Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 26, 2018

Involving the Reader in Character Building

Eldred Bird

Good stories are built around great characters. If readers don’t identify or sympathize with your protagonist, they’re not going to care enough to come on your character’s journey.

We writers generally have a picture in mind when it comes to the characters in our books. We know what our heroes and villains look and sound like. Height, build, hair, eyes, accents—it’s all etched inside our brains. As we write, we want the readers to see exactly what we see . . . or do we?

Les Edgerton stated, in an earlier post here at WITS, that giving too much description can actually keep the reader from investing in a character. His theory is that by giving only information essential to the story and letting the readers fill in the blanks with familiar images, the characters become more personal and recognizable.

What happens if we remove all character description?

We bring our own biases and perceptions into the characters we create, often pulling in elements of ourselves and people we know. I was curious to see what readers would do when my own vision was removed from the equation (to the extent that it’s possible), so I did an experiment.

My hypothesis:

In the absence of physical description, the readers would paint their own picture and reveal their own biases.

To test my theory I wrote a short story, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins. I left out any physical descriptions or details that might influence how readers would picture the protagonist: gender, religion, physical attributes, ethnicity. I included only a vague idea of age. I kept the language gender-neutral as well.

The story was written in first person POV in a journal entry style, as we have a tendency not to describe ourselves physically in that format. That choice made leaving out those details feel more natural.

At the end of the story, I asked readers to close their eyes and without referring back to the text, picture the protagonist and describe that person to me. I wanted to know who they would see without my words guiding them to build the image.


Though a couple of readers came close to my own vision of the protagonist, no one described the character I’d seen when I wrote the story. Only one person mentioned noticing the lack of description, but indicated that it was not an issue for them.

An equal number of men and women took the time to respond to the question. All but one respondent pictured a male protagonist. To my surprise, the lone respondent who saw a female was a man. This might say more about societal expectations and bias rather than that of the individual readers.

What did the readers tell me?

Beyond the near unanimous agreement on gender, the descriptions covered a wide spectrum.

  • People guessed the age of the musician as anywhere from mid 30s to late 50s.
  • Body types varied from thin to chunky, but most everyone saw pale skin and dark hair with at least a tinge of gray.
  • A couple of people admitted to seeing themselves, and a few even scoured the internet and provided images matching their vision.

Though I had only asked for a physical description, many people responded with emotional descriptions as well. Two readers even built a back-story for the protagonist. I don’t think I could ask for a closer reader connection than that.

What have I learned from this experience?

  1. My first take away is that sometimes less really is more. Trying to force my image of the character into the mind of the reader may push them away rather than bring them closer.
  2. Removing all description is extremely difficult, and not always practical. There may be certain physical details that are required for the story to work.
  3. The big lesson is to TRUST THE READER.I have a tendency to over-describe or over-explain because I fear people won’t get the idea. Believe me, they get it.

While the physical descriptions from the readers often differed from my own vision, the emotions described didn’t, and emotions are what our stories are all about.

This experiment had a profound effect on me as a writer.

Telling a story is about taking the reader on a journey, not just getting them to a destination. Never again will I attempt to spoon-feed the readers information. Instead, I’ll leave more to their imagination so they can fill in the blanks with familiar images. I want them to have a personal experience with the characters I’ve created. Building in too much detail can create a brick wall that blocks their view of the story.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma and Catching Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room and Treble in Paradise: A tale of Sax and Violins (Treble is free on Amazon for the next few days).

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21 inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website: http://www.eldredbird.com/.

29 comments on “Involving the Reader in Character Building”

  1. Excellent advice; thanks. I am turned off by character descriptions that immediately specify hair color and length, color of eyes, and every detail of clothing, all in one rush without any integration into the narrative. Makes me think the writer has little trust in his/her ability to write with conviction.

    1. I'm right there with you. Those kinds of data dumps tend to pull me out of the story while I struggle to build a mental picture.

  2. Critique group members have told me many times to give more description for my main character. I mostly give one outstanding physical trait and leave it at that. Now I feel justified.

    1. I've had the same issue as well. I believe it's better to give the reader one or two things they can hang a familiar image on. Of course, if the character has physical attributes that are necessary for the story to work, we have to find ways to describe them,. I try to weave those details into the narrative.

  3. I believe in broad brushstrokes, and I write in deep POV. Nothing turns me off more than to read, "Sally ran down the street, her gauzy floral print skirt fluttering around her knees. She shoved her long auburn curls away from her freckled face, and put her sunglasses on over her emerald green eyes. Does *anyone* think of herself that way?
    I know my editor insists on a little more detail than I put in the opening paragraphs, but we compromise--and there has to be a *reason* for a character to get into self-description.
    In fact, I did a blog about it a while back. If permitted, the link is here. https://terryodell.com/self-description-and-point-of-view-2/

    1. Opening paragraphs can be a real balancing act. It's a tough job to get the story moving and get your main character introduced all in one whack. True that no one describes themselves in those kinds of term...if they describe themselves at all. I'm not a fan of that "mirror moment" where the MC gives us a head-to-toe description.

  4. In my opinion, allowing the readers to use their imaginations to enhance the characters makes the story more personal for them. I'm with Debbie Herbert, great experiment!

    1. Thanks, Denise. It was fun challenge to write the story, and even more fun to read the responses to the question at the end.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. WITS is one of my favorite places to hang. I learn something new every time land here!

  5. I went back to read the opening two pages of my book to see how much descriptive detail I gave about my MC. My first words are "The young woman" so we know gender and age, but no more physical description until the second page where her boyfriend "nuzzled her curly hair," That's it. The rest is action and danger until page 3, where we have a scene change, and more of a description is needed to compare my MC to another very nervous minor character. I prefer to drop bits of description as we would notice them, or as needed to move the story along. Terry Odell hit the nail on the head with his "bad example." Thanks!

    1. Great work, Ann. Weaving the details you need to give into narrative is a great way to gently guide the reader without trying to force a specific image into their minds.

  6. Great experiment! Pictured the protagonist from memories of a violinist who played in an orchestra with my mom. Just goes to show how personal views of a reader can lead to filling in details of a character from other writers stories. Thanks for trying this, Bob!

  7. Amen re not overdetailing characters! I don't want interfere too much with the reader's freedom to direct whatever movie they like in their minds based on my story. That includes casting.

    Mind you, the mirror moment can work, notably in 'DIVERGENT' where the heroine is only allowed to use mirrors infrequently.

    1. I agree that the mirror moment can work if used properly. I've used myself to build anticipation in a character, leading to an emotional payoff. The problem is that 99% of the time, writers use it as an easy way to dump information. Most readers will step back and say, "Yeah...that would never happen."

  8. Brilliant post, Eldred, and thanks for the experiment. I'm like Stephen King - rough out the character description in the most vague terms, and run with it.

    I won't watch the Harry Potter or Hobbit movies, because the picture in my mind of the characters is SO strong, I didn't want it ruined by actors. Wasn't able to do that with the Hunger Games though...but they did a brilliant job with casting that one.

    1. Thanks, Laura. It was a fun challenge to try to figure out how to write the story once I came up with the premise. I'll be a little less judicious with the details after this.

      I've also been disappointed in the past when the casting hasn't fit the picture I built in my head, but for me they nailed the Harry Potter crew pretty well. What I didn't like was that so much from the books was left out of the movies. I realize that's just the price of fitting a novel into the time restrictions of the cinema, but it still makes me reluctant to see a movie after I've enjoyed the book!

    2. Laura, I didn't know that about the Hobbit and Harry Potter. Those HP movies are the carrot I dangle in front of my little girl to get her sustained through the bigger books.

  9. […] Eldred Bird in Writers in the Storm add an air of mystery with his piece. It is about fiction­al writing, but that is okay in a post that started with America’s Stonehenge. Asking the question “What happens if we remove all charac­ter descrip­tion?” That is an inter­est­ing question. With the novel I am writing, I have spent much time adding descript­ive compon­ents for my charac­ters, partic­u­larly the main one.  […]

  10. What a fascinating experiment! This is really making me think about how I've described my characters. I tend to do broad strokes, but I want to make sure I've left enough room for the reader to fill in their perspective. Thanks for this, Eldred! Great post.

    1. Thanks, Julie. It was fun experiment to try to pull off. When I first started writing, I really wanted to show the readers exactly what I saw in my head. That led to some major data dumps in my work. I owe a big debt of gratitude to my critique group for honest with me about it. This exercise served to cement the lesson even more.

    2. I'd like to say a big thanks to everyone for your comments, and and even bigger THANK YOU to Jenny and the crew at WITS for the opportunity to share my little experiment. This blog is a goldmine of priceless information. Okay, I'm off to see what other nuggets I can dig up from the WITS archives. Never stop learning, folks!

  11. I'm late to the party but that's good stuff. I'd made the mistake early on, in trying to force my vision of the characters on the reader. It sapped my action and annoyed my reader. Thanks for sharing.

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