One of the most remarkable things about reading novels and stories from the 1800s is the languid and comprehensive way writers describe characters. Writers like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne spend a great deal of energy on precise and evocative detail about even minor characters (and not just because they were often paid by the word).
Good physical description has become a bit of a lost and under-appreciated art, and far too many writers orient too heavily around dialogue at the expense of creating more vivid imagery for their readers. I strongly advocate paying close attention to your first impressions and think about how you can channel at least a bit of your inner Herman Melville as you introduce new characters.
Still, tastes and reader expectations have changed, there’s now a premium on tight storytelling, and spending an entire page describing a character could leave your reader dozing. Accordingly, I hear from so many writers who eschew physical description because they’re worried about boring their readers.
In order to have the best of both worlds, here’s a tip: think about capturing a character’s overall presence more than trying to list comprehensive details.