While you may want to look through the character’s eyes most of the time when using third person limited, you can look at him for a moment without breaking the point of view or losing intimacy. That ability to shift emotional distance is one of the benefits of third person, after all. Anthony Doerr’s short story “So Many Chances,” for example, is told in third person from Dorotea’s perspective and stays very close to her. In the first lines, she’s described like this:
Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan. The janitor’s daughter. Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick.
Scaling back to just a few defining details—ones that capture the essence of the character’s appearance—is often more effective than describing a character at length. You can drop in details throughout the story, too, so that collectively they create an image.
If you prefer to execute third person limited point of view by looking through the character’s eyes at all times—or if you’re using first person, where you must do this—deliver details of appearance through action. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus, fifteen year old Kambili, the first person narrator, has just witnessed her father throw a missal at her brother because he did not take communion at church. The missal flies past the boy and destroys a collection of her mother’s figurines instead. Adichie slips in a detail of Kambili’s appearance when showing her reaction:
I pulled at one of the cornrows underneath my black church scarf to make sure I was not dreaming.
The emphasis is not on the description of the character, but rather on this nervous gesture. As a result, the reader is building an image of the character while engaging in the intrigue of the moment.
Don’t throw out any techniques just because they’ve been done so poorly that they’ve gotten a bad reputation. You’re right—laying detail on too thick in dialogue can feel downright awkward, but a lighter touch can do the job well. In “Duet,” Stacey Richter uses the dialogue between Clara and a new acquaintance, Jo, to reveal details of Clara’s appearance:
“Do you bleach your hair?” [Jo] said.
“What?” said Clara.
“Well, your hair has such nice highlights I just wondered if you bleached it.”
Oh no. I would never be allowed to do something like that.”
Jo huffed and rolled her eyes. “That figures. What else aren’t you allowed to do?”
Clara paused—she could never tell when people were making fun of her. “Drink more than one Coke,” she finally said. “Watch channels other than PBS. Get anything less than an A. Shave my legs.”
No way! You still can’t shave your legs?” Jo cupped her hand over her mouth and giggled...“Can I see?” asked Jo.
Clara felt shy but she bent down anyway and pulled up her pants leg. Jo leaned over and stroked her furry shin.
Richter delivers two defining details—the color of her hair and her unshaven legs—while keeping the reader’s attention on the more evocative tension of Clara revealing she lives a more sheltered life than Jo.
Even that “mirror trick” can work if it’s doing more than just listing physical attributes. In Charles D’Ambrosio’s short story “Her Real Name”, Jones has just come home from a half a year at sea. When he looks in the mirror, he sees “gray eyes, a sharp sculpted jaw, ears that jutted absurdly from his close-cropped head: a navy face.” More importantly, though, he realizes “he’d forgotten not only what he looked like, but what other people might see when they looked at him,” and that gives important insight into Jones’ state of mind. (But be careful with this technique. It’s been used often enough that it can feel like a cliché when not absolutely necessary.)
Keep the focus on the action and on compelling revelations of the character. Appearance can emerge naturally from such moments.