Writers – how well do you know what your characters look like?
Readers – how much do you want to know about a character’s appearance? Do you want to know the location of every freckle, or do you like to have some details left to your imagination?
Two recent events lead me to ask these questions this morning. First, I realized recently that even though I have written two books now with a main character named Georgiana Barrett and spent much time off and on over four years thinking about her, I’m still not one hundred percent sure what she looks like. This struck me as odd and probably negligent on my part as an author, akin, almost to not being able to describe one of my own children well enough to to a security person if he or she got lost in the mall. (Fortunately both kids are well past the “wandering off” stage and only one of them will go to the mall with me willingly). Am I a bad author-parent? I know for sure that Georgia is pretty tall and she has dark hair that underscores her “black sheep” status in a family of blondes. It is not long and I suspect it is layered. Her eyes are brownish. On the other hand, I know very well what her boyfriend Michael looks like – probably because I saw him through her eyes as I was writing. Then again, I have a strong sense of what my characters in other works in progress look like even with a third person point of view, so that theory may not hold water.
The second incident – leading to the second question – was my YA fiction writing class’s insistence that characters be physically attractive to be “compelling.” Not all of my students felt this way, but many, possibly the majority, did, and seemed surprised that I found this disturbing. Of course pop culture from fairy tales to Disney films to Nick tween shows has taught us that one embodies goodness by having a good body.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get over that myth. I do know that whatever Georgia looks like, she’s not perfect. But she is good. (At least, she means well, which counts, I think).
I’ve had beta readers and critique partners ask me for more physical description of my main characters. And I’ve tried but found it hard to oblige them, and not just because it’s clunky and awkward in first-person narration (Do you have the character comments, “I was brushing out my shoulder-length chestnut curls when the bomb went off”? Of course not. Or “I reached out to save him but could not meet his grasp. Damn my stubby fingers!” Even worse.) There’s something in me that just doesn’t want to describe them too much, probably because as a reader I like a a writer to provide a little prompting about a character’s appearance and let me imagine the rest myself. Even so, I find it disconcerting when a film version of a book character doesn’t resemble the character in my head, though a great performance always wins me over. I resisted Jennifer Lawrence but that only lasted for about eight minutes of the first Hunger Games. Now I can’t remember what “my” Katniss looked like.
So how much do you need to know, as a reader or a writer, about a character’s physical appearance? Leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you.