Physical Descriptions for Lesser Characters

Should every character, even somewhat of a minor character in one scene, be provided a physical description?

I think one of the tricks of good writing is to figure out how to get out of the way of the reader’s own imagination. Most lesser characters are just types, and as such your reader has all kinds of ready-made ideas to build an image with. You really want to work with that rather than over-command it. When it comes to minor characters and most environments, you really want the reader to do a lot of the filling in for you.

Your protagonist has been pulled over by a motorcycle cop. The fact that it is a motorcycle cop itself already kicks in a lot. A single word that characterized the stride of the cop as they walk up to the car might be enough to finish out the picture of this character — to settle between the several kinds of cop-on-a-traffic-stop stereotypes your reader has socked away — enough to carry the scene. (The way the officer talks with the protagonist would tell us the rest.)

Plus, as with anything you think to add to your story, you should also ask yourself why any particular physical details are important — what does adding them do for your story or the character of the character. Sure, you want your scenes to come alive in your reader’s mind, but that is mostly done by what happens and what your characters do. Does the traffic cop have a square jaw? After that characterization you gave us of the walk up, the reader already knows or else it doesn’t matter.

Call me crazy, but I confess to having written whole stories (short stories) where the main character has no physical description to speak of. Now, I’m not suggesting you do that, but that can work too because even your main characters probably have a dominant type that determines a lot about their appearance and presentation in your mind’s eye — and the reader’s too.

There is my 2¢ anyway.



Thank you, gr!

That was quite helpful. All of it.


I don’t remember the source, but I once saw minor characters classified this way:

  • Extras – one spear carrier standing in a line of spear carriers.
  • Walk-ons – a spear carrier with a name, wearing the socks his mother gave him, thinking about lunch.
  • Bit parts – a spear carrier with a name who responds to a question from the main character in the scene.
  • Minor characters – Someone who runs an errand for the main character or plays some other minor role in the plot.
  • Secondary characters – people with repeating roles and people who advance a significant part of the plot. The main character’s secretary. The ambassador to France. Etc.
  • Main characters – protagonist, antagonist, chief minion, etc.

Only the last two categories need more than a line or two of description at most.


From my experience as a reader, I would say description becomes more important the more characters you have. Otherwise it gets to be difficult to tell them apart.

Also, readers tend to get grumpy if you kill too many people that they care about. (Looking at you, Mr. Martin!) So if you expect to have a high body count you might want to be selective in how much energy you spend defining future victims.


I agree completely with what @gr has said. Whatever you leave out very often times the reader will fill in. Only describe something if would be unexpected. Of course, the devil is in the details. If a writer’s powers of description are legion, then by all means, over-describe. Salman Rushdie is a master. As an example:

Two hours after I rescued her from the unfathomable chasm of her hotel corridor, a helicopter flew us to Tequila, where Don Ángel Cruz, the owner of one of the largest plantations of blue agave cactus and of the celebrated Ángel distillery, a gentleman fabled for the sweet amplitude of his countertenor voice, the great rotunda of his belly and the lavishness of his hospitality, was scheduled to hold a banquet in her honour. Meanwhile, Vina’s playboy lover had been taken to hospital, in the grip of drug-induced seizures so extreme that they eventually proved fatal, and for days afterwards, because of what happened to Vina, the world was treated to detailed analyses of the contents of the dead man’s bloodstream, his stomach, his intestines, his scrotum, his eye sockets, his appendix, his hair, in fact everything except his brain, which was not thought to contain anything of interest, and had been so thoroughly scrambled by narcotics that nobody could understand his last words, spoken during his final, comatose delirium. Some days later, however, when the information had found its way on to the Internet, a fantasy-fiction wonk hailing from the Castro district of San Francisco and nicknamed explained that Raúl Páramo had been speaking Orcish, the infernal speech devised for the servants of the Dark Lord Sauron by the writer Tolkien: Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. After that, rumours of Satanic, or perhaps Sauronic, practices spread unstoppably across the Web. The idea was put about that the mestizo lover had been a devil worshipper, a blood servant of the Underworld, and had given Vina Apsara a priceless but malignant ring, which had caused the subsequent catastrophe and dragged her down to Hell. But by then Vina was already passing into myth, becoming a vessel into which any moron could pour his stupidities, or let us say a mirror of the culture, and we can best understand the nature of this culture if we say that it found its truest mirror in a corpse.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. I sat next to Vina Apsara in the helicopter to Tequila, and I saw no ring on her finger,

If you write at this level, I usually want more not less.

Don Angel gets a quick, masterful description:

a gentleman fabled for the sweet amplitude of his countertenor voice, the great rotunda of his belly and the lavishness of his hospitality,

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I’m a bad person to ask (and probably to answer), which is why I’ll answer anyway…

My writing tends to be very minimal in terms of description of characters and stuff-- at least, it feels that way to me, compared to the books I’ve read (listened to), which seem far more elaborate than mine.

However, the feedback I receive from most people who’ve read my stuff, suggests that people are okay with the way I write, and even like it. One person (who, admittedly may be slightly biased), says:

“From what I’ve read of your writing, you do an amazing job with finding the balance! It can be hard to find the perfect amount of description, but I, for one, have really loved what I’ve read!”

(Which reminds me, I still need to pay her the $10 bucks…)

I think giving people a reasonable description when the chapter / scene changes, and then updates as you go along really works pretty good for most people to develop a mental image of the story you’re working to convey.

I myself love really rich descriptions and stuff when I see/hear them, and wish that was my style-- and maybe I’ll grow into that someday as my experience as a writer increases. But as it stands today, I’ll take my compliments however I can get them. :slight_smile: :slight_smile: :slight_smile:


Excellent!! Thank you for that. That was a very good description (IMO) of the level of detail required.

The way I see the matter (and how I write, of course) could be in short depicted as this :
The further away from the “front” a character is, the more I describe him/her through the opinion/perception front-more characters have of him/her.

The main characters are the entry point (perspective-wise) to the story being narrated. No good reason to cut them out and establish a relationship between your background characters and the reader.
Respect the middle man.

The reader as a relationship with the main character ; the main character has a relationship with secondary characters… (and so on.)

Since we got to know the main character over the pages (if done right, that is), what this main character thinks of another one says a lot about that second one. Even more probably that what could be achieved by the author himself, should he try to come up with a vibrant description on his own.

In other words, the fact that your main character doesn’t like Mr.X’s tie brings way more to the story than you, the author, could ever pour in by saying that Mr.X’s tie is ugly.

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