My daughter is rereading a series that she and I have both read before. It’s been a source of fascination to her to recall just how much she’s forgotten. And, as she reports these things to me, it’s been interesting to me for other reasons: the characters she describes don’t always match my own mental image.
Hair color, distinguishing features, height, age–it seems more often than not I’m wrong on at least a couple details. And yet I have a fairly clear image in my mind what they look like. Did I just misread the descriptions in the book? Did the lack of regular reinforcement of those details throughout the novel allow erroneous imagery to take root? And does it really matter?
Perhaps I’m not typical, but I’ve found that my brain is quick to take a few salient details and run with them. I don’t need or even want a lengthy police sketch of character descriptions. Just give me something memorable and a vague idea of age and my imagination will fill in the rest. I’m not consciously trying to picture the characters in my mind as I read. And yet as the book progresses I do find my subconscious picturing scenes and supplying them with characters. Sometimes the really match their descriptions, sometimes they don’t.
The lesson here is that character description doesn’t have to be difficult. What matters most is what features make them different from those around them. I have a character who comes from a race that tends to have red hair. And yet there are not a lot of characters from this race populating my story, so I can focus in on his red hair as a key feature without much risk of getting him confused in readers’ minds with other redheads.
On the other hand, many of my other characters have dark hair. So unless it’s shot through with gray, abnormally short, or an unusual color of brown I probably won’t want to focus on their hair color so much as other features where they are more unique. Thick flowing tresses, or permanent beard stubble, or always sticking up at weird angles might be more memorable descriptions for hair.
Of course you don’t even need to describe their hair if you won’t want. A missing ear, a peg leg, a permanent limp, effeminate hands, unusual choices of clothing are all details that will stand out in a reader’s mind much more than a checklist of hair color, eye color, build, or height.
Chances are even if you give your reader that checklist they’ll still fill in any missing data on their own and perhaps even overwrite your bland details with their own. Do don’t stress about describing your characters in detail. Focus instead on distinguishing features, and let your readers to the rest of the work.