – I slip inside selves other than my own. My characters behave differently from me.

In most cases, I guess I’d rather have physical description than not. We’re physical beings and we form impressions of people, rightly or wrongly, based in part by looks. And other people respond to us on the same basis. I’m very short, four-foot-ten-and-a-half, to be precise. This perspective affects me profoundly. My life probably would have been different, for better or worse, if I had seven more inches. I like being short, but I wouldn’t pass up a chance to be tall for a day, just for the experience. When I make a character tall I have to think about that decision and be aware of it as I write.

Long ago on the blog I mentioned a memoir, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (also high school and above), who had some sort of cancer as a child that left her face deformed. It’s a book of suffering. Appearance, like it or not, is important.

I read Autobiography of a Face when I was preparing to write Fairest, in which Aza, my heroine, is ugly. There would be no story without her ugliness. Still, readers identify with her, and we identify with Lucy Grealy, too. Appearance, no matter what it is, doesn’t stop us from entering an emotionally appealing character.

Contrariwise, in an early draft of A Tale of Two Castles I gave Elodie a big nose. My editor asked me to take the nose out and I did. She felt it would be off-putting to the reader. And maybe she was right. Unlike Aza’s ugliness in Fairest, Elodie’s nose had nothing to do with her story. Not, I hasten to say, that a big nose is ugly. It’s a strong feature, which is what I wanted for Elodie.

What I don’t care for is a description of the main character that’s plopped into a first chapter because the author feels it has to be there. So the main is made to look in a mirror. In first person she’s forced to assess herself. In third, we’re just told what she sees.

I don’t think there’s a rush. You can get to it in a later chapter and wait for a spot where the description belongs. I’m proud of the way I did it in A Tale of Two Castles. Elodie is considering buying a cap from a mending mistress, who tells her ingratiatingly that she’s pretty. And she thinks:

    I wished I could subtract her lie from the price of the cap. I wasn’t pretty.  My eyes were too big, my eyebrows too thick, my mouth too wide, my jaw too pronounced.  But if you were in an audience, even standing behind the benches, far from the mansion stage, you would still be able to make out my features.

That’s it. I drop in a little earlier that she’s tall for her age. We don’t have to include a great deal of detail if the story doesn’t call for it. In Fairest, which does call for it, Aza’s brother first calls attention to her looks by calling her ugly, and she often thinks about her appearance, so the reader can visualize her clearly and see her the way I want her to be seen. But in many stories, we can give a few hints and let the reader fill in the rest.

In both examples from my books, a comment by another character introduces the description. You can use this technique too. For instance, Neil, not known for his tact, could tell Marisa she resembles a kindergartner’s stick figure drawing. Warren could pipe in, “Yeah, and your hair looks like you were electrocuted.” Kind Tomasina might say, “I wish I had curly hair, and I’d die for hazel eyes.” That’s probably enough.

But there are other ways. In The Wish the hook is simple. Wilma thinks about her name, describes herself in thoughts as looking like a Wilma, then goes on to explain what she means by that. In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, an old photograph leads into the description. You can use action. A character can be especially suited or not suited for an activity, like a sport or a role in a play, by virtue of his looks.

As a reader, I rarely think about the main character’s description once it’s given. I’m inside him, peering out, remembering how he looks only when the subject comes up in thoughts, action, or dialogue.

A few prompts:

•    Look at a few of your favorite books and notice how the author handled introducing the main character’s appearance and how detailed or sketchy these descriptions are. Then revisit some of your own old stories and think about how you did it. If you decide you might have been more inventive and you’re in a revising mood, try a new way or more than one.

•    Leonard is at a Halloween party dressed in a spacesuit. Without removing a bit of his costume, find a way to describe him. Find another way. And another.

•    Carlie Werme, Tony Foote, and Blair Bratt are each teased unmercifully by their classmates about their names, and each responds differently to the teasing. Write a scene for each one, showing how he or she reacts. If you like, bring them together as an alliance and write what happens. Write the first meeting of their club and cause an argument to break out. Show how each one argues. Keep going. See what happens when they confront their tormentors as a group, but don’t let their individuality get lost in their united front.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. I like the idea of getting the description through someone else's comment. I have a story right now where the main character is rather short. Instead of coming out and saying so, I tried to make people see it by having her get a stool whenever she needs to reach cupboards and upper shelves.

  2. I needed this – I feel like I'm over-stressing my character's appearances, and the introductions are forced. I always think I need to show what they look like right away, but I guess it's more important to make it a natural and casual thought than a statement thrown in willy-nilly at some inappropriate place.

    On a related note . . . I've recently discovered that my character's appearances reflect their personalities. For example, a character with a strong personality will generally have lots of clean lines and strong features where as a weaker character might have a less defined chin. A sneaky character would come out being short and lithe and rather sly-looking. I don't really mean for it to happen, but it almost always turns out that way. Am I being to obvious, or should I try to vary the combinations a little more? I don't feel like I'm being particularly repetitive from one character or story to another – it's not like all my strong characters look alike or anything! But I'm a little concerned about it . . .

  3. Just kind of adding/ commenting on what Mrs. Levine said-I've found that adding physical descriptions or not doesn't really affect how easily we slip into the character.
    Katniss, the protagonist in the wildly popular "Hunger Games" novels is described briefly at the beginning of book 1 but the reader can easily slip into her skin and picture themselves as her.
    Bella from "Twilight" is not really described and when she is, (from what I remember, I haven't read the book in years) it's brief. But the book is designed to allow the reader to easily become her.

    Rick Riordan and Trenton Lee Stewart are two of my favorite authors to read descriptions from. Both keep their very unique voices when they write descriptions and that keeps the descriptions very interesting. Trenton Lee Stewart is a master of using two sentences to slip in a description of a character but those two sentences are all he needs and you won't soon forget them. While Rick Riordan uses longer descriptions he does it in a way that you automatically know 1) what the character looks like and 2) a bit about their personality whether or not its related to their physical features. To anyone who wants good role models on description I would highly recommend picking up any of these two authors' books.

    @Jenna Royal, I don't think you have anything to worry about. For sometimes (but not all the times) a person's physical appearance or at least how they carry themselves can reflect their personality. And I admit I'm guilty of doing what you mentioned above as well. But I personally don't see any problem with it, as long as whenever you have a sly character you don't give him black hair, brown eyes, and a pointed nose, or something like that.

    @ Mrs. Levine, I have to say, I did enjoy that description of Elodie you used in "A Tale of Two Castles" as well as the description of Master Thiel, the cat teacher (hope I spelled that right). I'm *about* half-way through "A Tale of Two Castles" right now (I've yet to finish it because I unfortunately have to balance reading it with reading books for school) but I am enjoying it greatly.

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Levine. 🙂

  4. Jenna Royal–You might try switching looks around. One of the joys of writing is misleading your reader!

    And two from the website:

    Great post, and I agree with you all the way, Gail. I don't really think it makes that much of a difference what the MC looks like – his appearance is the last thing that would prevent me from getting in his head. I think as long as he had a personality that I could like and understand, I'd relate to him even if he were a purple unicorn turtle!

    That said, I also agree that you don't need to go TOO far into detail about his description. Subtle hints usually give me a great picture of the MC. I think with a little something to get us started, we can connect the dots and fill in the description blanks until we make our own mental picture of him, which, in most cases, is just fine. As always, thanks for another fantastic post, Miss Levine:-D

    (This would be on the blog if I could get it there. Sorry!)
    Goodness, you have no idea how helpful this post is! I’ve been having the hardest time figuring out how or where to introduce my character’s appearance. Thanks to you, I’ve finally realized that there is a much better way to go about his appearance that me trying to cram a physical examination into the first paragraph. As usual, another good post. I’ll definitely come back to this one!

  5. A writing teacher once told me that there are four ways to convey character description to the reader (both personality and appearance): what a character does, what other characters say about that character, what a character says about him/herself, and straight narration. She said the fourth is often the weakest, because it can force you to stop the story for a paragraph of description that ends up feeling forced. Of course, what the main character or other characters say can also be misleading. Which is where part of the fun comes in!

    I was trying to think of an example for how what a character does could contribute to a physical description, so thank you, Chicory, for your example about a short character standing on a stool!

    Grace, I also thought of Twilight's Bella, as soon as this topic came up. She's definitely an example of a character with very little appearance description–or personality, for that matter. It enables any reader (at least, any teenage girl) to see themselves as Bella, which I think contributes to the book's success…but also leaves her as a fairly undeveloped character. I like what Gail said about how readers should relate to a character, but probably not see themselves as the character. A key and sometimes subtle distinction!

  6. I find that even when a character is described in a specific way in a novel, I often have my own mental concept of what they are like. Sometimes when I'm reading I ignore the description the author provides if it doesn't fit with my mental picture, unless there's some detail that's important to the plot.

  7. Gail, I completely agree with your post. That said, I do bump into the problem Andrea Mack mentioned.

    I find it frustrating when I've already imagined what a character looks like and the author slips in physical descriptions that contradict my mental image. This seems to happen most often when the author introduces details too late. For example, by chapter four (or a decent amount into the book) it's too late to mention the MC flipping her blond ponytail over her shoulder. I've long since already imagined her as a brunette. Etc.

    I think if a physical feature is important and will be mentioned periodically throughout the story (let's say being blond is what enables the Jewish MC to blend in during WWII in Germany), it needs to be slipped in earlier. Not necessarily crammed into the introductory paragraph of course, but mentioned sooner rather than later.

    The longer the author waits, the more solid the character's image already is in the reader's mind. The inevitable clash of details will throw the reader out of the story.

    But like Andrea, I usually just disregard one-time insignificant details that contradict my mental image. They're annoying, but ignorable.

    What I'm complaining about is when physical features are repeatedly mentioned, but the first time is too late… so every time it's mentioned (and thereby every time clashes with my mental image) it shakes me out of the story. I become aware of the writing, when I'd rather be engrossed in the action and not aware of the words creating it.

  8. Marveloustales, glad it was helpful. 🙂

    April, that's a good point, and one I'll have to remember. I do have a tendency to introduce things like hair color really late, forgetting that anyone reading the story hadn't been picturing the character the same way I do.

  9. Often I just leave description out altogether!

    I use a lot of first-person narration, so it's pretty rare that an average person gets described. If something about someone catches my narrator's eye, then the readers are treated to a description. Otherwise, my narrator doesn't say anything about it, just like we wouldn't usually comment on the faces of ordinary people we've seen a number of times before.
    But how _does_ one work in a description of a first-person narrator? I had a teacher once tell me to put one in, and then told me it sounded conceited once I did. I mean, there's always having them stare into a mirror, but I find that a bit awkward unless they have a good reason to.

  10. I haven't had time for novel writing lately, but I just wanted to drop in and say I was able to squeeze in reading Tale of Two Castles and I loved it! My daughters have already read through the full Levine library so they are excited to have a new addition (or edition? both work!) as well.

    When I do get back to story writing, I look forward to catching up with lots of writing exercises handy from the blog posts I missed. 🙂

  11. Erin Edwards–Thanks!

    From the website:

    This comment is really just food for thought, but I wondered what you and the bloggers would think. You see, my brothers were watching a Myth Busters episode called "Mission Impossible Mask" where Jamie and the other guy were trying to use a mask to fool people into believing that they were each other. However, their manerisms gave them away so they had to have an actor teach them how to behave like one another. More recently I watched an episode of "Gilligan's Island" where everyone got mind-swapped, and it was hilarious because they were all acting like each other and you could clearly tell who had been swapped with whom. All of that got me thinking: is there any way to make our characters and their mannerisms that recognizable? I tried a writing exercise just for fun where my MCs got mind swapped, and it's really hard because you can't actually see them. Do you think that's a bad thing? I just wondered if you or anybody had any comments. Sorry for such a long post!

    Emma–Very interesting. I'm adding this to my list. Thoughts, anyone?

  12. Hmmm that's really interesting. I know there are some mannerisms I always recognize in people and characters.

    In "The Mysterious Benedict Society" by Trenton Lee Stewart, the character Mr. Benedict has a habit of tapping his nose, whenever someone says something that's true, right, or amusing. The character Sticky has a habit of polishing his glasses everytime he gets nervous. I always know he's talking about those characters when they do that.
    Also in the "Airborn" series by Kenneth Oppel the character Kate, always narrows her nostrils when she's angry.
    In "Harry Potter" I always know when Hagrid is talking by the way his speech is written.

    When I think about characters with strong characteristics I think of Jack Sparrow from the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies. His mannorisms are so clear and so clearly "Jack" I would know that character anywhere.

    I think that writers can make specific mannorisms for characters but I'm not sure if it's possible to give a character every single characteristic in the way a certain real person moves and talks. But I think you can certainly give a character specific small traits.
    Just my thoughts…

  13. Forgot to put on my last comment- I don't think it's bad that giving characters certain mannerisims is hard. Creating super lifelike characters is almost always hard 🙂

  14. In the story I'm working on, my MC is faced with a choice. There's two different options, both which turn out the same in the end. Her reasons for choosing one or the other are entirely emotional, not so much because she thinks it through and says one or the other is more logical. I'm honestly not sure which one is truer to character – either one could be realistic. Does anyone have any advice how I should go about picking one or the other?

    @April – I know what you mean – I do it, too. That's why I'm always so quick to put in a description of a character. I don't want to shock somebody when they hear my MC has black hair, when they've been picturing her as a blond for the past five chapters. It's jarring.

    @Grace – Trenton Lee Stewart's descriptions are awesome, as are Rick Riordan's. Stewart's characters are easy to recognize by little actions like the finger-to-nose or polishing the glasses, and Riordan's descriptions give you a vivid picture of a character's appearance and personality with just a few well-placed words.

    @Emma – wow, that's an interesting idea. It would be a really cool exercise just to examine your character's traits. What does one character start doing that the other one did before? Sometimes I have a hard time envisioning a character – it might be helpful to try it then to better see them in my mind!

  15. I have a bit of an off-topic question for Ms. Levine, regarding publishing. I just finished the manuscript of a novel I've been working on for over a year. Previous to this, however, I posted a four-chapter excerpt on Inkpop, and it was picked up by an acquisitions editor for a publishing firm who expressed interest in it. The firm seems legit, but I'm not sure how to handle this. I don't have an agent or an editor or anything. Do I need one if a firm already expresses interest? How should I go about this?

  16. Sophie–The publisher will supply an editor. Most writers (but not all) these days agree on the need for an agent. You can send your manuscript to this acquisitions editor and to agents at the same time. Agents are likely to be more interested in a manuscript if it is already halfway down the road toward publication.

  17. Good post! I have a different problem- I know what my MC looks like and I want everyone to know it… I need to leave room for imagination too. I was talking to some friends this morning and I asked whether they like it when a description of the character is given or not and they all said a tad is fine but they like it best when not a lot is given. I'm the oppisate- I love knowing how my character looks- however, once a get a picture of the character in my mind, I can't change it, even if the author says differently.
    @Jenna Royal- You might want to mix it up a bit but I think it's ok if the characters' looks are the same as their personalities- one of my friend's hair is VERY her, so it's fine!
    @Rina- About making the narrator not sounds conceited- just say like 'My brown/blond hair' or have someone else say 'Your hair is so pretty'.
    @Emma- That's really interesting! I'm going to think on that…

  18. Another example of a series where the protagonist is never described is Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, in which there is no description of the hero, Taran. What makes that work, however, is that, through his actions in the story and the choices he has to make, the reader gets to know his personality really well. And that's ultimately important.

  19. From the website:

    Hello, Ms. Levine!

    How does one get across that a character is, to put it quite bluntly, going insane? I have one who is going insane and I don't know how to show it.

    I'm a big fan of your princess tales, especially The Fairy's Mistake. :-D:-)
    Alexbella Sara

    Alexbella Sara–I'm adding your question to my list.

  20. I think everything said in the bog post is true and helpful, but to Jill, I'd say that not describing the MC for sympathy reasons is a unique idea definitely worth trying. You can't make the MC completely personality-less, but a writer can make a reader relate to any personality. There's a lot more that you'll have to do aside from not describing the appearance, but until you've finished, you won't know what you have to do. Good luck!

  21. I agree with what Wendy the Bard said. Your character has to have personality, or he/she will be unbearably boring. Not to mention writing a personality-less character is practically impossible. Everything you do reflects your character, in my opinion. It's easy to relate to a character, though, who shares a common trait or fear. For example, a character who worries about her relationships with other people, fitting in, etc. would be easy to relate to for a lot of people. Something he/she is afraid of, like spiders or dying. Little things like that grab a readers attention, make them say "oh, I know what THAT'S like."
    Another thing that might work is using second person POV (you). It could be awkward, but it might do the trick.

  22. From the website:

    Stupid computer still won't let me post on the blog:-(

    To Alexbella Sara, I wrote a story where my MC temporarily lost his mind. Now I'm not saying that this is the best way to do it or anything, but when I did it, I gradually began interrupting his normal thoughts with less logical thoughts until he wasn't thinking or saying anything sensible. I made him wonder every now and then in the beginning why he head felt so foggy, but soon he stopped wondering. And since I was writing in third person, I was able to make other characters reflect on how strange he was acting until they all knew that he was completely insane. Of course, I'm just a beginner and may not know what I'm talking about, and it may not work with your story, but just thought I'd let you know what worked for me. Hope that helps!

  23. And this:

    Sorry, this is for the blog if I could get it there.
    This will sound really funny, but I’m sad that I finished my book because I love all my characters so much. I want to keep writing their adventures even though I’ve tied up all possible loose ends, and even though I have a new story that I want to work on, I keep going and playing around with irrelevant writing exercises just to keep my beloved characters going. I really can’t turn it into a series because there’s nothing left to solve. How do you break yourself away from past beloved characters and move on? I’m really not a phsyco, but this is tough!

  24. Oh, and this also from Ella:

    Oh, and I just realized that I forgot to thank Welliewalks for the advice about accepting criticism. That is so true! I never thought of it that way.

    Ella and others reading the blog–I haven't had the problem of wanting to stay with characters. Sounds like a nice problem. Can anyone offer advice?

  25. For Ella's problem: If you really love your characters and you just can't let them go, I'd say, quite simply, don't. Maybe write little dialogues between them from time to time, or something like that. You don't have to write a novel in order to stay with your charaters – just a little sketch every now and then, as an exercise in a particular style or whatever, should be enough. Who knows, you may even get tired of them sooner, and then the problem will be wholly solved!

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