Descriptions of People if you Don’t Like Describing People
I see a lot of posts about how you’re supposed to or not supposed to describe people (especially POC), and the biggest problem that I always face when I see those is that I cannot describe people. Part of it is just me, but I assume I am not the only one who looks at these and thinks “blond” or “green-eyed” or “African-American” are the only types of descriptions I know how to use. Because of this, I have some suggestions about how to describe people when you’re bad at describing people.
Write about how they make the main character feel. This obviously works best when it is written from first person, though it can also work if it is subjective/limited third person point of view. This, of course, should not be limited to “she turned him on” or “she couldn’t believe how sexy he was.” That gets really old, really fast. Maybe they remind the MC of someone. Maybe whatever they’re wearing looks like something a relative used to wear. Maybe they look innocent, or scary, or tired, or scared. Maybe they calm the MC down. Maybe they make the MC nervous.
Pick a few key descriptions to highlight. Maybe your MC tends to notice eyes, because they themselves have unusual eyes. Maybe they notice whether the person has long hair, because they always loved long hair, or short hair, or asymmetrical hair. You can pick hair color, hair texture, hair length, skin color, clothing type, nail care, existence of glasses, or virtually anything else you can think of. That being said, it should be both relevant and something that the main character would notice.
Along with that, “Asian” or “African” or “Hispanic” or “White” are not adequate descriptions. Even if all you give is approximate skin pigment (pale, tan, green-tinted under bronze (though you do need to be careful with using materials or foods in skin descriptions), brown, dark, etc.), it is more useful than descriptions like that, because within each of those quote-unquote ethnic descriptions, there is a huge range of variety.
Describe an action that they are doing. Again, this should be a relevant action, because otherwise it just shows up as foreshadowing when it’s not really foreshadowing. Maybe they’re playing with their hands. Maybe they’re sitting in a chair knitting. Maybe they’re eating a bagel. Maybe they’re eating falafel. Maybe they’re waiting in line for food, checking their phone. It can tell a lot about their personality and state of mind.
Describe a distinctive feature. Asian is not a distinctive feature. A set of freckles that are a lot darker on one side of the face than on the other is. Color-changing nail-polish is. A large birthmark is. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt when everyone else is wearing tuxes is.
You should probably use some combination of these, so it doesn’t seem like you’re just picking out some distinctive feature of each one of them. It can get fairly repetitive. Along with that, you can also bring up features over a span of time, as the main character notices the things about the person.
This is very important. You can also use description to denote change later on. Let’s say your character initially doesn’t get along with someone - they can describe that person in unflattering ways, or cast all their facial expressions as negative. Later, after the two have become friends or at least are no longer at odds, they can notice a change in the character, or begin describing them differently, having realized this character is a full person and not just their initial opinion.
The same is also important for villains - your character is going to describe a known villain in very negative ways, which could lead to your villains seeming one-dimensional. But if you put effort into showing that villain in different light, either as being described by those who like them or the MC realizing something important about them, you can show character growth and change.
(For example, I have a character describe a threatening man as ‘skull-faced’ - but when she sees him later, looking sad, she realizes there’s more to him.)