I don’t see people talk often about how much you need to describe your characters, to this time around let’s talk about it. The rules are different across screenplays and prose – if you don’t work in both, or you’re moving from one to the other, it’s important to understand the differences.
When you’re working in script you have a sentence – maybe two – to describe the character. The reason for this is someone needs to play the role; the casting director needs enough to find someone but it can’t be so rigid that you lock the role down to one or two people.
Some starting screenwriters will mention a specific actor when they introduce a character. I would say if it helps you write the piece with a specific actor in mind, by all means do it…but don’t put that into the script. Things can get tricky with this – what if so-and-so is on another film? What if the network that they work for won’t give them the time off to shoot this movie? What if they pass?
The way I was taught, you add a sentence or two of the most important things about the character: age, nationality, economic status, personality. It’s good to compare the character to an animal if you can – this helps the person reading identify the character very clearly. You also give them something to make them memorable – a tick, prop, etc. This helps the reader tell them apart.
On the other hand, in prose you have a lot more leeway. I’ve read books where paragraphs are dedicated to how a character looks. If it’s done right it can work – but if it’s not done right, which is easy to do, it can throw the reader right out of the story. People think “All right, she has 600 freckles on her nose, when is the story going to move forward?”
My personal approach? I spent a very long time working in screenplay, so I usually go with minimal descriptions for my characters. Meghan in The Trip is a redhead. At the time I wrote the book I was on a Tori Amos kick and incorporated aspects of her into Meghan’s character. The other characters are briefly described as well: Chris is a track star and Dave is a little geeky and kind of average.
The Power of Minimalism
You may not realize this – but in this approach there’s a real power. When you use less description, the character is less about you and more about your reader. The audience will fill things in for you, and the character becomes what they envision. It’s very powerful to do this – when it’s effectively done, people really get attached because in part they helped create these characters. (For more, see The Power of What You Don’t Show)
But You Can’t Get Lazy
I’ve said this before and I’ll bring it up again: good writing is a balancing act. You’re going to need to have sections of detailed information mixed with sections of sparse detail. I’ll go lean on my characters but add depth to the world as I’m writing. (The zombies in The Trip have a smell and a sound associated with them; in Witch City: Cardinal there are other sensory images I use as well)
Think of description like spices in a recipe: too little and it’s flat and boring. Too much and it’s overpowering and inedible.