One of the central characters in my novel, at the back of my mind looks like Benedict Cumberbatch. So while writing the story I have explicitly written that he looks like Benedict. It was also helping me with imagination and writing.

But now I am having second thoughts and thinking maybe if the reader doesn't like Benedict, it will make her not like my character, as my character has a lot of story time, its important for the reader to like him.

Is this a trivial case, or should I just put a general description,

for an e.g.

'with his angular face and gorgeous cheekbones, his voice was something that women would go crazy for'?

  • 2
    I would definitely favor the more general description. Aug 7, 2018 at 7:50

3 Answers 3


This is one of those instances where Show Don't Tell comes into play quite strongly.

Not everyone likes Benedict Cumberbatch, and there are readers out there who won't recognize who he is straight away — and while you've got the benefit of having this story already in your imagination, the readers don't. And looks like Cumberbatch in what, exactly? Real life? Sherlock? Dr Strange? Enigma? The Hobbit?

It's also extremely lazy writing.

Instead of telling us that your character looks like x, describe the features.

"He had that kind of messy, unkempt look, like Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock."

Please note, though, that this only works if the story is taking place in a specific place at a specific time. Describing a character that is supposedly living in the middle ages as "looks like Benedict Cumberbatch" is incredibly jarring, anachronistic and throws the reader right out of the story.

Either way, unless it's a defining and plot relevant detail (e.g., the six-fingered man) then descriptions are best left as general — tall, thin, dark hair etc. This allows the reader to build their own imagination into the characters and become slightly more immersed in the story itself..

  • 2
    Everything I would have said you said ahead of me. Love the misnamings of Bottlenose Cucumber. Aug 7, 2018 at 6:15
  • 1
    @MatthewDave Apparently Lauren Ipsum didn't. Funny that someone who calls herself "Lauren Ipsum" is offended by funny names.
    – Jay
    Aug 16, 2018 at 1:53

I think it's a bad idea.

  1. Personally, I have no idea who "Benedict Cumberbatch" is. Maybe I've seen him on TV or in movies and don't remember the name, or maybe I've never seen him. The odds are that many of your readers don't know who he is either. If you should be so fortunate that your book is still being read many years from now, there might well be a whole new generation who have never heard of this actor. Hey, I've talked to young people who don't know who the president was 30 years ago, never mind some actor. Celebrities tend to come and go pretty quickly from public attention. Just ask 90% of the actors who thought they were hot stuff 30 years ago.

The point being, for anyone who isn't familiar with the actor, your reference will just be confusing. Looks like who? What does he look like?

  1. For readers who ARE familiar with the actor, dragging in his name will bring all sorts of other associations. Is your hero like Cumberbatch in EVERY way? Once you mention the actor's name, readers are going to be thinking of his mannerisms, his personality from roles they saw him play on TV, etc. Do all of these fit your character? Will readers who remember him from a movie where he played a crafty villain think think of your character very differently from readers who remember the actor from a movie where he played a clean and upright hero and different still from readers who remember him from a movie where he played a pathetic man in need of help? (I have no idea if Mr Cumberbatch played any such roles, just examples.)

What about things about the actor or the characters he plays that haven't even happened at the time you write your story? I can imagine someone 10 years ago writing a character who is a lovable, funny family man, and so he says, "He was like Bill Cosby." And then it comes out that Bill Cosby is accused of sexual assault. The reader is left with an image of a creepy stalker in his head instead of the lovable, funny family man.

  1. As a reader, it would strike me as lazy. You don't have the creativity to invent your own character, so you just steal someone else's. You don't have the skill to flesh out an interesting character, so you just say "hey he's just like this guy that maybe you've heard of". I'm not saying that you ARE lazy, uncreative, and skill-less, but that doing this would give that impression to many readers.

It is a bad idea in general for a writer to ever use a living person as a reference point. For one, people aren't famous forever, secondly, you risk people not knowing who you are talking about (some readers don't watch TV or movies, they prefer their entertainment in the form of novels), third, you risk people not liking that person, both now and in the future, if your living person ends up implicated in a crime, convicted of a crime, or in a scandal, or if they just start using their money to fund their political pet causes that half or more of your own audience dislikes.

Just describe your character as you would describe Benedict Cumberbatch!

Surely you would not describe Benedict Cumberbatch as "looking like Benedict Cumberbatch", it tells us nothing. Take three things you like about Cumberbatch and put them in a description: An angular thin face, something of an inverted triangle, light blue eyes, brown hair tending toward a relaxed curl.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.