Within the pages of your story, you invite the reader to meet your characters, get to know them as you do, as interesting and complex individuals with needs, desires, talents, and shortcomings. It is this mixture of components that attracts us to certain characters, repels us from others, leaves us neutral or even worse, disinterested. How do we get those aspects and properties of each character across using only the written word? How do we then further inspire the reader to absorb those characteristics, and create the mental image you're attempting to project?
As writers of any type, if we don't get all that we want onto the pages, we have not done our jobs effectively nor satisfactorily. While all readers will see in their minds unique variations of the worlds we've created, there should be some threads of constancy from one reader to the next. When a reader finishes one of my stories, I know that each one will have a unique flavor, so I am not shocked or disappointed when someone tells me something different from another. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised by their creativity and ingenuity in discovering some aspect I did not imagine. But overall, they should each produce the same basic story, and provide the same overall experience.
Even with using the same recipe, each cook's final result will resemble all the others, but each will possess individuality. Temperature, humidity, altitude, and quality of water will affect the dish, along with the cook's individual methods, tools and measuring acuity.
So, how do you describe a character without breaking the action of your novel or sounding like you're writing a profile on a dating form? I offer five options.
1. Describe with action, dialogue tags, or simple dialogue what your characters are wearing. You don't need a paragraph about what they are wearing, unless fashion is extremely important to the plot. You can work descriptions in easily. For example: Before Jessica could tell Jack she loved having dinner with him, the waiter tripped and spilled red wine down her blue, silk blouse. (Instead of writing: Jessica wore a blue, silk blouse on her date.)
2. Write about a couple of physical traits. You don't need to describe every single body part as stated before, this is not a dating profile. Here's an example that will give readers a picture about Jessica: Jessica pulled her curly, blonde hair into a ponytail to show off her small ears, highlighted with diamond stud earrings. (Or a different picture: Jessica ran her fingers through her spiked hair before putting in her nose ring.)
3. I wrote a young adult novel about a 15 year old boy named Donnie who just happens to be a nervous teenager, but I don't come out and tell the reader that fact. I showed his nervousness by describing his actions: sweaty armpits, scratching or playing with his hair, chewing a fingernail and constantly strumming his fingers on any surface. Is your character energetic? What traits can you give him to show this? Think about ways to describe what your character is like without telling the reader.
4. I also used dialogue to describe Donnie. You can do this easily. Is your character from a certain part of the United States (pop or soda, bag or sack) or world (toilet, bathroom, loo)? Think about the vocabulary your character uses or the way he or she talks. Donnie is a nervous teenager, so he talks really fast with long, run on sentences full of adjectives. Yes, even the speed of speech can be described.
5. Your character has hobbies, family, and friends. Use these to describe your character, too. Donnie idolizes John Wayne because his mom, who is deceased, had a collection of Wayne items and lived in a home two doors down from where John Wayne was born. This shows Donnie is unique and also misses his mom. I don't come out and say this in my description. I show it with his hobbies and conversations with other family members and friends.