What are some good ways to describe the looks of a new character presented in a story? I generally mention eye and hair color, physical build and maybe if they have facial hair or not. But to me it seems a bit boring to use the same style of description each time. What are some other various ways of describing new characters without giving too much detail that the reader may lose track of what is going on in the story?
- Smell (cologne/perfume, the scents that may be in clothing or hair)
- Body language (swagger, creep, stroll, cringing, stride)
- Attitude (businesslike, flirtatious, bored, scared, tired)
- Voice (tone, volume, accent, husky/smooth, high/low, speech impediment)
- Species if it's a SF/F story
If you want practice, turn on the TV at random and pick someone. Describe that person. Flip the channel and do it again. Do it 10 times. Do it twice a day. Make a point of using a different characteristic to lead with for each description.
Personally, I dislike police lineup style listings for characters. After all, who wants to read blocks of text telling you about every intrinsic detail about a character in an almost list-like format? Most of it will be irrelevant anyways.
The following example* is something that I barely pass off as 'okay':
Towering like a giant at 6'5" John stood in the metro wearing a pair of stinking Denim Jeans topped off with his favorite Metallica T-shirt. Having slouched against guard rail - evidently after a hard day's work, he didn't care if the white-collared busybodies around him moved away because of the putrid smell that radiated from his body.
He looked completely out of place, a blonde caucasian male that looked like he had barely broken 30 in the middle of a crowd of Asian businessmen, however, he had some place to be.
"Excuse me." His gruff voice scared those standing in front of the doorway as the metro came to a stop in one of the flashiest districts in town.
*Note I used Lauren Ipsum's list as a checklist for ideas here.
Did you notice what I did here? Instead of going ahead, listing off one by one details about a person - I resorted to revealing information that was necessary for leading on the story. Does John have Blue eyes? What kind of Jeans is he wearing? Does he have a beard? What is his job? You can leave all of that up to the character's imagination.
When you define a character, remember that the audience only needs information that is necessary for driving the plot, and can assume the rest. In this example, his clothing and out of place appearance creates mystery and gets the reader wanting to know why John is in Asia, and why he is in such a place. His height and his appearance shown here instantly makes the audience assume things, he's most likely a manual worker or blue collared worker based on his opinions towards white collars he likes Metallica, and is instantly portrayed as someone that is strong based on his voice and height.
So why don't I like this?
To put it plainly, it's still a list and a lot of it could be interpreted in other ways. Him being caucasian could be told through him standing out in a crowd of Asians based on his ethnicity, perhaps his height could be subjugated through this same comparison. If it is absolutely necessary that the character's hair style is told to the audience for example for a reoccurring joke that plays later on, or for some reason he joins a 'Afro club', then sure you can tell that directly. However, you could also introduce him as being a proud member of the Afro Club and that instantly conveys to the audience that your character has an Afro. The same thing applies to appearances, it's highly unlikely that your audience will remember every single detail about a character's face - unless your character has something unique like they look middle eastern and that will help them get into a terrorist camp - it's completely unnecessary to go into details and is just plain bulky.
Side note: In the case of presenting characters midway in a story this is very important, as you don't want to go: "The [gender of person] standing before him had [haircolor and style] and was dressed in [clothes] with [eye color]." Hinting at the character's description is far more effective, and helps the audience remember. If some character is very affluent about his Afro Club and other characters joke about him being in it a lot, you will instantly remember this charcter has an afro.
The reader is going to form an image of a character or a scene by putting together bits from their own experience. They do this based on the clues you give them, but they use those clues to select from their own repository of images. The key, therefore, is to give them the clues that matter, that will shape the image they form to fit the story you want to tell.
Sometimes this means vital statistics. Often, though, it is more a matter of the telling detail, the small thing that pulls the right sort of image from the reader's stock of imagery. Maybe is is white teeth and a short skirt; maybe it is a tweed jacket and a half empty bottle of gin; maybe it is spurs and a hat pulled low over the forehead; maybe is it plastic glasses and a sweater vest.
None of those details are enough to recreate the character exactly as you see them, but that is almost impossible to do. For most characters they are enough to place them, to tell at a glance what kind of person they are. The rest you fill in with behavior or speech rather than details of appearance.
Sometimes the details of appearance matter much more. I am thinking of the description of Merlin in The Sword in the Stone, which is highly detailed and specific -- far more so than that of any other character. The only other description that comes close is that of King Pellinore as Wart first encounters him in the woods, but that description has more to do with establishing Wart's reaction to the knight than it has to do with the appearance of the knight himself.
Sometimes, too, characters behave or dress in a way that is designed to make people notice something in particular about them. They are creating a bullseye, a trap for the eye, and what they want you to look at tells you more than what they look like, it tells you what they want you to see, and what they want to hide from you. Those are the most telling details for a character, but they can be very different details for different characters. Find what they are trying to show and what they are trying to hide and focus your description on that.
The point is, don't describe for the sake of describing; describe for story effect. Describe just enough to pull the right sort of image from the reader's stock of images, or to portray the protagonist's reaction to a character when they encounter them. Describe for emotional response and for recognition of type. If you do this, your descriptions will not seem repetitive or boring -- unless the characters themselves are repetitive or boring.
Perhaps it would help if you had an image or a spreadsheet-style description of each character handy. Then you could dribble out bits of description as things are unfolding. For example, when introduced, perhaps all we know is that M is the protagonist's sister. But as things develop, maybe we'll find out she has bangs that need trimming, and she often blows at them; she's tall and awkward; when she's thinking hard about something, she (fill in the blank). And so on.
Also, you can have the protagonist notice something about a character. For example: J noticed, for the umpteenth time, how his sister's ears seemed to become even more pointy and quirky when she was in an uncomfortable social situation.