Here’s a thing: I usually don’t know what my characters look like until after the zero draft.
Weird, right? A lot of writers and writing guides will get all up into the physical descriptions. I can understand the reasoning: it makes the characters more concrete, gives them a toehold in reality. And I’m definitely not a fan of those stories where the characters are deliberately not described so that the reader can imagine themselves in their place or some bullshit. If you’re slipping inside the skin of one of my characters, bring some disinfectant. And the ingredients for an exorcism.
No, I don’t give much thought to physical descriptions until after the zero draft because I’m too busy finding out who they are to give a damn what they look like.
During that zero draft, there are two things I concentrate on when it comes to characters: personality and voice. Which is really one thing, since how they speak is an extension of who they are. So the only physical things I put in are the ones that are integral to either who they are or what happens. If a dude is missing an eye, that’s probably going to come up.*
Think of it like running through the story: all I notice is the important stuff. The things that jump out at me. His eyes. The way she smiles. Those hands, long-fingered and slender and fragile. Then later, I’ll go back and add in some of the other details, if I need to.
My general rule is as follows: imagine you have just seen this person across a crowded coffee shop. What is the one detail that jumps out at you? How they dress? A particular hairstyle? A face tattoo? Other details can be dropped in as necessary, but one striking thing should be the dominant feature. After all, after meeting someone for the first time, how many of you remember their exact hair colour? Whether or not they had freckles? What their nails looked like? Chances are that you will notice the thing that is unusual. The arrogant man with the bloody, close-bitten nails. The woman with two different colour eyes. The punk kid with the foot high bright pink mohawk. And if there’s nothing unusual, that’s a characteristic, too.
For example, throughout the entire zero draft, there was really only one detail I knew about one of my main characters: the colour of his eyes. They’re brown, not dark like the earth but a golden-tinged honey brown, all warmth and light. A boy’s eyes in a killer’s face.
And that was all I needed. Stuff like hair colour wasn’t as important because it didn’t tell me anything about that guy. Now, I’m putting in a few of those details, because I’m editing my way towards a complete sensory experience, but they’re still less important than that single detail.
Next time you get the urge to put in everything from exact height to genital size, ask yourself this: if your characters had a single defining physical characteristic, what would it be? And why?
*If only because it’ll be easier for people to sneak up on him.