I’m guilty of it, too: The description of a new character who has just entered your story as having “big brown eyes and frizzy black hair” or “ginger hair that cascaded down her shoulders and eyes the color of jade.” No matter how creative you get, describing a person according to his or her hair and eye color is A) Lazy B) Boring C) Ineffective D) Not memorable. Really—does telling you a woman has brown eyes and frizzy black hair give you ANY sense of what she looks like? Does it reveal anything unique about her that doesn’t apply to 500,000 other people? Does it reveal anything about her character? Nay, nay and nay. And adding an age doesn’t help much either.
Right now I’m reading The Night Swimmer, a wonderful novel by Matt Bondurant, that I just love, love, love. Listen to how he describes the protagonist:
“I have skin like a walrus. I have a condition called congenital hypodermic strata. Essentially is it a thin, even layer of subcutaneous fat deposits under the skin all over my body, all the way down to my fingers, giving my skin a dimpled surface.” (8)
“My skin has helped to make me a good swimmer, as does being six feet tall with the wingspan of an albatross.” (8)
We do learn that Elly has ginger hair, but it’s only mentioned because the story takes place in Ireland, and locals mistake her for Irish although she’s German-American.
Another great description from The Night Swimmer:
“Sheila Flaherty wore a man’s flannel shirt, untucked, and had the calm, almost sleepy, indifferent manner of a longtime bartender.” (33)
And my favorite:
[Ariel's] “fingers wrapped completely around the bowl, extra long at the final joints, like the soft appendages of a gecko.” (44)
Don’t you feel like you can picture Ariel, even though you have no idea how old she is or what color her hair or eyes are? And at the very least, you’re going to remember her. You’re going to think, “Oh yeah, she’s the one with the gecko fingers.”
So, from this day forward, please, please, PLEASE, go forward and write great character descriptions. Don’t be lazy. You’ll bore your readers, and they’ll have trouble keeping your characters straight. (“Wait, is she the one with the curly black hair and blue eyes or the straight brown hair and brown eyes?” YAWN!)
Be creative. And have fun. This is why we’re writers, because it’s fun!