How to be Subtle
I know it’s always tempting to describe as many features of your characters as possible so your readers picture them exactly as you do, but it’s just not possible. I don’t like huge paragraphs of description when reading because I get bored, especially if it’s only the one thing that’s getting described. But then this flags up the problem of when to include information such as height, hair colour and style, and many other traits of your characters that are very important to you. You don’t want to bombard the reader with loads of information all at once but on the other hand you don’t want them to create an image in their head before you get round to describing them.
This is always a tricky area and I’ve read stories that have included the character description too early and too late. What I like to do is make it as subtle as possible. I won’t do a big paragraph full of description, I’ll filter information here and there when it’s appropriate. Maybe the first time you meet the best friend character there’s something about their appearance that your protagonist really envies. For example, if your protagonist is shorter than average and their friend is tall. Here there’s an opportunity to describe the best friend and the protagonist’s height without it being too obvious. For example: “If I had even half her height I wouldn’t complain so much”. Or even better for the height example, you could use dialogue. Perhaps the friend greets your protagonist as “shorty”. This is a great example of how to show the reader rather than tell them. There are so many other ways to go about saying: “I’m short and my friend is tall”. These methods can work for anything, hair, smile, whatever you want your readers to know. Just don’t give them everything all at once.
Also, the way a character acts can sometimes tell you more than a description ever could. After all, what they do in the story is more important than what clothes they wear. A great way for your reader to get to know a character is in the way they walk, talk or stand. Do they exude confidence? If so they could stand up straight, walk with their head held high, take big strides. If shy they could look at the ground when they walk, look away as soon as you look at them, only speak if directed.
In my opinion, the most effective way the readers get to know a character is through dialogue. Do they talk a lot or a little? Do they get excited when they speak? Do they pause a lot? Do they ask a lot of questions? Are they sarcastic? All of these things give you an insight into what a character is like without having to make it too obvious to the reader. I love it when I care about a character without realising the point in which I began caring.
In short: filter the description, don’t write a huge block of description and use dialogue to help you.
How about writing a short paragraph of description in the comments below, trying to make it as subtle as possible? Try and do it in under a hundred words, or if you're feeling confident fifty.