“The devil is in the details.”
People say that all the time. They also say God is in the details, and I think both sayings are true. Regarding fiction, what I’d say is “Reality is in the details.”
Details make things feel real, feel true. Details about a character’s mannerisms make him or her come alive on the page; so can details like speech patterns or body language. But how do you know how much detail to include? Where’s the balance between, “Wow!” and “Oh, my God, who cares what his toenails are like?”
I’d like to say I have the perfect answer that will work in all cases, but I just don’t have one. Experience helps, and I mean experience as in reading. Read and find out how much you like, and how much you’d rather fill in, or have potential readers fill in for themselves. It’s a choice, and sometimes it’s not really that important what a character looks, sounds, and moves like.
Personally, I prefer to know some of what the writers I read were thinking, to hook in to their mental images a little, so I like lots of detail on both characters and settings (especially characters). That’s how I like to write, because I want you to see who I see.
Describing a character all at once, in a lump, is usually pretty boring. I try to spread that out a bit, until readers have a clear picture, and any additional detail I might add just sharpens things. I might even describe toenails; I know I’ve mentioned more than once that Dingus’s fingernails are chewed to the quick. Let the details you choose to include show something new about the character, or remind or reinforce in a new way what we already know (Vandis Vail’s toenail maintenance is sketchy at best!).
To work with characters this way, it’s necessary that you know them well. I don’t use them, but some people find it helpful to use character profiles or interview questions. Even if most, or even all, of your data never appears in your text, you’ll know it, and if you’re thorough, you can extrapolate whatever you need from it.
Good luck with your people! On Monday I’ll rave a little bit about settings, if you care to read.