Are you the kind of reader who likes to have a detailed description of the hero or heroine in romance books? What about other secondary characters? And do you feel the same way about characters in books of genres other than western historical romance, or romance in general?

To me, there is a big difference in how much character description is needed in romance novels versus other genres, and here’s why.

When we read romance, we put ourselves in the story, empathizing with both the heroine and the hero. Of course, we need enough description to let us be familiar with them both, but this might be a case of “less” being “more.”

In our personal lives, we have preferences in how our romantic “leading men” look, speak, behave, and so on. If our preferences are toward the tall, dark, and handsome hero, it will be hard for us to be vested in a story with a hero who’s short, fair, and ugly. Or one who has habits we personally don’t find attractive.

I knew a woman who didn’t like blond heroes. If he had blond hair on the cover, she’d color it brown or black with a marker. In the book, if “blond” was mentioned, she’d mark through it and write whatever color of hair she’d decided he needed. I asked her about the heroines. “They’re all me,” she answered. “I don’t pay attention to their descriptions.”

It made me wonder how many others felt this way.

Stephen King had mentioned at one time in his book ON WRITING that “description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

And in genres other than romance, character description is different and maybe more important, because the reader doesn’t have any preconceived expectations of the story, such as romance readers do.

When I taught creative writing classes, this description was one I used to illustrate how so much could be packed in to a short amount of words without being an info dump.






This is the beginning of St. Agnes’ Stand, by Thomas Eidson, who also wrote The Missing. Take a look:

He was hurt and riding cautiously. Thoughts not quite grasped made him uneasy, and he listened for an errant sound in the hot wind. His eyes were narrowed—searching for a broken leaf, a freshly turned rock, anything from which he could make some sense ofhis vague uneasiness. Nothing. The desert seemed right, but wasn’t somehow. He turned in the saddle and looked behind him. A tumbleweed was bouncing in front of the wild assaults from the wind. But the trail was empty. He turned back and sat, listening.

Over six feet and carrying two hundred pounds, Nat Swanson didn’t disturb easy, but this morning he was edgy. His hat brim was pulled low, casting his face in shadow. The intense heat and the wind were playing with the air, making it warp and shimmer over the land. He forced himself to peer through it, knowing he wouldn’t get a second chance if he missed a sheen off sweating skin or the straight line of a gun barrel among branches.

And then this, a couple of paragraphs down:

He had been running for a week, and he was light on sleep and heavy on dust and too ready for trouble. He’d killed a man in a West Texas town he’d forgotten the name of—over a woman whose name he’d never known. He hadn’t wanted the woman or the killing. Nor had he wanted the hole in his thigh. What he did want was to get to California, and that’s where he was headed. Buttoned in his shirt pocket was a deed for a Santa Barbara ranch. Perhaps a younger man would have run longer and harder before turning to fight and maybe die; but Nat Swanson was thirty-five years that summer, old for the trail, and he had run as far as he was going to run.

I absolutely love this. Can you feel that you’re right there with Nat Swanson as he’s riding? There are no wasted words, and this is just such an eloquent, masterful description of not only Nat, but the situation and the physical place he’s in as well as the dilemma he’s faced with.

Another excellent way of describing a character and setting the scene at the same time is from another character’s POV. This passage is from Jack Schaefer’s iconic classic, Shane—from the eyes of Bobby Starrett—when Shane first rides into his life.


This is just the very beginning of the book—there is more physical description of Shane a few paragraphs later, but I chose this passage because it lets us know what’s going on in a few short sentences—and that is real talent.

He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond.

In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.

He came steadily on, straight through the town without slackening pace, until he reached the fork a half-mile below our place. One branch turned left across the river ford and on to Luke Fletcher’s big spread. The other bore ahead along the right bank where we homesteaders had pegged our claims in a row up the valley. He hesitated briefly, studying the choice, and moved again steadily on our side.

This is tough, because we’re seeing it through two “lenses”—Bobby is nine years old, and this is what he sees, but it’s filtered by the adult Bobby who’s now telling the story of what happened all those years ago.

In writing the story this way, the reader gets the full impact of experiencing the fears, the situation brings, the joy of having Shane there, and the anguish of his leaving all through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, with the adult overview that lets us know that Shane was not a hero—but he was to Bobby and those small time settlers who needed one so desperately. Yet, leaving was the only thing he could have done and kept Bobby’s view of him untarnished and intact.

Because we don’t know how the story will end, and we don’t know what to expect, we are learning about Shane’s character right along with Bobby so we are actively looking for details and descriptors the author might give us along the way—it will affect our opinion of Shane and let us know if Bobby is a reliable narrator, and it affects the outcome of the story.

I bring this up because in romance, seldom does the description have such a direct effect on the story itself, unless our main characters have scars, afflictions, or disabilities that might have some direct bearing on the story and its outcome. 

So what do you think? Do you like a lot of description and detail about the WHR heroes you read about, or would you rather “fill in the blanks” for yourself?

As far as heroines go, most people I’ve talked to are not as concerned with her physical description (maybe because each person sees herself in the heroine?) but are more concerned with her personality traits—is she likable? Is she determined?

If she is not a fierce match for the hero, the story line is doomed.

And what about our hero? Though he can get away with more “questionable” traits, he has to be endowed with almost superhuman strength to overcome everything that’s thrown his way, and that is description that must be thoroughly detailed—not left to the reader’s interpretation.

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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work:
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 40 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here:
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26 thoughts on “THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS–MAIN CHARACTERS! by Cheryl Pierson”

  1. Cheryl- Wow, what an amazing blog. I learned a great deal reading this.
    I love when the hero is described, but not overly described. I love getting to know his personality and making him the image I see in my own head. I very SELDOM think of the hero on the covers as the hero in the book. I think only about 3 books I’ve actually used the hero on the cover as the man I saw inside the book. I hope that makes sense.
    I agree the heroine we just need a small description of her, because her personality is what makes her. Is she strong enough to stand up to what she’s facing or is she a wallflower? Most times she’s strong which to be honest is what most readers want.
    I read lots of genres and murder mystery is one of my favorites. I guess I never thought about it, but I really don’t need much detail if the characters physical description. I just need their personality and their disposition because I’m more wrapped up in the details of the mystery and the description of the story’s place of origin.
    So funny I never thought about all this, but you are so correct, Romance does require more physical detail of the characters.
    Wow!! Thanks for sharing, I’m going to pay closer detail to the different genres I read and see if I notice any other similarities or difference. Happy Early Easter to you and your family, Cheryl.

    • Hi Tonya!
      What you say does make perfect sense! I think most of us hope for a cover that is appealing to a broad audience and of course, individual readers are going to imagine their own nuances and expressions and other details, IMO.

      I believe you’re right–murder mysteries would have me reading more for details about clues or things I might use to solve the murder rather than what the characters look like, but in romance–it’s more important.

      Oddly, too, the older I’ve gotten the more I pay attention to the things you mention like their personality and disposition rather than their gleaming white, perfect teeth. LOL

      So glad you enjoyed the post–I’ve had such fun writing these — I have a few more to come, but they have really made ME think, too!

      Happy Easter to you, too, Tonya!

  2. Great blog, really made me think about how I perceive the main characters in my mind as a book unfolds. Almost always I do not think the hero in the book looks like the man on the cover. I can usually allow for the heroine to be the lady on the cover but she too is rarely a complete match. For instance, I just finished a book that went into great detail about the main male character being exceptionally handsome and the female being more beautiful than the average female. Quite frankly if I had been the author I wouldn’t have been happy at all with the cover. The male almost struck me as ugly and the female was just an average yet pretty lady. I always just build the characters in my mind as the author describes them. Sometimes I wish I was an artist so I could sketch the characters myself and have the drawings to refer to as I read. You’re correct in saying that physical description in other genres isn’t quite as important. For instance, I love murder mystery/suspense books and I’m more into what is going to happen than I am what the characters actually look like. Maybe the villain’s description in this genre is more important than the main characters. I do read certain series in this genre that the main two characters are romantically involved so I do like for them to be described in detail. That throws back in the romance theory in descriptions. This genre rarely has the characters on the cover so as the reader I still build the characters in my mind and they never exactly match what the author describes. The author just gives me a head start. Great blog, it really got me to thinking about what I perceive as I read a book.

  3. Stephanie, I think in our society today we are bombarded with so many MORE images than before and maybe descriptions aren’t all-important as the once were in some cases because we see so many more pictures with all the technology we have now that we have those ingrained in our minds and have so much more to ‘draw” from than we ever have before.

    And too–in that same vein, we see so many images on all sorts of media outlets–movies, tv, social media, even photographs and paintings are more prevalent today than ever before–that we each have more of a definite idea of what we picture these characters to be. Maybe we don’t NEED them to be described in such detail anymore because of this…food for thought. My daughter and I were talking about this the other day and how art is being devalued in today’s society because it can be mass produced and sold cheaply, so being an artist or photographer is really a rough go these days if you plan to make a living at it. I’d never thought about that, but it’s true.

    Thanks so much for stopping by–always love to see your comments, and now I’ve got even MORE to think about! LOL

  4. Welcome Cheryl. Wow this is a fantastic post. I have not thought about it, but yes I guess I do see myself in a lot of the heroines. Even though I may not look like them, I place myself in her spot. As far as the heroes, well, I really like the many different kinds. I read one book where he was medium height, brown hair, thin and geeky with glasses. I fell in love with this man right away. It was his heart and his desire to put her first that really drew me. Plus, his physical characteristics were a lot like my own man.

  5. Hi Lori!
    I read a book where the hero was like that–he wore glasses and had a secret hideout where he kept orphaned children and took care of them, kept them away from some of the “evil” of the streets and those who would have sold them into slavery, etc. This was back in the 1600’s I think, in Scotland. It was a wonderful story, and I really loved that man! He was not the “normal” hero and that was something else I really loved about him. He could be tough when he had to be, but he was also vulnerable in some ways. His heart was huge and he put everyone before himself, until the heroine came along, and SHE thought of HIM first for a change. He was so surprised and loved her for that– of course!

    Thanks for stopping by today!

  6. I agree that the hero’s description is infinitely more important than the heroine’s. Maybe that’s because most romance readers are women and are, for the most part, reading our books in a search for the perfect man. Our heroes are most certainly IMperfect, yet somehow it’s there imperfections that attract the female readers – perhaps because women continue to believe they can somehow change or “rescue” the hero and show him he is loveable. Heroes don’t come much more imperfect than Jake Harkner of my Outlaw Hearts books, yet he is so totally loveable and so desperately needs “rescuing.” And yes, in romance, description is vital. And since these books are love stories, you want heroes and heroines who are good-looking because, let’s face it, that’s part of the fantacy romance. Still, they can sometimes not be good looking at all, but they have a more rugged look about them and abilities in survival and in protecting the heroine that make them loveable anyway and make them “seem” good looking. My character Moses Tucker in LAWLESS LOVE was an older, very weathered man who was not handsome at all, and for most of the story he had only one arm, but he ended up being one of the most loveable heroes I ever wrote. I always pictured him looking like Johnny Cash, who was not really a handsome man but rather, he had a solid, brave, experienced, take-no-crap, outlaw-type personality that attracted women. I think women like the risk of a bad man with a good heart. In my Outlaw Hearts books, Jake Harkner would deliberately step in front of a train if it meant saving “his woman’s” life. A man’s looks mean little when the reader picks up on the fact that the hero literally worships his lover/wife. In DO NOT FORSAKE ME, my 2d Outlaw Hearts book, When asked about his wife, Jake makes the comment, “she is the air I breathe.” That means 100% more to a woman than how the man looks. I guess what I am getting at is yes, looks mean something, but not everything. It’s personality that means more, as well as a tragic background or experience that explains why the hero is imperfect and needs the love of a good woman. As far as covers, I often am not happy with the hero on mine. New York just doesn’t seem to understand TALL – BROAD – NEEDING A SHAVE – UNCUT, SHOULDER-LENGTH, SHAGGY HAIR – DUSTY, TRAIL-RIDING MAN. They seem to always make the hero too short and much too clean-shaven and with a fresh haircut. Please stop!! And THINK! He’s been on the back of a horse in the elements for days – he lives in places where a haircut and a bath are all but impossible – he has lines in his face from too much sun – he smokes cigarettes because in 1800’s Old West, men smoked and drank whiskey and played cards and usually carried a gun and weren’t always well educated in schooling or in manners. The best covers I ever had were my Outlaw Hearts covers, created by the great Jon Paul, who is the ultimate cover designer for the good old-fashioned, sweeping romances of the 80’s and still creates beautiful covers today. No cover hero on any of my 70 books has ever come closer to what I pictured than Jake Harkner on my Outlaw books. I have big paintings of them and sometimes I just sit and stare, and I am right back in Jake’s arms. I love creating heroes who just ooze that “I will always protect you” attitude, along with that “don’t mess with me or my woman” look in his eyes. If I could have picked one title for ALL my “Jake” books, it would have been SAFE IN HIS ARMS. Thanks for your blog, Cheryl.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Roseanne! And yes, you are sooo right! Sometimes you want a guy that’s rough and rugged and not having just stepped out of GQ or something. Sounds like a lot of good stories I’ve missed. You sure do have some tempting characters! Thanks for stopping by today–you made some very valid points!

    • I think a lot of people feel that way, Denise. Sometimes, we are just better off left to our own thoughts and abilities to conjure up these characters in our heads.

  7. I almost always prefer dark-haired heroes and didn’t think I could write a lighter-haired man until recently. I think my Tait Trinity turned out okay. I gave him sun-streaked caramel colored hair. My editor asked me to try a lighter-haired hero. But ALL of them have to be tall for me to fall in love with them. I have to have some description and I love seeing him through the heroine’s or a child’s eyes.

    • I agree, Linda. LOL It’s funny, but even as writers we are people, and we have our own personal preferences in heroes–especially if we see ourselves as the heroine! LOL You know, when I was a teenager and would be crazy about some boy, my mom’s first question would be, “Is he tall?” LOL I always thought that was so funny, because I was more interested in how he looked, how he treated me, and so on. But to her, that the #1 question. I love seeing the hero through other characters’ eyes, too. Somehow, it really gives them so much more dimension, doesn’t it? Thanks for stopping by today! I know you are BUSY! Love you!

  8. Amazing excerpts that show so much detail in such a small amount of time! It is a true gift to write like that. Thanks for sharing those with us!

    • My pleasure, Susan! These are two of my favorite books ever written–I have them both on my “keeper” shelf-not only to re-read, but I used them both a LOT when I taught classes, and it’s easy to see why. Yes, I am so envious. I would love to be able to write like both of these authors!

  9. Great post! So much to think about. I hate book covers where the picture doesn’t match the description of the hero in the book. That is why I have a fabric book cover to slip onto those books. With it I have no inaccurate picture to interfere with my mental images. Sometimes I wonder if the people designing and choosing covers have any idea what’s in the book. I once read a book set in the West after WWI and the cover showed a man in buckskins leading a wagon train. A good thing I didn’t judge the book by it’s cover because it was an excellent story about veterans returning to civilian life in the rangelands of the West.

    • I need one of those fabric covers, Alice! I’m going in search of one. I feel that same way–I want the hero to match what the general description is, anyway! I’ve never had a cover that was that “off” on my books but I know others that that has happened to. So glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for stopping by!

  10. I will admit that a good cover can draw me in. After reading about the book, I would come to my decision to get it or not. Exceptions would be if written by one of my favorite authors. I know I will not be disappointed.
    Once reading, the Hero is prime to me. And, yes, I want to fit in as the Heroine.
    His personality, values, and how he interacts with other characters can seal the deal for me. His looks are secondary as is his age.
    Great blog!

    • Jerri, I do love a good cover and it can draw people to pick it up, for sure–I’m one of those, too! I have certain authors I feel that way about and will most likely take a chance even if it’s one I wouldn’t normally pick up by someone else. I agree about the hero. He has to have the personality, the guts, the integrity…so much, all rolled into one. If he has all that, I already know what he looks like in my mind. LOL

    • I have a tendency to believe what Stephen King says about description beginning in the writer’s imagination and finishing in the reader’s. I do give some description of my characters but I don’t ever want to be too rigid. Still, you have to give enough description to let the reader have the tools to finish imagining that description you’ve started! Thanks for stopping by, Glenda!

  11. What a great blog. Very interesting, Cheryl. And I loved that you mentioned Shane. That is one of my favorite books, and I don’t think it gets the attention it should. I find it so sad though. The movie was wonderful too. What a great cast. Have you read Jack Schaefer’s Monty Walsh? I finally found a copy of it, but I haven’t read it yet. I have seen the movie starring Tom Selleck, and I’m looking forward to reading the book.

    • Hi Sharon! So glad you enjoyed it. I have a whole series of these planned and I’ve had so much fun working on them! Shane is SUCH a good book, and like you, I don’t think it gets the acclaim it deserves any longer–I think it’s because it’s older, but that shouldn’t matter! I don’t think there has been anything written since then that tops it–maybe something that might TIE it, but not top it. LOL Yes the movie was great, too.I have bought Monty Walsh and have it on my shelf, but have not read it yet. Gosh…so many books, so little time. LOL I’m going to, though, because I absolutely love the way Jack Schaefer writes. It’s like poetry. Thanks for coming by, Sharon!

  12. I like general descriptions, but not necessarily a lot of detail. I like to build my image of what I think he looks like. It is one of the reasons I prefer book covers that only feature the bottom half of the faces of the hero or heroine. The eyes tell you so much about the person. What the model’s eyes say might not be in sync with who the character is. I don’t always pay that much attention to the picture of the character on the cover. Too often I have found the picture doesn’t always match the description in the book. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate nice covers. I just don’t rely on them to tell me who the hero is.
    The examples you gave were perfect. They were sparse, but it was very easy to build a picture of the character from them. If hair and eye color are given, that is fine. They will round out the mental image. Physical deformities, injuries, scars, or odd behaviors should be mentioned because they are important to the image and the character’s personality. I do like to have a description of the heroine. Is she timid, outspoken, wear glasses, a small person or tall? I tend to look at her as a created character, but not a copy of myself. I don’t give the heroes more consideration or slack in their behavior or past than I do the heroines. That past, their situations, and their behavior are important to just who the character is and that is true of hero and heroine.
    Thank you for an informative and interesting post. Have a great Easter.

  13. Hi Patricia–I’m like that, too–I like general descriptions but I have such an active imagination I know I’m going to picture the characters more by their actions, thoughts, and feelings than by their physical descriptions. Though I love the way Schaefer and Eidson both describe their main character at the beginning of their stories, it leaves enough room for the reader to use their own imagination to fill in the descriptions in their minds. I love that in Shane, he mentions that the two cowboys turned and looked as they passed Shane. You know there is something special about him. And yes, the physical deformities, scars, injuries, etc. have significance in a story and wouldn’t be there if they didn’t. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks so much for your thoughtful comments! Hope you and yours have a wonderful Easter!

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