How do I decide what a particular character looks like?
I probably do it differently from anybody else. And I allow myself the freedom to change my mind about any physical attribute at any time. Yes, it can be difficult if, as I do draft 5 of a novel, I decide the heroine’s eyes are blue and not green. I’d better have a good reason for making that change, but if I do (perhaps the aliens are fascinated by blue eyes, because they’ve never seen that color before), then I’ll do it, and hope I catch any mention of her eye color in the final polish.
But that’s later. How did I give her green eyes to begin with?
Okay, most stories have more than 1 character. Mine tend to have both genders as characters. How do I decide what they look like?
I have a thing for redheaded females. Do you remember a comic strip called Brenda Starr? Brenda had luxurious, curly fire-engine red hair. That’s the red hair I envision for my ladies. It looks beautiful in ink in the cartoon strip, but that isn’t real. So I save that shade of hair for women who come from different planets, where the genetics might have gotten tweaked a bit, or the environment might influence hair shade.
I don’t have that urge to give a guy red hair, so that leaves me with black, shades of brown and shades of blond. (Occasionally, I do give a character some form of red hair, but sparingly, as redheads are fairly rare in the US, as a rule.) By the time I am deciding what my characters look like. I have some vague idea on their personality and the plot of the story. If someone is intended to start out as shy, retiring, and so on, I give them a bland shade of brown or dishwasher blond hair. Same with the eyes; hazel or brown, maybe an remarkable green. If the character is female who goes through some kind of metamorphosis into somebody interesting, a change in shampoo can reveal red or gold highlights, and makeup can reveal flecks in her eye color or otherwise make them more interesting. Similar Cinderella-type make-overs can work with guys, too.
If the character is someone who catches people’s attention, then I give them more vivid coloring; vivacious black hair or rich blond locks, eyes that are emerald green, sky blue or maybe smoky gray. Such women will be self assured and light on their feet, while the men in this category will be well built (but not necessarily hugely muscled) and in control of himself.
That’s the basics. Other details (does a woman have long nails or short?) will be determined by things like her occupation and her level of self-confidence. Does she bite her nails? Then they won’t be long, and probably won’t be polished or manicured, either. And men might be nail biters, too.I build characters little by little, by examining their place in the world at the time of the story and their history. They take shape slowly, like a piece of clay being molded into a figurine.