I've just read a blog post about describing characters, which cautions against the static type of opening scene with the character examining herself in a mirror or doing something else equally dull that doesn't advance the story. The post discusses the importance of beginning with action and emotion as means of characterization. No argument there! The writer also says, however, that most readers don't really care about the character's appearance; they will happily visualize their own concept of his or her physical description.
I've seen this claim before, and I'm dubious about it. Maybe some readers do feel this way. I want to know what the major characters in a story look like, though, and therefore I like to describe my own hero, heroine, and supporting actors, if only (in the case of walk-on extras) with a brief reference to some identifying trait. I remember when I learned that Eunice in Heinlein's I WILL FEAR NO EVIL was intended to be black. The text NEVER reveals that fact. There's only one tiny hint one can recognize AFTER finding out, from external sources, what her skin tone is supposed to be. I reacted with annoyance that I'd been unnecessarily envisioning her all "wrong" in each prior reading of the novel.
Of course, as writing experts often advise, the author should avoid a "police blotter" description listing the character's height, body type, eye and hair color, and clothing the first time he or she appears. Description should be worked into the forward movement of the story. How does an author reveal what a viewpoint character looks like, then?
The mirror scene is obviously out, having long since become a cliche. I've occasionally planted a photo of the heroine with someone important in her life and had her contemplate the picture while reminiscing. Having used that trick at least twice, I won't be doing it again. Other possibilities: The heroine might have a reason to consider her clothes, fretting over the fit or whether the color clashes with her hair. She might reflect on her own appearance while worrying about whether the hero finds her attractive. Reaching for an item on a high shelf could hint at her height. The comfort or snugness of a chair or airplane seat could give information about her weight and build. How far up she has to look up to meet the hero's eyes can show approximately how tall both of them are. Accessories—glasses, jewelry, an ever-present cell phone, etc.—can suggest appearance and reveal character.
Lately I've been able to avoid viewpoint-character self-description in most of my fiction because I've narrated from the viewpoints of both hero and heroine. That technique solves the self-description problem by having each character notice the salient physical traits of the other.
Do you feel most readers want to know what the hero, heroine, and villain look like? And how do you handle character description?
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt