The passport details need setting very early on, and the expressive details shouldn’t be far behind. But how to do it?
It’s easy to have one character register another’s physical appearance. You can make it occur naturally in the first character’s thoughts, even though it’s really for the reader’s benefit. But how do you let the reader know about the first character’s appearance?
I hate the mirror-device at the start of a novel (or short story), where the protagonist conveniently looks in the mirror and thinks about his or her own appearance. Spare me! It’s so over-used and artificial. We look in the mirror almost always for a particular purpose, not to reflect in a general way upon the appearance of our faces.
I’d rather be honest about doing it for the reader’s benefit –
She flicked her hair out of her eyes and turned away. She had ash-blonde hair, shoulder length, with no hint of a curl …
The first sentence is a lead-in to direct attention; the second sentence is the author telling the reader. I’m assuming that she’s not thinking about her hair, and nor is any other character in the scene.
One trick that can work is description by compare and contrast. In Worldshaker, the protagonist, Col, looks at his sister and thinks how she’s inherited some of their grandfather’s physical traits, while he’s inherited others. That seemed a not-too-implausible way of getting him to register his own appearance.
There’s always a problem when we’re deeply immersed in a single character’s point of view, as with Col in Worldshaker. The aim is to avoid head-on description, as by having the character virtually announce, ‘I shall now think about my own appearance.’ You need a way of bringing in on the side, in the course of other thinking.
When you’ve set up passport and expressive detail early on, how often do you need to repeat them? When is enough enough?
I had a bad habit of referring too frequently to the same features—the blackness of Vail’s hair, for example—until an editor pointed it out. An occasional mention can help keep a character’s appearance before the reader’s mind, but frequent mention sure as hell becomes annoying.
It’s often hard to judge, though … which means, this is a good question to ask for feedback from sample readers. I’m happy to let other people make the call for me.