Welcome to another edition of How I Write. Today I wanted to talk a little about descriptions of characters, and how you can use them to bring life to your prose.
First off, a warning: beware of the info dump. Say you have a new character appearing in your novel. He walks into the scene and you want to tell the reader everything there is to know about him, right? Actually, no, that's wrong. One of my pet hates in literature is well a character is introduced along with a huge paragraph describing their physical appearance and personality down to the last detail. It disrupts the action and is a classic example of telling not showing (remember our discussion on that last month). So am I saying you mustn't tell the reader about the character? Not at all, you just need to do so in smaller bites, working the information into the action. Let's look at an example....
Peggy looked up when she heard the door open. She couldn't believe her eyes. The man who entered was tall and muscular. He had bright blue eyes and short blond hair. His smile was amazing. He was clearly a kind and gentle soul despite his military physique. He wore faded blue jeans and a white, tight-fitting T-shirt. He had dog tags around his neck so she guessed he was in active service.
Well, we get a pretty good idea what the guy looks like from this paragraph, but it is all static description, as if the scene has stopped while we all look at this new character. Let's try a different approach, shall we?
The bell over the door jangled, and Peggy looked up from her book. Her throat went dry as she watched the newcomer move into the room, taking long strides toward the counter. He leant on his elbow, and his arm muscles rippled, stretching the white fabric of his T-shirt. As he shifted, she caught the glint of metal, and noticed the dog tags around his neck. Military, then; that explained his toned physique. He ran a hand through his short blond locks as he turned in her direction. A moment later Peggy found herself staring into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. She gulped, and the man smiled - not the cocky grin she had expected, but a sweet, gentle expression.
Here we are giving the reader the same information about the man, but it is incorporated into the action. Rather than have him just standing there as Peggy observes him, he is now an active part of the scene. And this is what you should aim for. The reader doesn't need to know everything about a character the second they appear, instead reveal more and more as the story progresses, like you are constantly peeling back another layer, revealing what lies beneath. That way you will hold the reader's interest and also keep the action moving at a nice pace.