How much work do you put into defining, and describing, a character’s appearance?
When I was a teenager, I described my characters in detail. I had clear images in my mind of how they looked and I wanted readers to get that same image. I also loved (and still love) crazy anime hair colours. I’ll admit I was guilty of this:
But the books I read increasingly gave me the impression that describing characters in such detail was juvenile. I also came to shy away from unnatural hair colours, at least in traditional fantasy, for the same reason. I also prefer these days to make my characters more average-looking. After all, the world is not made up of Doctor Dooms and Captain Americas; it is made up of Johns and Jenns, Abduls and Taniquas. And I prefer to write stories about those regular people.
Yet, as a reader, I enjoy reading full descriptions of characters, getting an image in my head as clear as the author’s, and as accurate. And increasingly, my rebuttal to those reasons not to describe them in detail—show, don’t tell; don’t info dump; it’s not that important—is why not? It’s all fiction, and in my case, it’s all fantasy and science fiction. What problem is it to go ahead and describe characters in detail? One can go on too long, of course, but that is true of anything.
Aside from that, a character’s physical appearance says a lot about them. It is an extension of their personalities. How a character dresses or looks or styles their hair tells you a bit about them.
For example, take Damian, the star of my Sisters of Chaos trilogy. Her most distinguishing feature is her vivid yellow eyes; of course, they show that she’s different, and she’s spent the vast majority of her life hiding them behind a veil, until she makes a conscious choice not to hide them anymore. She styles her hair nicely, because she is effeminate and because she’s trying to show that there’s more to her than her strange eyes and what they represent. Yet, she makes fashionable gowns for herself that accentuate her body (slender, not shapely), not try to emphasize features she doesn’t have. She doesn’t wear corsets or padding or anything; she’s trying to show her best self, yet she is honest to a fault and does not want to be accepted for something she’s not.
Then there’s Garrick. He’s Marvel Studios ripped and very attractive, with an infectious/roguish smile. He is constantly aware of how he is perceived by others, and adjusts his posture, speech, and expressions to maximum effect for whatever company he’s in. Partly he does so to get whatever he’s looking for out of the encounter, and partly it’s to get the respect he has desperately desired throughout his life, and it also serves to cover up his own insecurities.
Maybe you don’t get all of that with a strict description of how a character looks, but the fact is, there’s a reason behind every character’s appearance. A character might be wearing an expensive but ill-tailored suit because they’re new money and don’t know how to live the high life, but want to. Maybe a female character refuses to wear a bikini because she’s self-conscious. A male character might have a patchy, or overly thick, beard because he’s trying to compensate for a babyish face he gets teased about otherwise.
All these details are more than just giving a reader a clear picture of the character the author is depicting; they’re clues into the character. And as readers, we also form opinions of the characters based on how they look, because that tends to show pieces of the character. Whether those opinions are affirmed by the character or challenge our biases, it adds to our understanding of the character.
And really, what’s wrong with describing a character’s appearance in detail?