When a character is introduced to the reader for the first time in a story, there is always a desire to tell all: what the character looks like, the character’s age, marital status, and everything that brought him or her to this moment. Of course, as soon as a writer does this, the forward motion of the story stops. It’s an information overload. Often a reader will skim over this information and possibly miss some important tidbits you, the writer, wanted to impart. More often, at this point in the story, the reader simply doesn’t care.
But, you say, the reader needs this information to understand the character.
No, that’s not really true. Yes, we need to feed enough of a description to the reader so he or she has a mental image of the character, but the reader doesn’t need to know everything you know. For one thing, to tell all is exactly that—TELLING. Also, what’s not told often makes the character more interesting. The reader wants to know why the character dresses a certain way, reacts to a situation in a certain way, or doesn’t react.
Think about stepping into a room of strangers. You notice someone in that room. What do you notice? What is it that stands out?
Probably the first thing you would notice is if this is a man or a woman. Or maybe you’re not quite sure because of the length of hair and the way the person moves. You’d probably notice the hair color and length. Maybe the body build, especially any extremes such as “built like a bouncer” or “really large breasts.” Possibly the clothes. Is this person dressed different from others in the room? Or even though she’s dressed in a similar manner, does the way she wears her clothes make her standout? Does this person’s voice sound different from others in the room? Is he louder? Maybe you notice the person’s posture or position in the room: slumped or straight back, amid many or off to the side?
Note, I said “What do you notice?” Whether your point of view is that of a narrator or a character in the story, how another character is described should be through that pov character’s interpretation. Different characters may see different features. (Heroine might focus on potential mate qualities; villain might see how the person could become a victim.) How far or close the pov character is will also make a difference in what’s relayed. Up close, I would be able to see the character’s eyes and eye color, possibly a scar, or wrinkles. At a distance, my description might be more about body language, or how the character compares to others in the room. Don’t tell everything. Give a “first impression” description.
This is all that is needed the first time the character is introduced.
As the story progresses, the writer needs to tell and show more about the character, but let the character or other characters in the story relay this information. Let’s say my character loves the color pink. She often wears something pink. She drives a pink car, but when asked says she’s never sold Mary Kay. Her bedroom’s walls are a light pink. I either don’t have to tell the reader my character loves pink (my character has SHOWN us that), or another character might make a comment about it, which would get a reaction from my character (maybe a laugh and a “You think so?).
But what about backstory? What about letting the reader know what happened to this character in the past?
By not telling the reader right away about a character’s past, how that character reacts or thinks about certain situations or the comments he makes will cause other characters in the story (and the reader) to wonder why, and that can bring (either at that point or later) an explanation from the character about something in her past.
You, the writer, need to know everything about your characters…you don’t have to tell the reader everything, especially not right away.