Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm writing a novel, and I just realized I don't describe be main character's appearance until Chapter 3 (each chapter is 1500~2000 words long and there are 25 chapters in total).

I do mention that the MC is 'skinny' in Chapter 1. Is that enough for the reader until he/she reaches Chapter 3?

Other information that I mention in Chapter 1 and 2:

  • The character's gender.
  • The character's age (just entered college).
  • The character's ethnicity.
  • The character's nationality.

The reason I didn't describe the character earlier, is that I didn't want the description to sound forced. Still, I wonder if I should try to move it to the beginning? To prevent the reader from forming a false physical image of the MC?

share|improve this question
When does the information first become relevant? – Monica Cellio Aug 27 '14 at 17:18
Philip K. Dick waits until the final chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to mention that the main character is bald. That really threw me for a loop. – user10480 Aug 28 '14 at 2:52
up vote 12 down vote accepted

The biggest risk you have by describing the physical appearance of your character later on in your story is that your readers' mental image is shattered when you describe your character in detail. This can be quite jarring.

The only way you're going to know for sure is when you ask someone to review your novel. Perhaps once you're ready you could ask them to read until chapter 3 then write a set of bullet points about MC? Are they the same points at the end of the third chapter?

You've said that you do describe aspects of your characters in previous chapters (presumably through other characters talking or thinking about them). Could these characters throw in some extra physical details?

Kelly remembered the time she'd thrown mud at Kate, the slick brown earth had coated her long blonde hair for hours until they'd finally returned home.

I use this style of drip feeding description quite a lot. Often I wait until another character meets your subject for the first time. Then, while that character is seeing and weighing them up is often the perfect time to move on to more detailed descriptions.

share|improve this answer

I think that you should define your main characters, and especially the love interest, only as much as absolutely necessary.

If it is important that the protagonist is male, write that he is male. If not, keep this ambiguous.

If it is important that the love interest is thin, write that she is. If not, keep this ambiguous.

Why? Because you want as many readers as possible to be able to identify with your protagonist.

If your reader is female and likes to imagine herself as being an action hero, then leaving the gender of the action hero of your novel ambiguous will allow men and women readers to imagine themselves as the story's hero.

If your reader is not thin, she will be offended by yet another male protagonist falling in love with yet another thin woman. Leaving the exact looks of the love interest ambiguous will allow all female readers to imagine the sexy hero to fall in love with them.

So, to answer your question, define the protagonists early on, for the reasons given in the other answers, but define them as little as possible.

share|improve this answer
I agree with this. Any description used must have a purpose, usually to hook into a readers preconceptions about what's described. If those preconceptions aren't required for the story then leave them off. – NotMe Aug 27 '14 at 12:38
I think this is part of the enormous success of the Twilight novels. The male protagonist Edward is described in exquisite detail, but the female protagonist could be anybody. – Arjun J Rao Aug 28 '14 at 7:25

The best answer would be depends on the story. One of my favourite writers, Stephen King, does leave a very little info about the characters in their story. I remember, that in his book On Writing, he said, that Carrie was originally described only as shy girl, always having wearied off sweater on.

If you keep vague description about the characters, you will leave room for reader to fill in the gaps. Everyone will have different image about the MC and that’s good. My cultural background is different than yours, so if you will provide me info about someone's ethnicity, I will have different image in my head than you originally had (works best with something I really know, like Eastern European ethnicity, where I have totally different images in head than people from USA)

So, the question you need to ask is: Is it really necessary for the reader to know that MC is skinny?

And also, show it. Do not describe it, just show it

Which means. If MC is skinny and its important for reader to know that MC is skinny, its better to throw some dialogue over dinner:

"Geez! How do you do it?" gasped Pavel.

"Do what?"

"I just had salad and I feel like I gained several pounds. And you. You can eat all this..." Pavel made gesto on the table, "and still remain so thin!"

Than just describing it like:

And Pavel entered room. His skinny body blocked almost no light entering the room

share|improve this answer
"always having wearied off sweater on" - doesn't make sense. – Andrew Medico Aug 27 '14 at 18:42
"gesto"? Don't recognize the word. – keshlam Aug 27 '14 at 20:55
@AndrewMedico: Used, rusty, second hand class – Pavel Janicek Aug 28 '14 at 6:43
@keshlam: I meant "gesture". Sorry, I am not English – Pavel Janicek Aug 28 '14 at 6:44

In my opinion, only describe what you need to describe. And only when you need to. At least that's what I try and do in my writing. I recall in an Isaac Asimov novel, I forget which, he kept back the detail that a particular character had dwarfism until quite near the end but it was crucial to the plot. Until then, the reader assumed, (a dangerous thing!), the character was about the same height as the others around him. This may sound vague but it's a variation on something I read about years and years ago. A girl of nine or ten was asked whether she preferred reading or watching TV. 'Reading,' she replied. 'The pictures are better.'

share|improve this answer

There is so far no rule or restriction for placing description of a character in earlier or later chapters of a novel. It is not necessary to portray the appearance of the protagonist in the very beginning of story.

In some situation you have to give the same feel to the readers what you are trying to express in the novel. So at least you should provide some fuzzy description about character in order to avoid the preconceived ideas from the readers' life which would come forward and prognosticate incompatible emotions adhere to the storyline. This is ultimately spoil the course of novel to proceed in lucid manner.

If the novel is of like self-realization of protagonist, portrayal of protagonist in the beginning may sometimes may not be favor, making little to portray in the upcoming chapters of the novel.

Whenever you tend to specific events in novel, you should describe the character a little with petty events as mentioned by Pavel Janick(User 3415) , in fuzzy manner to avoid emotions arising prejudices of readers from different ethnicity and nationality.

share|improve this answer

I suppose my answer might sound old school, but I greatly enjoy when the author describes the physical features of the characters in their story. I prefer knowing just how the author envisioned the character. From there I can build around the character and their corresponding thoughts and actions. I don't lack imagination but I do like the author's authenticity right down to the characterization as they saw it when they created their characters. I find it very disappointing should these stories be made into movies and the actors chosen look nothing like what I envisioned. I often choose not to watch the film adaptation for this very reason, especially since the author is often consulted on the subject. (And true book lovers know the movies are never as good as the book). I personally like knowing about hair color, eye color, height, a stilted gait, dimpled chin or a crooked nose that had been broken one too many times.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.