How much effort should a writer devote to describing a character? Answer: not a lot. Remember, it’s the story, stupid! (Kidding.) Yes, characters make up the story, they may be the story, but their description is not the story.
I’ve read books where the writer devoted so much time in describing a character the story was forgotten; I didn’t remember what was going on.
Generally just describe a character enough for the reader to distinguish him or her from the rest, other than by name. Yes, you can say something more than one has red hair and the other black.
However, as a writer you may feel compelled by a strong sense to describe a character in great detail. Perhaps the reason is it may effect the actions or ambiance of the story later. Yet, keep in mind if you ramble, you lose your reader. The reader has to be continually engaged in the direction the story is heading.
An abrupt stop in a story and the momentum is lost. Without drifting into another aspect of good writing, momentum is everything. Those in the writing business call it page turning. In other words the story has to keep the reader turning the pages.
Let’s imagine you are drawing a character rather than actually describing him in a scene in your story. Think of when the character first arrives on the scene you give a description, that is just an outline. As the character moves around and speaks you add the eyes. A paragraph later another descriptive aspect of the character. You keep the story moving while at the same time giving substance, clarity, fullness to the character.
Keep this in mind; if the character is tasting something that’s when you want to describe the lips and not the ears. Make certain the characteristic being described fits the action.
Like everything in writing there are no hard fast rules. Some writers write with such skill they can get away abusing and disregarding some technical aspects.
There are times when it is completely unnecessary to describe a character. Give him a name and that’s it. Allow the reader to figure out what the character looks like.
One of the greatest writers in of all time, William Shakespeare, never described any of his characters. He allowed the dialogue to describe them in other ways.
Beyond the physical appearance of a character reveal who they are by what they say. Reveal the inner person. That is often time the real art and joy in writing.
Even if you describe your character in minutest detail, no two readers will see him or her the same.
Here’s a little tip. Rather than describe, as an example, the physical shape of the eyes in every possible detail, describe them in terms of feels. You might say, personify them. “His eyes were sad.” We know eyes can’t be sad; sad is a feeling or emotion. However it describes the shape without going into extensive detail and perhaps reveals something about the character. What about this: “His eyes were sad, but his mouth seemed to be a perpetual carnival.” Just stop and think for a moment how many other ways this could have been described in much fuller and exhausting detail. Now every time this character pops up the reader is wondering what he’s hiding - if anything.
Remember, tell the reader just enough to distinguish the character and get back to the story.