Some stories begin with a rather full description of say, the main character. Here is a clip from Hello Dolly that describes in (for me) excruciating detail not only about what she does (matchmaking) but how she does it. And I can see why character description would be important in say, "Thelma and Louise," because "character" forces them to make choices that most people would not make.

But my story is a plot-driven one that begins with a "crisis." (Think, earthquake or tsunami, or Dorothy Gale's tornado.) In such a situation, I need to know that Dorothy is from Kansas, and is a "hick from the sticks," but not about how she lives her everyday life on a farm that she's about to leave.

I was once taught that in a plot driven story, you should know your characters at the level of a good newspaper article about them. Because that's the level of description that the underlying crisis is reported. Naturally, the heroine should be portrayed as vulnerable but not helpless, and the hero as brave but not foolhardy, so they are equal to the crisis.

Is this an accepted standard? Or do readers and writers demand more character description than that in most stories? And if so, "how much" more?

  • 1
    not a full answer, but in my experience, You are right, a plot driven story focuses on plot first and character background second. I feel like writers might consider the crisis (in your example) as a character itself, giving the background exposition spotlight to the situation at hand. Also, you can add those details more organically throughout the story. Maybe start in the midst of action and then as we progress through the story following the character we can learn more about their day to day life, while the actually live it in between the moments they are needed to solve the crisis?
    – MC_Hambone
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 23:44
  • @MC_Hambone: "Maybe start in the midst of action and then as we progress through the story following the character we can learn more about their day to day life, while the actually live it in between the moments they are needed to solve the crisis?"That was the dilemma that inspired this question: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/17240/…
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 23:52

3 Answers 3


To me a plot driven story is like real life: you have no idea what goes on in another person's mind and all you know about them you deduce from their actions.

If a person sees some event and reacts to this in a particular way, it is completely unnecessary to explain that person's motivation, because it is apparent. That is the basis of "show, don't tell".

In an action driven story, you characterize your characters by their actions.

This is not contradicted by the advice that you, the author, should know more about your characters than what can be deduced from one particular scene. You need to know your characters to decide how they will act. But you need not write more than what the character does. (And don't forget that "behavior" includes mimics and gestures and tone of voice. A tear is something your character does.)


Your readers will substitute either themselves or a standard archetype for the hero unless you tell them otherwise. They only will need to know enough to know why the hero is doing the things he/she does, why he/she is upset or angry at the actions of the antagonist or why the hero doesn't just take the obvious route to the story solution. Even then you only need to give that information if it isn't obvious. You don't need backstory to explain why someone would want to survive an earthquake.

It's rare that the colour of their hair will be an important factor in these things, but race, weight, upbringing, demeanour, hairstyle can all affect plot. If you tell the readers the heroine looks an absolute mess you give them a shortcut to understanding that perhaps self-esteem is an issue, and that disguising herself as a contestant in a beauty pageant isn't going to be an easy choice of terrorist thwarting tactic.

You can get similar shortcuts from how they order a coffee, or their choice of car. Read some thrillers to see how authors can sketch out their hero in a short paragraph, or even a single sentence: what he's doing, what he's wearing, the time of day, and how he addresses people getting in his way.

Give the readers only what they need, and give it to them when they least expect it will be relevant to plot points later. Because the reader won't know at that point that it's plot, you need to keep it brief and punchy.

  • Based on your comments, maybe I need a bit "more" but the "Hello Dolly" level of character description was going overboard.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 14:30
  • Personally, I prefer undescribed characters that allow me to put myself into the books story. As for the why, this should be generically applicable anyway. Anybody would try to free their kidnapped wife. Anybody would kill the murderer of their children. Everyone wants their crush to love them back. The goal of the protagonist should be something that your readers share, otherwise you are writing for the wrong target audience anyway. So, this is the gist of my comment, you do not need to explain the why, because your readers have the same motivation driving them in their own lives.
    – user5645
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 9:15
  • @what: I agree with you. But apparently, not all "story coaches" do, at least in the U.S.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 14:56
  • My answer was meant to reassure rather than cause you more work! I'll tweak it to be more clear.
    – mwo
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 19:19

Reading is an imaginative act on behalf of the reader which means two things:

  1. You need to give a reader all the information necessary to imagine whatever it is you want them to imagine.
  2. Readers will imagine whatever they want and you can only control them so much.

Typically in more old fashioned writing you will see huge amounts of description telling us what the character looks like and what their background is. But readers form an impression of a character immediately from the rest of the story you've told and from inferences they will make. So modern stories are more likely to leave it up to the reader.

If I introduce Tom as a 41-year-old plumber and the story is set in small town Ohio then I've already given you enough information. He's white, probably working class, and is balding and unfashionable. You only need to guide us around the things we'll presume from basic information.

His mannerisms, his actions, his environment, and how others respond to him can tell us enough to fill in the rest. What's more important than how much information you give is how evocative the information is and the voice and style you use to tell it to us.

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian begins with:

"See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt."

In terms of physical description not much more is given than that opening line but it tells us so much about this character already. We can also see from the style of writing that this is a stark and brooding tale and we'll read the character in that light.

There aren't any rules about how much information you need to give and just as the rest of a story shapes the character, so too does description of a character shape the story.

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