Main Character Descriptions
in Third and First Person
By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2009 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved
Description of main characters in first draft stories often fall into
two wide categories -- far too little or way too much. Writers see
their characters and they want their readers to see them, too. However,
sometimes they can go too far in description, especially in the main
What? Don't you want the reader to see the main character just as he or
she is? Yes, you do. However, you need to consider two things about
readers. First, they have vivid imaginations and can 'see' characters
without every detail drawn in. Second -- and the more important of the
two -- the reader wants to connect with the main character in some way.
This may mean that she wants to see the character as herself or she may
want to imagine the character as a favorite star. If you give too much
description, you erase that connection.
Description and connection can be especially difficult with first person
manuscripts. While the reader may learn the basics from the book cover,
you shouldn't depend entirely on it to set up your story -- especially
since, in some cases, the cover has been entirely at odds with the
story. You especially have to be careful of description because you may
be sending the first part of your novel to an agent or publisher who
does not have the cover link to set the stage. The story must stand on
The one good thing about first person POV description is that people
rarely think of themselves in concrete descriptive terms. They're vague
-- and that can help in some ways. A first person character may
sometimes be easier to identify with partly because they are the camera
looking out, rather than having a camera looking at them.
An important note: What I stress may not be what you stress. And what
you stress in one story may not be what you need to stress in the next
one. This is a guide for general focus. You will need to adjust it to
suit your own work.
These are also very basic things, but they can help you start to bring
your character into as much focus as you want for the story.
Below are three sets of extremely simple descriptive details that should
be easy to address -- but sometimes are not. They are, however, things
that need to be shown early in the story.
It is important to establish the gender of your character as quickly as
possible. This is relatively easy in third person work where you can
use pronouns even before you use names.
In first person, though, this becomes a little more difficult. In the
right circumstances, adjusting a dress or bra is a pretty fair indicator
of the female sex, though it might also be used to mislead the reader or
surprise him with a revelation a little later. Dialogue from another
character might help (Hey, sista' (bro'), how ya' doin' today?), but it
has to be within the first few lines, and it has to be natural to the
story. You should not shove something in just to make this connection.
Cross-gendered characters may be harder to write, though the important
part is to remember that they will think of themselves as one gender,
even if that doesn't correspond to the physical body. This sort of
character might have conflicting thoughts that can help to trigger the
reader to an understanding. In first person, this might be a very
introspective character with feelings that are best expressed
People writing science fiction, and sometimes even fantasy, may have
another problem to deal with -- the character that is of a different
gender than the basic human two. A 'made up' pronoun can help to
identify that this character is not he or she. This is a convention
that is understood in the science fiction world, and clues the readers
early that the character is something different.
Rather than coming straight out and saying the age, or relative age, of
a character, you might try handling it through a relative-to-now
description. If a character says (or thinks) about being in grade
school a decade ago, that gives a relative age. If the character
mentions a thirty year marriage, that also gives a relative age. The
problem with these sorts of things is that they can be intrusive and
hard to work into the beginning, where they are most needed. You don't
want your readers going for a dozen pages thinking the detective is a
young, spry guy only to find out that he's been married for twenty-five
years and has three kids already out of college.
There are times when the age of the character can be vague, which allows
the reader a wide range of personal choices. And remember that young
and old are relative terms to the reader.
This is a good 'in relation to' descriptive tag. If someone looks down
into the face of another standing beside him or her, the first
impression is of being tall. If a character looks up at others, the
impression is of being short. Both can be wrong, but they're a good way
What can sometimes work is to have the character do something that
indicates an ease or difficulty related to a common activity like
getting something from a high shelf. Again, though, it has to be
natural to the story. When you are writing an opening seen 'look
around' at the surroundings and see what you might use.
If your character is of average height, this is something you need not
really stress. It is only the extremes that can be important in this
This can be a truly relative set of descriptions. One person will think
another looks good, while that person thinks she needs to lose weight.
It's not always about anorexia or being over-weight, either. Attitude
is an important part of this equation and how the person sees himself in
first person. In third person, there is far more leeway. And this is
where you can leave a lot of it to the imagination of the readers, who
can decide for themselves what their version of thin and fat might be.
Oh, and don't forget such terms as pleasingly-plump as a middle-of-the
ground description that also implies an attitude.
Again, if you want to imply an average character, there is no reason to
stress one or the other.
This is a simple, mix and match exercise. Choose any combination of the
terms I've used and write a third person and a first person versions.
List other terms that you would find useful and add them into the mix.
The second section is about the colors that we associate with a
character. These are often the first impressions that a person has when
he meets someone. Skin and hair are the most obvious, and eyes are
something we tend to pay more attention to in writing than we often do
in real life. They are distinctive markers, though, and important ways
to introduce your characters.
Anyone with sight is conscious of skin color, and that has nothing to do
with bigotry. There are even times when it denotes something about the
individual -- his tan skin in a winter city would make you think he'd
been on vacation. Her tan skin might make you think the same -- or
might make you think of tanning salons. A blonde haired man in an
African village stands out as an individual.
A person might think of race in personal terms. Latina, Latino, black,
Native American (Though that would more often be a personal affiliation
with a particular tribe, which means not just Sioux, but Santee Sioux,
Winnebago Sioux or Omaha Sioux and the like.) This is, again, a problem
for first person narratives where a character paying excessive attention
to his or her appearance can be unnatural -- or it can be a sign of
nervousness for a special occasion. A first person POV character
looking into a mirror to describe him or herself is considering bad
form, but even that can work under certain circumstances.
Quite often we notice the cut and neatness of the hair as much as the
color. There are variations of color, and it might be a good idea to
study and name variations rather than sticking with the plain black,
brown, red, blonde and gray descriptions. A good way to learn a few new
names and colors is to use Google. Type in 'hair color chart' or hair
color dye' and check out what you get, especially in the images
section. You can also browse the aisles of hair dyes at stores and jot
Speaking of dyes -- does the hair color look natural? This isn't just
on women. Does the hair look like a wig or hair piece? Weaves?
Short, long, thin and bald are also descriptions to consider. Stringy,
wild, curly and frizzy are others. Bangs?
This is something that is especially difficult to work in for a first
person POV character. There are times when the person may have reason
to think specifically about his or her own eye color, but for the most
part we aren't as aware of it as we may be about the personal
descriptive aspects that we see more often like skin color, hair color,
In third person, it's fairly simple to get in a quick description that
The girl stood by the wall, her long dark hair blowing in the breeze and
her piercing green eyes watching everyone who passed.
However, if you try to do that in first person, it starts to sounding
out of character:
I stood by the wall, my long dark hair blowing in the breeze and my
piercing green eyes watching everyone who passed.
The awareness of the hair color is not a problem, but the description of
the eyes is something that would be seen from the outside -- as a
self-description it does not work.
I stood by the wall, my long dark hair blowing in the breeze as I
carefully watched everyone who passed.
If you are working in first person, look for the place to add eye
color. It can come later. Once the reader has a basic idea of what the
character looks like. Or you may find that it's not important at all.
Again, don't resort to the 'face in the mirror' description unless you
have a very good reason for it.
There is one more aspect of eyes to consider, at least for relatively
modern stories. Does the person wear glasses? Are they new? Old and
held together with tape? If they don't wear glasses, does the person
squint enough to make it apparent they should?
What about contacts and the chance for changing eye color?
Do two versions of a character description. In the first, do it as a
third person POV. In the second, do it as a first person POV. Which
items can you use from both without the first person POV sounding out of
character or self-absorbed?
There are other bits and pieces that can go into the first glance
descriptions of a character. Some of these are ones that can be built
on later, unlike the basic physical descriptions.
Attitude presents problems -- and opportunities -- that may not be
obvious at first. Quite often those looking on can misjudge a personal
attitude. Does someone with a laid back attitude strike another as
being lazy? Or maybe being a smart ass? Is the shy girl mistaken for
Tapping fingers against a desk might be a sign of nervousness,
anxiousness or boredom, and serene can look an awful lot like lack of
Neat or Messy
This is probably the easiest one to deal with, even in first person. A
frown about a stain on a shirt sleeve or a careful arrangement of hair
and clothing as someone leaves a car can say a great deal about a
character and still keep in story focus rather than stepping outside the
plot to introduce some feature.
Scars and Tattoos
A person can be too aware of visible scars and tattoos, and that is both
in the main character and the person looking at him or her. A scar, in
particular, can have an emotional tag with it, and cause a person to be
conscious of it.
Tattoos, depending on the amount of them and what they depict, can draw
unwanted attention, too. A main character being aware of them might be
a sign that they are inappropriate to the situation. Applying for jobs,
especially anything above blue collar work, can be especially trying.
This is the time to consider tattoos, oddly colored or cut hair and poor
clothing choices. It might, however, be more apparent in a distant
third person observer than the first person character.
Take two items from each of the above lists and write a third person
view and then a first person view using the same items. Even if you
don't normally work in first or third person, it is a good exercise to
do to teach yourself how to be aware of other views in the story. How
someone views himself is often far different from how others view him.
I also suggest that you make a list of things that draw your attention.
Such items might include:
Start observing these things in other people. Build up a vocabulary of
descriptions so that you can create diversity in your stories. Practice
writing scenes that deal with only the basics of descriptions and then
add to them. When you can get them right, your characters will not only
be believable, but also unforgettable.