How to describe physical appearance

Question: I have all my characters pictured perfectly in my mind but I'm not sure how I would describe them when writing. One of my fears is that even though I know they're all different and I know how they look, I'll describe them too similarly and they won't come off as different. Most of the characters I think I would describe similarly with their body type but they're not the same, one character might be slightly bigger than another or something. How do I say that? Or I have plenty of characters with similar hair color but is styled differently. How would I say that? Do I just mention how one character has black hair that falls into their eyes sometimes while the other character with black hair is spiked up?

I always feel awkward about placing description like this in my story. How do I know when it is right to start describing parts of someone? The only feature that ever seems easy is eye color.

Answer: Here's a simple approach...

For each character, try to identify 3 distinguishing traits.

By distinguishing traits, I mean traits that no other character shares. They can be anything someone would notice about a person, including physical features, hairstyle, clothing choices, mannerisms, speech habits, etc.

Three different traits per character is often enough to create a distinct picture of the character in a reader's mind, but you could have more if some are less tangible (e.g. speech habit). Just don't feel obliged to include
a complete set of traits for each character.

Bear in mind that one of the main reasons you describe your characters is so readers can keep track of who's who. So you want each character's traits to be distinguishing (unique). Similarities among characters can usually be left out, unless you want to show a family resemblance or confuse two characters (e.g. in a murder mystery). For instance, if all the characters in the story have brown eyes, there is probably no need to mention eye colour at all.

If you have a group of characters who are similar (e.g. they are all 16 year old female cheerleaders with athletic builds and light hair), your task is to find those traits that will set them apart from each other and make those the focus of your character descriptions.

If you are having trouble with this, you might look for photos of people that remind you of your characters. You can use magazines or any other source. Ask yourself, "If a policeman asked me to describe this person (for instance, if they were at a crime scene), what are the three most distinguishing traits that leap out at me?"

Of course, you can have more than three traits per character. But two or three distinct traits can often create a more vivid image than 10 mediocre traits. For instance, if you have a silver-haired woman with a black eyepatch, those two traits alone may be enough to distinguish her from every other character in the story.

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