Last time, I wrote about a bad habit I had when it came to my characters: TMD — Too Much Description. Another bad habit that walks hand-in-hand with the first is DD — Dumping Descriptions. Not only did I over-describe my characters, but I would put all of it in the same place.
Because I wrote in first-person, I thought I was being realistic when my main charater Junior would describe another character all at once as that person came into his sight. But such lengthy descriptions ground the action to a halt.
Then I thought over how I see people in real life. When I first meet someone, I don’t notice every tiny detail. I get a general impression: height, weight, hair color and style, eyes light or dark. While interacting with this person, I get more details, specific eye color, shape of features of the face, and clues to her personality.
That’s how I should write. Now when Junior introduces another characters, even if it’s a relative, I describe the most important features first, then drop in relevant details as they story progresses.
For example, one of my major characters is Mike Lody, Junior’s uncle. The characteristics I think are important are he is only five years younger than Junior, he has a burly, powerful build, he’s half a foot shorter that Junior, he always wears a black hat with a low crown, his eyes are small and brown, his jaw is very square, and his hair is reddish brown.
When Mike first appears he burst through a door. I mention he’s “built like a bear”. When he sees the sheriff who is interrogating Junior, Mike grins “like a grizzly that has just spotted supper” because he doesn’t like cops. The grizzly comment also links to Mike’s build. In the next chapter, the sheriff asks for Mike’s ID and that reveals his age. Through the rest of the chapter as the sheriff confronts Junior and Mike, I drop in descriptions, one at a time, like the hat, which Mike adjusts depending on his mood.
Many writers recommend a character chart to keep descriptions straight. I should probably do that. I can describe each character in minute details and get that out of my system, and then compare descriptions to make sure I don’t have too many characters with similar appearances. I can also tease out what is critical for the reader to know about each character. This chart on author Jill Williamson’s site is very detailed. Use it as a template to build a chart that fits your need.