Walk into a room, any room with several people or a group inside. Observe what each person is wearing, the style of hair, make-up or no, good grooming or no. What is your reaction?
We, as humans, respond to physical appearance of other humans and make judgements about whether or not they are people we want to know or not. The same is true for fictional characters…up to a point. It’s definitely possible to go overboard, as I learned from my editor, with physical descriptions of characters. On the other hand, clothing can reveal character.
A character who wears a suit daily, male or female, is different from one that wears jeans and a turtleneck. Grooming can reveal how a character feels about him or herself. For me, dirty fingernails is a giveaway, even if the person is wearing clean clothes and is otherwise clean. What is that person’s occupation? Or is that person lazy about washing hands or cleaning fingernails? What does that say about that person’s character?
When I was developing Evan Quinn and the other characters in Perceval’s Secret, I visualized what they each looked like, and that included the kinds of clothing they preferred. Evan’s work uniform is white tie and tails, so when he’s not working, he’s a jeans and sweater kind of guy. He’s also a runner, and pays attention to the kind of clothing and shoes he wears for running. He understands the importance of his appearance professionally, and he works hard to insure that he is professional but also accessible, especially with the musicians he works with all the time.
On the other hand, Klaus Leiner, the Viennese police inspector who hounds Evan, is a suit kind of guy. When he wears jeans, it’s always with a clean, ironed Oxford cotton shirt. He’s the kind of guy who shines his shoes often. He’s comfortable and relaxed in his clothes, very used to his professional suit. I wanted Leiner to be a natural cop, someone who questions but who is also dedicated to public service. He would not wear a too-colorful shirt with his suit in order to not stand out. He believes this gives him an edge as a cop, blending into the everyday life of his city.
What about describing a characters physical features like hair, face, hands, style of walking, etc.? It depends. I spend almost no time describing Evan’s physical features, filling in small details here and there. It’s important that he’s quite tall, has a runner’s lean body. He has physical strength and stays in shape. Most conductors work hard to stay in shape in order to be able to stand on the podium for two hours and conduct an orchestra. It wasn’t as necessary to me to describe Evan’s physical features as it was to describe Vasia Bartyakov’s.
Vasia resembles someone very important in Evan’s life. In this way he symbolizes what that important person means to Evan. So Vasia’s physical features are important to describe for the reader. He’s the only character in the novel whose physical features carry that kind of importance. However, I occasionally focus on facial expressions with other characters in order to reveal their emotional responses in a situation.
Finally, an especially important consideration is what point of view you’re writing in. If you’re using third person with the focus on one character, seeing the world through that character’s eyes, you need to ask yourself how much that character will notice and respond to about the physical appearance of other characters. If you have a fashion conscious character, he’ll notice far more than one who isn’t. One man may notice something about a woman while another man may notice something else. All this can reveal character.
Writers need to pay attention to detail. This can be a behavioral detail, a dialogue detail such as accent or manner of speaking, or detail in physical appearance. Then the details that each character would notice and respond to. These details accumulate to fill in the picture of a character in the reader’s mind. For this reason, it is important to work hard on creating a physical appearance for a character that is consistent with the character and will reveal him or her to the reader.