Two characters of opposite sex meet in a blank room (nothing remarkable about the setting) for the first time and the reader isn't familiar with either of them. Since genre would sway the answer to this, let me say it is Action-adventure.

My question: 'What would the reader want to know about each character in order to make them more real physically?'

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    Reading should make our interest in their physical aspect less important in the first place. Jan 16, 2018 at 13:57
  • That gap between her two front teeth.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 17, 2018 at 1:45
  • @HotLicks You mean the gap between her overly long and pointy two front teeth (which we only find out about later)?
    – user
    Jan 17, 2018 at 8:38
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    @MichaelKjörling - No, the overly-long teeth are her canines, which we first observe dripping blood.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 17, 2018 at 13:18
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    Oh this is fun. I suppose what I want to know is if she has had a recent STD exam.
    – SFWriter
    Jan 18, 2018 at 2:55

7 Answers 7


Good answers already, but I think you are looking for something different.

You are looking for "The woman in the red dress".

You immediately had a picture from "The Matrix" in your head there, right?

Characters in your story should have one identifiable feature this can be a physical feature, or a behaviour, but it is something that we would notice on them and remember. This is unique for each character, and which one you pick says a lot about the character in question and their place in the story.

This is the first thing you should tell a reader, though from time to time you can make it the 2nd or 3rd thing for variety.

The identifiable feature is what other characters in the story use to talk about the character in question if they don't know or don't want to use his or her name. "The girl with the red hair" or "that bodybuilder guy" if it is about physical features, "the man in the old uniform", or "the woman in the red dress" if you use clothes. If can be "the arrogant dude" or "the shy girl" if you use body language or gait, etc.

This is a very realistic depiction of people as well, as we tend to use these things in real life. You can spot it when going out with a group of friends and talking about strangers you see or meet. Typically someone identifies a person by such a unique feature and everyone else immediately knows who they are talking about.


This is far more personal a question than you might think, because it depends entirely about your voice as a writer. Let me take your example and give you examples based on it. (it makes sense, if you think about it)

Matrix-styled. He stood tall, no matter that he was once again in a white room. The Loading Program, they called it; he mostly called it a heart attack waiting to happen. More important than that, though, was the one who stood before him. Her tight leather outfit hugged her curves in all the right places, but the dark shades and the crease between her eyebrows told him that checking her out just now wasn't the smart option... or sane.

Fantasy-styled. Her first trial. She was fidgeting from the nerves, and the fact that the only other person in the bland room was a man that could pass for a boulder certainly didn't help. Was she supposed to fight him? Was he her first trial? Or was he the one meant to explain what was going on? She didn't know, but his frown and tightly crossed arms didn't help the queasiness in her tummy any.

Sci-Fy Styled. He looked around, finding no one but the woman command said was to be his new partner. New partner, he mused, scoffing at the thought. Barely a week after Briggs took a plasma grenade in the face, and already they were trying to piggy him with some rookie he never met. With a soft click, his infantry railgun powered down, the normally ever-present hum fading into the background, and he slung it over his shoulder. She was at least wearing corps mech-armor; that was a blessing. Briggs was stupid enough to wear her graduation uniform--the idiot. She clicked her visor up, her cocked eyebrow hinting at unasked questions. He could only sigh, wondering just how screwed he was with whipping this one into shape.

Detective Noire Styled. He stood there, his tanned trench coat dripping from the downpour she could still hear beating against the room's only window. Supposedly the answers to her prayers, her friend told her as much. The best, she'd said. Not much chance of that; he looked like something the cat dragged in. Still, her problem needed solving, and the way his eyes were drinking her in suggested he'd be motivated to do just that. Only time would tell.

Notice that in none of these scenes did I describe much of the characters, but I'm willing to bet you could tell me quite a bit about each Point of View character. Sure, I could have had one of them fiddling with a sword or a sub-machine gun. But, you see something about them just in the references they make, the words used in their thoughts and how they perceive the world.

Think like the character your using for the Point of View, and work with their thought patterns. You'd be amazed just what you can get away with--and frankly people are going to criticize you regardless of what you say or don't say. After all, Rowling and Maas both have critics breathing down their necks, while their fans are crying out praises. Find what works for you. No matter how detailed, how telly, how showy. Everything has its place and time. It's about telling a story well, whatever methods or techniques you use just says how you plan on telling it.


Readers are not really interested in getting to know characters "physically".

Readers are primarily interested in whatever it is about the character that makes the most difference to what the character will do in the story. That is not the size of their pecs or breasts, whether they are attractive or not, whether they are tall or not.

It is quite unlikely (not impossible) that the male being 6'2" or 5'11" is what makes the biggest difference in his success or failure. It is quite unlikely that the female's wide hips or narrow hips is what determines her success or failure.

What the reader is more interested in is the content of their brain and soul: What do they want? What is driving them? What do they know? What are their skills? What do they WANT to know upon stepping into this room?

It would be a pity, and a shallow story, if their skill is "I am sexually attractive".

I personally try to limit physical description to what is necessary; or what seems incongruous. Mary seemed slight for a woman supposed to be a fighter. Mary expected a linebacker, John was more of a quarterback.

If you feel compelled to provide a physical description, I would choose the details of their physical appearance most likely to play a role in the plot or outcome of the story or what happens next.

As an aside (not part of the answer) I personally always avoid the cliché trap of "physical attraction", the world class beauty that happens to risk her life on the front lines. I find it implausible and an amateur shortcut, and equally implausible they happen to be single and looking! If I have a love interest in my story, I generally do not describe the features of the girl at all. If she is unusually beautiful, I think that most be revealed by the way others treat her: Show, don't tell.

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    Good points. As a reader, it can be distracting or annoying when a writer focuses too much on describing their appearance and clothing. The beauty of reading is being able to imagine from a general description. You can question yourself by asking why this particular description is important or how it adds to the story. (Example for a mystery crime plot: "It looked like the scar on his face was made with a knife." Either the character was involved with shady business or was a victim of an assault and could offer clues to the story.) Jan 16, 2018 at 1:15
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    One specific caveat: either describe physical attributes it right away, or not at all. It can be very jarring to find out that a character is blonde when you'd been imagining them with black hair for three chapters. Jan 16, 2018 at 9:31
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    @doctordonna Some description can be used for identification in story, I have a character that is a world famous swordsman, he has a unique facial scar: Everybody knows it, saving me intro time (Harry Potter's scar served much the same way). I have made professional burglars unusually slight and acrobatic, a wealthy king grew so fat he stopped getting out of bed, lived in it with maids and other servants seeing to his feeding, waste, hygiene and sexual needs on demand (giving him no other physical description). I tend toward single salient details; and studiously avoid 'perfection'.
    – Amadeus
    Jan 16, 2018 at 10:56
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    I downvoted, just because I felt the blanket statement that starts your answer is overstated and quite possibly untrue as written. A physical description can help a reader visualize a character, and that is something that many readers are in fact interested in. Jan 16, 2018 at 14:52
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    @ChrisSunami Certainly your right. Since this question is obviously entirely opinion based and broad, since readers are not all alike, I answered with my opinion and stand by it. What readers want to know first about a character is the title question, and I do NOT think that is "appearance."
    – Amadeus
    Jan 16, 2018 at 15:03

As a reader, the first thing I want to know about a character is why I should care about this character. In an action-adventure setting, without knowing more about what's going on, I'd suggest letting me (the reader) know what is at stake with this meeting. Where is the suspense? What can be gained by this meeting? What can be lost? How is it that the stakes are of value to me, the reader?


As a reader, what would you like to know about a character? Their physical look? Their friends? Their talents? Their thoughts? Usually you would need some physical description, but also deep thoughts about the person. Do they have any disabilities? Do they like one sport but can't play it due to a problem?

If you answer those questions, it could help. :)


I suggest an exercise that will help you understand conventions and best practices in your chosen genre:

  1. Pick two or three score of books from your favourite authors or bestselling authors or authors considered masters within your genre, either from your book shelf, a book store, a library, or the preview feature on Amazon.com

  2. Read the first few paragraphs and take note of how characters are described both directly and through their (verbal and non-verbal) behavior.

  3. Derive an answer to your question from your findings.

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    So many questions here can be answered just by being a reader. Jan 17, 2018 at 14:23

In my opinion I think the writer should describe the characters appearance a little. Not to much, maybe for example just their hair color and style, their name and maybe a little about their family and background.

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    Hei Mikayla, I see this is the first answer you post, so please let me welcome you to SE by suggesting to go deeper in your answer. For example, why would you recommend to describe the characters? What effect would that achieve? It's a good answer, but it's more helpful if you support it with more arguments! :)
    – FraEnrico
    Jan 17, 2018 at 12:53
  • What is your question here? Do you have anything specific you want to know? If so, specify what you want to know as a question rather than a statement Jan 17, 2018 at 20:03

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