Should you describe your main characters?


The first rule of write club is that you don’t talk about write club. Except we do, often, especially with other writers. Most writers want to improve their craft and share what they’ve learnt. This desire to share ideas and experience on the art of writing – whether through books, courses, writing groups, blogs and so on – is a wonderful thing. It shows that writers see each other not as competitors, but as fellow travellers. Comrades in arms. Drinking buddies. I’ve learned, and continue to learn, so much through the kindness of fellow writers, but this also leads to problems.

Writing, like all art, is subjective. You only have to look at the wide variation of reviews for what are considered our literary masterpieces to understand that. We all have different perspectives on what constitutes a good story, or a well-written story. A few months ago, on the school run, a parent asked me about my book. “Is it full of dialogue?” they asked, “because I hate that. I love a book where you can get lost in long descriptive passages, chock full of detail so you end up feeling like you are there.”

I’m not a great fan of long, drawn out descriptive passages. For me, rather than getting immersed into the story through detailed description, I find myself bored because I want to know what happens next. Any of you who have read my book, Second Chance, will know that I write in a style I would want to read. When I write description, I do so sparingly, giving enough detail to keep the reader grounded in the world I created, but leaving plenty of opportunity for them to fill in the gaps. This wasn’t necessarily a conscious stylistic decision, more a case of striking out the passages that bored me during the editing phase.

Except for one area: character description.

I very consciously decided not to describe my main characters. This was for two reasons. The first was that although I write in the 3rd person, each chapter is taken from a single character’s perspective and unless the character was particularly narcissistic, it would be unusual for them to describe themselves in detail. Even when my main characters, initially separate, end up coming in contact with each other, I still refuse to give much description because by that point the reader would have formed a mental picture of these people and any difference between my description and the image in their head will bring them out of the story (although I did see this technique used to excellent effect by Ian M Banks when he revealed halfway through one of his novels that the lead character was a humanoid badger).

The second reason I chose not to describe my characters in detail is all about making them accessible to the widest possible audience. Because the appearance of my characters has no relevance to the overall story, I didn’t want impose my view of what they look like on the reader. For me, it is the character’s actions and behaviours that should shape a reader’s mental image, not a descriptive passage.

But I know this is not to everyone’s taste. I’ve had one review which specifically wishes the main characters were described more. At the same time I’ve had somebody describe one of my characters in great detail to my face, despite the fact the only part of their body I described was greying hair. I just nodded and smiled.

What about you? Where do you stand on descriptive passages in books and the description of main characters in particular? As a reader do you prefer to be told what your characters look like or build the picture yourself? If you write, are do you thrill in sharing your mind’s image with the reader or do you prefer your readers to fill the gaps themselves? I’d love to hear from you.