When a reader begins a novel, they need an idea of who they are reading about, and that usually includes some sort of physical description. If you get lucky, someone will make a movie of your book some day and all of your readers will complain that the person cast doesn’t look anything like how they pictured them. To give them some ammunition, you need to paint a picture of your character. But we all know how boring physical description can be. “He was tall with brown hair and a chiseled chin.” How many times have you read that before? And having your character look in the mirror and describe how they look has become very cliché. So how can you describe the people populating your book without putting your readers to sleep? Here are some tips:
1) Describe something other than the standard eye color, hair color, and height. There are many facets of a person’s appearance that you could describe that are less mundane. Do they stand up straight or walk hunched over? Do they have round cheeks that beg to be pinched or sunken cheeks that make you wonder when they last ate a decent meal? Do they have a tattoo? A scar? Bushy eyebrows? Branch out from the usual descriptors to keep things interesting.
2) Make your descriptions do double duty: Maybe you want us to know that Miranda is tall. That's fine, but try to find ways to describe her that tell us something else about her, too. For instance, you could say something like, “Miranda bent her tall frame over, trying not to stand out in the crowd of more reasonably sized tenth graders.” Not only do we find out she’s tall, but we learn that she isn’t happy about it, that she thinks she is unreasonably tall, and that tells us something about Miranda’s personality in addition to her physical description. You’re killing two birds with one stone!
3) Have another character respond to your protagonist’s appearance. If you want us to know that Lacey has blonde hair, send her shopping with her best friend. When she tries on a yellow bathing suit, her friend could helpfully respond, “You shouldn’t wear yellow. It makes your hair look like it’s fighting to be blonde.” (I actually said this to my best friend when we were teens, and she’s never let me forget about it!) When Lacey runs into the bad-boy love interest, instead of telling us what he looks like, have Lacey react to him. “Blue eyes. The kind you can get lost in. Just like my last douche bag boyfriend.” Again, we get a double-whammy here of finding out what the love interest looks like while also learning about Lacey’s mental state.
4) Hint at physical traits without coming right out and telling us. Not every description has to be a list of physical traits. If you show us two characters on the beach and one is slathering on sunscreen while hiding under an umbrella while the other bakes out in the sun in a bikini, we’ll get a good idea of their skin types. We’ll get an idea of the length and type of your protagonist’s hair by whether they hop out of bed and run their fingers through it or spend an hour in front of the mirror with a straightener. Not every description has to be spelled out for your readers. Beat around the bush a little to keep things from getting dull.
Keep in mind that readers don't need to know every physical detail of your character's appearance. But for the details you do want to provide, it is possible to describe your character’s appearance without resorting to a laundry list of boring characteristics. Branch out from the usual characteristics, use some subtlety, and enlist the other characters in your book to help you paint a picture. Before you know it, you’ll have a fully drawn character and wide-awake readers.