In the past couple of years, I’ve had several people read my work and I’m always frustrated when I’m asked why I don’t give a complete description of my characters for the reader. Actually, I do, not in the form of a full narrative describing hair/eye color, height, weight, age, etc., but they are slipped in from the other characters’ POV; traits are also given via the character’s actions.
So ... I was pleased when I came across the following under a chapter titled Characterization and Exposition in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King (second edition). In it the authors wrote:
“It’s often a good idea to introduce a new character with enough physical description for your readers to picture him or her. As with describing your settings, all you need are a few concrete, idiomatic details to jump-start your readers’ imagination. ... when it comes to characters’ personalities, it’s much more engaging to have these emerge from character action, reaction, interior monologue, and dialogue than from description.”
“When you define your character the minute you introduce them, you may be setting boundary lines that your readers will use to interpret your characters’ actions through the rest of the book. But if you allow your readers to get to them in his or her own way, thus getting a deeper sense of who your characters are than you could ever convey in a summary.”
When I developed the character of Sam Harper, I envisioned him as a man in his early to mid 30’s, slender, medium height, blond or light brown hair, definitely blue eyes. As noted, I don’t force feed the reader with a full-blown description in chapter one, paragraph one, so it was interesting when I started to get feedback from some of my friends about the character. The women who were in their 20’s to early 40’s pictured him as I did, however, those in their later years, had very different ideas of "the perfect looking man." One friend of mine who is in her mid 60’s imagined him as a dashing Sean Connery in his days as 007. Interesting, huh? BTW who doesn't think Sean is to die for?
What this says to me is that my writing may be based and influenced by my life experiences (likes/dislikes etc,), but the reader will bring into the mix the experiences that have shaped his/her life (likes/dislikes, turn-ons/offs etc.). Because I want Harper to come across as a strong-willed determined character, I focus on his actions, internal dialogue, his doubts and convictions, his emotions, reactions, etc., even his sense of humor. But his physical descriptions come from the other characters and ... and here's where it gets really interesting. Harper's love interest sees and describes him in a completely different way than does his work partner. Now we're getting into window characters.
So ... even though I have a very clear image of what Sam Harper looks like, I’m okay with the reader imagining him looking like Sean Connery or whoever else they like, so long as it keeps them reading!