This week I’m digging into Santa’s sack of reader emails. This one’s from Cady, who wants to know about describing the hero:
When should I insert my main character’s physical description? I know some authors that don’t put it in until chapter three and some who start with it right off the bat. I’ve also noticed that they tend to vary in how much detail they give, and I was wondering if there were any common themes in that regard? If you have any advice, I’d love to hear it. Thank you so much. 🙂
We’ve touched on some elements of the hero’s description– for example, we know that the hero is generally better looking than he thinks— but I think it’s worth our while to look more closely on how and when to slip the description into the narrative. Here are 6 elements to include when writing a physical description of your hero.
1. Sneak-in the hero’s age
How old is the hero? The bestselling authors include the hero’s age through the vehicle of other description or backstory. Sometimes, they even make the reader do a little math to figure it out.
- In Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, we know that Harry Potter has been living with the Dursleys for ten years, ever since he was a baby. We confirm his age with his birthday: “…tomorrow, Tuesday, was Harry’s eleventh birthday. Of course, his birthdays were never exactly fun — last year, the Dursleys had given him a coat hanger and a pair of Uncle Vernon’s old socks.” (HP Ch.3).
- In Twilight, we learn that Bella must be seventeen years old: “It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That was the year I finally put my foot down; these past three summers, my dad, Charlie, vacationed with me in California for two weeks instead.” (TW Ch.1).
- In The Hunger Games, we learn Katniss’s age because it is relevant to her entries in the reaping: “So now, at the age of sixteen, my name will be in the reaping twenty times.” (HG Ch.1).
2. Casually describe the hero’s body type
What kind of body type does the hero have? The bestselling authors include this information when telling the reader something else– something more meaningful– about the hero.
- Harry Potter’s body type shows that he has been neglected: “Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age.” (HP Ch.2).
- Bella’s description of her body type shows that she is not very confident: “I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete…” (TW Ch.1).
- Katniss’s description of her body type shows that she does not consider herself attractive: “When we met, I was a skinny twelve-year-old, and although he was only two years older, he already looked like a man.” (HG Ch.1).
3. Comment on the hero’s skin
We get just about one sentence on what the hero’s skin looks like. (Consider checking out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign before writing that sentence.)
- Harry’s skin is scarred, which goes with his “chosen one” thing: “The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.” (HP Ch.2).
- Bella is very pale, which suits her damsel-in-distress style: “My skin could be pretty — it was very clear, almost translucent-looking —” (TW Ch.1).
- Katniss is olive-toned, which fits her outdoorsy nature: “I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread. He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin…” (HG Ch.1).
4. Quickly mention the hero’s eye color
It’s tempting to break out the flowery language describe the hero’s eyes, but it’s best to keep it simple for now and save the obscure colors for describing the hero’s love interest later. In The Hunger Games and Twilight, we learn the hero’s eye color in a slightly indirect manner.
- Harry has green eyes: “Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes.” (HP Ch.2).
- Katniss has gray eyes, which she tells the reader through her description of Gale: “…we even have the same gray eyes. But we’re not related, at least not closely.” (HG Ch.1).
- Bella most likely has brown eyes: “Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine.” (TW Ch.1).
5. Spend a little more time on the hero’s hair
If we can learn anything from Kate Middleton, it’s that having fabulous hair can turn you into royalty. Like the duchess, Harry Potter, Katniss, and Bella all have dark, long hair that borders on unruly.
- Harry has dark, messy hair: “Harry must have had more haircuts than the rest of the boys in his class put together, but it made no difference, his hair simply grew that way — all over the place.” (HP Ch.2).
- We know that Bella does not have blonde or red hair: “I looked at my face in the mirror as I brushed through my tangled, damp hair.” (TW CH.1).
- Katniss has her famous braid: “I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag.” (HG Ch.1).
6. Describe clothing while making another point
We’ve already examined the symbolism of the hero’s clothing. Put the hero’s first outfit to good use and make it represent something more.
- Harry’s glasses show us that he has a hard home life: “He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.” (HP Ch.2).
- Bella’s warm-weather outfit shows us that she is about to experience a big change: “I was wearing my favorite shirt — sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture.” (TW Ch.1).
- Katniss’s outfit shows us that she is no stranger to hunting: “I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet.” (HG Ch.1).
Why it Works
Though Katniss and Bella each stop by a mirror, this isn’t the main method of passing physical description to the reader. (Katniss thinks, “I can hardly recognize myself in the cracked mirror that leans against the wall.” Bella thinks, “Facing my pallid reflection in the mirror, I was forced to admit that I was lying to myself.”)
There’s also a lot of description through opposites: Bella doesn’t look like the blond, tan girls; Katniss doesn’t look like her blond, blue-eyed mother and sister.
Most importantly, most of the physical description does double-duty by explaining another aspect of the hero’s personality or background. Since the details are tucked in with the rest of the story, the reader as no reason to skip ahead to the good stuff.
I’ll add this physical description card to the master outline. The first chapter works just fine to introduce the hero’s physical description– there’s no reason to “hide the ball,” because the sooner the reader can imagine the hero for herself, the sooner she can connect to your story.
P.S. Did you notice that Harry Potter, Katniss, and Bella are all thin? Do you think this is just a coincidence or that it has more relevance to the story?