Do you care what color eyes the protagonist in a novel has? Is a character whose green eyes shine like emeralds more interesting than one whose blue eyes are mentioned in passing? What about the one whose eye color was never mentioned? What kind of loser must he be?
I don’t care what characters look like. When their physical traits are described, I quickly forget them and picture the character as if he had not been described at all. I paint him as an amorphous, generic human, without any detailed features.
In my mind, the character has no eye or hair color; he is a sort of human silhouette.
The only time I remembered a character’s hair color was when I read the movie tie-in edition of I am Legend, with a movie scene featuring Will Smith on the cover. Robert Neville, the character portrayed by Smith, is described as having blond hair. That would have made the movie more visually interesting.
What the characters do is far more important to me than how they look, unless how they look is a big part of their character or influences their actions. If a character has a third eye, I’d like to know about it. But a third nipple is of less interest, unless a third nipple was clearly stated in the prophesies as the mark of the Chosen One, or three still-warm nipple rings were found at the scene of the murder.
I suppose physical appearance is more important in certain books. Romance novels might need to beef up their men and curve up their women to help sell the fantasy. Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen Pee Wee Herman on the cover of a romance novel.
Our reading preferences shape our writing. That’s why I can’t remember describing the physical traits of many main characters, except for that three-nippled messiah. My characters are like those Star Trek aliens who took whatever form Captain Kirk needed them to take to be able to relate to them. They can assume any appearance you want them to take.
What I must paint them with is a personality. I must make my characters have character, good or bad. I must make the central characters grow, or meaningfully not grow. This is the color on my brush.
Before one of the tens of people who have read my work becomes tempted to think me a liar, I should explain that I sometimes describe the physical traits of minor characters. I do this instead of giving them names. Names are superfluous for characters with walk-on parts (See: “Angry Man in Crowd” in your local movie credits). Referring to a bit player by a dominant physical characteristic makes them more noteworthy than throwing a temporary name label on them.
If I had to describe my central characters, they would all be medium build, medium height, with light brown hair and greenish, blueish, brownish eyes.
If any of characters show two or less dimensions, I’m truly sorry. That’s on me.
Is a main character’s physical appearance important to you as a reader? How about as a writer?