Writers tend to vary in their use of physical description, especially concerning how much to use. Some writers like to use little physical description, usually because they want the readers to be able to imagine the characters the way they want. Myself, I like to use a good amount of description, because I like being able to visualize my characters well when I read.
How Much to Describe Each Character
Whether you tend to use a lot or a little physical description in general, different characters require different amounts. For example, it would be strange to give hyper-detail to a minor character, and hardly any to the protagonist. Usually, more important characters should be given more description, because the way they look matters more to the readers, and to the plot.
Physical description is particularly important when it comes to the subject of love interests. If you have a love interest and barely describe them at all, it can indicate disinterest. If your protagonist has romantic feelings for this person, then that means they will notice more (and care more) about the way they look. They’ll notice small details. If the love interest hardly has any physical description in the story, or the words used to describe them aren’t affectionate enough, then it is going to seem like your protagonist doesn’t have any physical attraction toward them. On the opposite end, going into too much detail on a non-love interest can make it seem that the protagonist is physically attracted to them. I’ve noticed this can be hard to measure when it comes to major characters that you want to go into detail with, such as a friend, or a brother. Usually, when it comes to describing other major characters, I give them a little less description than the love interest, and I try to avoid adjectives that would allude to romantic feelings.
What To Describe
The most important things to describe are usually body type, skin, face, hair, and hands. Each can tell readers a lot about a given character, and they can be extremely general, or extremely detailed, depending on what you need.
Body Types: There are various ways to describe a character’s body type. You can describe their build or frame, for example: athletic, broad, petite, thick, medium, etc. You can also describe things such as height, weight, and muscle, for example: tall, short, skinny, chubby, buff, scrawny, etc. These an tell you about a character’s personality and lifestyle. For example, when somebody is buff with an athletic build, it’s usually safe to assume they care about fitness or sports.
Skin: To describe a character’s skin, you can describe things such as texture, colour, and blemishes/scars. For texture, you could describe skin as soft, coarse, dry, smooth, etc. This can give insight to your protagonist’s opinion on somebody. For example, if your protagonist describes somebody else’s skin as soft and smooth, that could mean that they have physical attraction or envy toward that person. For colour there are many words and descriptions you can use (I pull up different shades on Google Images), for example: ivory, pale, olive, tanned, cream, etc. It can tell you a bit about a character’s ethnicity, and sometimes about their personality. For example, somebody with tanned skin may enjoy spending time, or works, outside. Blemishes/scars could include acne, birthmarks, freckles, small or big scars, etc. These can be a source of flaws for your character (which you absolutely need), emphasize personality or ethnic background, or even provide some history if you take time to talk about how they got them (typically scars).
Face: The face probably deserves its own post on description, and will likely have one. There are many things to describe, including eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, shape, jaw, and complexion. The way all of these things are described can usually relate to the character’s personality/attitude. However, you probably shouldn’t describe them all at once. Over-describing facial features is easy to do, and can either bore readers, or lead to the love-interest type descriptions for non-love-interest characters.
Hair: For hair, you can describe the colour, thickness, appearance, feel, and length. For colour, you can use almost anything. Again, I use Google Images to find shades that fit with the description I want. Thickness is usually described as thin, thick, or normal, though there are plenty of ways to make the description more vivid. For example, similes: her hair was as thin as paper, his hair was thick as molasses. Hair appearance is one of the first things that is usually described, for example: curly, wavy, tangled, straight, stringy, spiky, etc. This can give insight into personality of the given character. For example, saying a person’s hair is spiky can imply that they are fun or rebellious. How hair feels is also important, though usually in the case of protagonists and love interests, because your protagonist probably isn’t going around and feeling people’s hair randomly. Hair can feel plush, greasy, silky, thin, and a number of other things that will tell readers how the protagonist feels about it. For example, if the protagonist describes their own hair as thin and greasy, the reader will know they don’t feel too great about the way it looks. Or, if they describe the love interest as having thick, plush hair, that will emphasize their physical attraction to the person.
Hands: The description of hands, in my opinion, is highly underrated. A character’s hands can tell you a lot about them. You can describe their size, texture, appearance, and finger-nails. Hand size can be described as large, small, fat, thin, etc. These descriptions can actually be quite useful. For example, children generally have small hands, so their hand-size can be used in descriptions such as: I felt a small hand clutching mine. Hand texture can be dry, calloused, smooth, soft, clammy, etc. This can tell you a lot about a character’s personality. If they have calloused hands, that means they probably spend a lot of time working with their hands. If their hands are clammy, that can mean that they are creepy or gross. The appearance of hands can also tell a lot about a character’s personality. They can be described as dainty, scarred, wrinkled, etc. You can also make use of fingernails. They could be bitten down to the finger, carefully painted, long, dirty, etc.
All of these description, used in the right amount and way, can help to really make your characters pop from the page.
With all this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!