Character Descriptions: How much is enough?
Think back to the last book you read and draw up the mental image you have of the main character. Now look back in the book and try to find an actual description of that character. Chances are, you won’t find it.
So then where did that image come from? Believe it or not, it came from your own mind.
People who read fiction are often people with imagination. A skilled writer can leave out anything remotely close to a physical description of the main character and still give the reader a vivid image of him. I’m not that skilled yet, and I’m going to assume you aren’t, either. If you are, then congratulations!
But for those who aren’t, shying away from any description whatsoever might seem a bit difficult, especially if there is something you really want the reader to know about what your character looks like. I have a compromise for you, a method that has worked very well for me: Pick one physical attribute about your main character, then let your reader imagine the rest. This means you have to choose wisely.
Pick an attribute that the reader could compare to the hero’s personality. Maybe his clear blue eyes are a symbol of his honesty, or her luscious brown locks hint to her promiscuity. Pay attention to how you describe it, as well. ‘Clear’ blue eyes gives a different impression than ‘deep’ blue eyes.
This, of course, goes out the window if your hero is drastically different from the typical human being. But that doesn’t mean you need to take a break to mundanely explain your half-fish hero. Instead of writing “She had webbed feet and green scales,” try for “She dipped her webbed feet into the cool water, her green scales playfully reflecting the sunlight.” This adds to the imagery and makes the description a lot more interesting to read. Sprinkle in a bit of interior monologue to give the reader more of a taste of what such a character is like.
One rule of thumb to use is to only describe what is necessary, and let the reader imagine the rest. Leaving out the skin color of your hero will let any reader of any ethnicity identify himself with the hero. However, if your story is about an African-American hero growing up in a ghetto, then skin color would be a necessity. In the end, it’s up to you to determine what descriptors are necessary, and how much is enough. Just remember: Less is often more.