I’ve been reading through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and I’m about three quarters of the way through the third book. First, I must say, this is an amazing series, but if you pick it up, don’t expect a cheery fantasy fable replete with heroes conquesting to happy endings. Boy, is this series dark!
One thing that I’ve started to take note of is the way Martin describes characters. It really resonates with me, and I recently figured out why – it’s very reflective of the style of one of my favorite authors of all time, Jack Vance. No wonder, since Martin points to Vance as one of his main influences.
The way Martin describes characters is, rather than detailing everything about their physical features, he settles on the one or two distinguishing characteristics that make this person unique. For example, Lord Roose Bolton. His hair, the shape of his face, his height – no clue. But I know that he’s the one who has rather pink skin and pale eyes, presumably from his daily leeching, which he believes keeps him healthy. Sandor Clegane – can’t really say much, other than that he’s big (albeit smaller than his brother), and half his face is covered in burn scars.
The point is, you can belabor your character descriptions by detailing everything there is to say about a person, from eye color to hair color to approximate height, weight, and shoulder width, or you can focus on the couple things that set the person apart, that make the character easy for your reader to identify.
So, now to get to the prompt part – Go to a restaurant, cafe, mall, school, whatever, and pick out just a handful of people. Write a physical description of each person, but pick the few details that make them unique and focus on those, rather than on describing everything about them.