We would bet that the characters in the novel you are writing or the people in your non-fiction book are as real to you as your neighbors and relatives. They may live in your mind, but they are three dimensional and capable of behaving in ways that sometimes surprise you. Writers often talk about characters doing something that changes the course of their stories.
Here’s the rub: you and your characters or subjects are an exclusive group. If you want the reader to see what you see, you have to let the reader in. We get lots of manuscripts in which the writer has not described his/her characters at all. That’s probably fine for the writer. After all, the characters are alive and doing very well in the writer’s mind. It is downright weird for the reader, who is being asked to invest emotionally in a phantom, a character or person without a face or sometimes, even an age. It makes it really hard for the reader to even picture this entity much less invest in it emotionally.
There is a school of thought that readers are going to have their way with book people and pretty much picture them they way they want to no matter how the writer describes them. Maybe, but as writer you have to give them something, even if it is just an outline.
We are not asking for you to run off a list of stats: sex, female; race, Asian; age, 69; height, 5’4”; weight, 165 pounds. Rather, we are asking you to sketch. Think of the person’s defining characteristic. In the case of the 69-year-old, we just reduced to numbers, maybe it is her unruly white hair, sticking up in all directions. That she has white hair indicates she is probably elderly so you’ve covered her age and also given the reader an image: an older woman with sticking up hair. Somewhere else, you might mention that she is short and plump. Maybe she sticks something in her crazy hair, say an iPhone stylus. That says something different about her than if she sticks a pencil in her hair. Maybe she has a distinctive way of moving or speaks with a Chinese accent. All of this defines her and brings her to life in the reader’s mind. If you are successful at this, maybe the book person will be as real in the reader’s mind as she is in yours. That is what you should be aiming for.
And don’t feel you can rest on your laurels when you have described your main characters. Every character in the book should be described, if only briefly. A waiter in a restaurant, who serves only to put food on the table of characters with bigger roles, should get a two-word description. Again, choose that waiter’s defining characteristic: black-vested, tattooed, gum-popping, with gelled hair, taciturn, overly friendly etc. Give the reader something, so the waiter is not just a black hole. It will not only define the waiter but also say something about the restaurant where the scene is taking place and the person who chose to eat there.
Bringing characters to life is one way that you build the tapestry of your book and make it vivid in the reader’s mind.