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?

  • When does the information first become relevant? Aug 27, 2014 at 17:18
  • 7
    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, 2014 at 2:52
  • To nitpick The character's age (just entered college). == between 18 and 80. Tons of information.
    – Vorac
    Jul 21, 2020 at 16:13

8 Answers 8


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.


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.

  • 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, 2014 at 12:38
  • 2
    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. Aug 28, 2014 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

  • "always having wearied off sweater on" - doesn't make sense.
    – nobody
    Aug 27, 2014 at 18:42
  • "gesto"? Don't recognize the word.
    – keshlam
    Aug 27, 2014 at 20:55
  • @AndrewMedico: Used, rusty, second hand class Aug 28, 2014 at 6:43
  • @keshlam: I meant "gesture". Sorry, I am not English Aug 28, 2014 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.'

  • Almost all of Asimov's writing had very sparse visual detail. When he did provide details, you could be almost certain that it was an instance of Chekhov's gun. Being aphantasic, he himself could not mentally visualize images, and so unless it was necessary for the plot he saw his characters as generic people, his locations as generic locations, etc., without any irrelevant details. Neuronic whips, for instance, appear in many of his stories, but he never describes them or how they work, leaving that to the readers' imaginations. Jan 3, 2023 at 15:33

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.


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.


I am having the same problem, only I met it by having one character see the other's hair as red-blond, though in reality his hair is more of a dark ginger. Everyone's colour perception is different, and I try to avoid having it sound as though a Croyola box blew-up in the narrative.

Having different character's say different things about one character is a good way to go. Another character was like her mother, petite, and she accentuate's it by wearing a pixie cut under cloche hats and antique frocks from the Roaring Twenties. It's my method, using personality and perceptions to describe a character, not actually giving a police blotter bulletin.

In Pride and Prejudice, we all agree that Bingley is a perpetually smiling young man who has fair hair and a light colouring, yet the only description of him is that 'he wears a blue coat!' the rest is conveyed through his personality.

The same for Darcy, that he is dark, tall, and attractive, through the fact that he has become handsomer through his fortune of '10000 a year.' and the descriptions of his arrogance and conceit. No physical descriptions needed, just a few brisk examples of who they are.


I think about this problem a lot, when to describe the main character's appearance, and I think it is best to do it little by little. You, the writer, obviously have an idea of what the character looks like, so you should definitely share that with the reader. You should feed the appearance little by little, but don't wait too long. If you wait until the 20th chapter to explain, the reader will already have formed an image in their head of what the character looks like and it will be hard for them to change that.

If in the first chapter, you are busy explaining the character's surroundings and back story, you should wait until the second or third chapter to bring in part of the appearance. Introducing the appearance all at once, like saying, "Meg was a short girl with thick, luxurious blonde hair and wide eyes," will bore the reader. Feeding it a little at a time while the plot is going on will make it more interesting. You could say,"as Meg battled fiercely, her thick hair flew in her face, its light shade reflecting off the sun." Then the audience will get part of her appearance and still be caught up in the story. A little later, you could introduce the color of Meg's eyes, etc.

If you are looking for more help writing a story, you should read THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION by Donald Mass. It has been really helpful and gives a lot of information about how to write emotion and plot.

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