Today in the Dojo: Untangling the thorny problem of describing characters’ physical appearances.
Clothes and manners do not make the man; but, when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.
-Henry Ward Beecher
I’m afraid we’re about to get snowed under by albinos. It’s almost a foregone conclusion: you get a wildly successful book including characters with unusual physical traits, and it seems that a billion other authors think that was the golden key to bestsellerdom. People want albinos – or sparkling vampires, or boys with scars on their foreheads, or…
Well, it’s a load of bunk, of course. An intriguing physical characteristic will not compensate for awful characterization and a worse plot. This is not Hollywood, folks. We can’t say our character looks just like Brad Pitt or Catherine Zeta-Jones and expect the readers to come flocking in. Granted, there are probably a few sad readers out there who will say, “Oh, look – an albino!” or whatever flavor-of-the-month, and buy your book on the strength of that alone – it’s a funny old world – but there aren’t enough of those to push strong sales.
Since that’s the case, we’re left in a bit of a dilemma. Should we describe our characters physically, or leave it up to the reader? Does every main character need a standout physical trait? How much is too much – or too little?
I shall attempt an answer.
IN THE CAMPS, SWORDS ARE BEING SHARPENED
You are not going to get a definitive answer in the writers’ books. Instead, you will get controversy. You have in one camp those who believe that no main character is complete without some outrageous physical characteristic that caricature artists would scream with glee upon seeing, and who also maintain that every character must be described down to the diameter and exact tint of their navel hair. You have in the other camp those who insist that physical description is a stumbling block to reader identification and must not, under any circumstances, be attempted. They might grudgingly allow you to pin a general age and a vague ethnic identity on your characters, but otherwise, all must be left up to the reader.
There is a third camp that shrugs, says “Do whatever seems right, man,” and wanders off for coffee. They are of little help, but at least they’re peaceful.
The camps can be safely ignored. It’s the readers who matter – after all, they’re the ones shelling out the bucks that will keep you fed while scribbling. So what do they think?
Some readers are ardent camp followers, with the same level of fanaticism evinced by World Cup fans. The average reader, if aware of the war at all, looks upon the two camps in utter confusion. “I don’t care about navel hair, it’s TMI, really, but still…. I want to know what people look like” seems to be the general consensus.
I know because when I was running my early efforts past test readers, their most frequent complaint was that they didn’t know what the characters looked like. They wanted to know. It wasn’t enough for them to have formed their own mental image of the character in question. If it was a third person story, they most certainly wanted a physical description beyond “It’s a she, and she’s got brown hair.” They wanted details. In first person stories, that didn’t seem as big a complaint, but they were always happy to have a handle on appearance.
No one ever asked me for an albino, or a boy with a scar, or anything else in the way of standout physical detail, but there’s a reason those details are popular. We shall get to that in a moment.
And good riddance.
So now, let’s talk a bit about physical description in general, because without it, your character with the standout physical detail ends up being a featureless blob with a standout physical detail standing out like a tumor, with very nearly the same result. And when all you see is a single feature, brilliant characterization will not prevent the reader from recalling your well-rounded character as “That guy with the tumor on his nose.”
A good physical description of your character has a lot going for it. Your reader will have something concrete to associate the character with, instead of relying on abstracts that might be harder for them to associate with the right character. It’s like a scrapbook, helping to contain all of those thoughts, impressions, opinions, and actions that go into a character.
Description is useful as a means of instant identification: there’s a redhead headed our way, must be Molly – that sort of thing. That’s especially useful when you’re writing in close third-person and the narrator doesn’t know who Molly is. But the reader does, and it delights them to know something the narrator doesn’t.
It also makes the reader feel closer to the character. It creates an intimate, face-to-face relationship. Vision (for those of us who are sighted) is an important part of our relations with other people. Your readers want that kind of intimacy with your characters. They want a picture. A picture makes the person real.
That means that a physical description of your characters can also make your world seem more real, your story more complete. If you know what the characters look like and pass that knowledge on to your reader, there’s a subconscious idea that if you know what these people look like, they must be real, and if they’re real, they’re moving in a real world.
Physical description can enhance reader love or hate at a glance. We love beautiful people and hate ugly ones, generally speaking. We really hate beautiful people gone bad (although we’re conflicted because we’re attracted to them) and love ugly folks all the more if they’re constantly struggling to show their beauty at heart (although we’re conflicted because we’re still repulsed by their appearance). Never underestimate the power of appearance to affect the way your readers feel about your characters.
Which leads nicely to the cautions, beginning with what I just said: physical description can enhance reader love or hate at a glance. It’s quite the double-edged sword. When deciding how you’re going to describe a character, you have to be fully aware that you could be unintentionally turning a reader away. Those melting brown eyes might remind a reader of the melting brown eyes that just dumped her in a restaurant; that vivid red hair might remind a reader of the vivacious redhead who just broke his winning streak at the table tennis tournament. If you are relying on physical beauty or ugliness to define your character as a hero or villain, you’re in trouble. You’re also in a bit of the deep and sticky if you choose to cast a monstrously ugly person as hero or gorgeous person as villain. That can backfire. Be very aware of how people respond to physical beauty or repulsiveness before you start the purple prose.
Physical description can also get in the way of the reader forming their own mental image of the character. In the absence of description, readers will start filling in the blanks themselves. They’re going to get a nasty shock if the person they’ve comfortably decided must look like Brad Pitt turns out to look like Rodney Dangerfield on page 110. And even if you described your character as a Rodney sort up front, they might still insist on having him look like Brad and get jolted every time you contradict them. Accept that it could happen with some readers.
The worst danger, however, is that physical description will lead to Lazy Author Syndrome, in which the author substitutes a catalog of physical descriptors for characterization. I touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating: physical description tells us nothing about the character other than what they look like. It shouldn’t stand in for all of the other areas of characterization, or you are going to end up with stereotypes, caricatures – not characters.
And if you have a book populated by thinly disguised Angelina Jolies, Brad Pitts, Catherine Zeta-Joneses, and Christian Bales, you’re going to look rather cheesey. So will they. Same thing goes for a book of midgets, lepers, supermodels, fat folk, skinny folk, or any other sort of folk that you’re identifying mainly by exaggerated appearance. Unless you’re writing parody, resist the urge to fill your book with odd-looking or physically perfect specimens.
In fact, with physical description, you should probably stick with the averages: a few standouts, but the majority are going to be regular Joes and Janes, neither gorgeous nor disgusting, neither perfect nor disfigured. I’ve noticed that books where everybody stands out get pretty cluttered and unreadable about the tenth character.
When describing a character physically, avoid comparing them baldly to the current heartthrob on the silver screen. Yes, your character might look exactly like George Clooney in your own mind. That’s great for you. For your reader’s sake, stick with the salt-and-pepper hair, white, physically healthy forty-year-old sort of description. That covers a wide range of folks, even though it’s narrow enough for them to get the picture, and then they’ll have enough detail to build an image of their own that is most likely going to be based on someone they know and love.
It’s up to you whether you’re going to go for a sketch or a portrait, of course, but I do advise leaving just enough ambiguity for the reader to form their own conclusions. Readers seem to like that. They want a framework on which to hang their own ideas of beauty or repulsiveness. They don’t need the exact image stuffed down their throats.
So now that we’ve covered that a bit, time for that bugaboo, the standout physical detail.
WELL, OFFICER, I’M NOT SURE OF HIS HEIGHT, AGE, WEIGHT, ETHNICITY OR NATIONALITY, BUT I CAN TELL YOU FOR DAMNED SURE HE’S AN ALBINO
Thinking back on the many books I’ve read, it seems that many of the characters who have captivated me have a standout physical detail: Drizzt do’Urden’s lavender eyes, Mat Cauthon’s hanging scar, Harry Potter’s lightning-bolt scar, Agnes Nitt’s extraordinary bulk… you get the idea. But a good number of my favorite characters stand out not because of an eye-catching feature, but who they are. Sam Vimes is about as ordinary as Everyman gets – it’s his attitude that arrests the attention. Same thing with so many of the first-person narrators I’ve loved. I couldn’t tell you what these people look like. Asked to identify them in a lineup, I’d be lost. But they stand out with extraordinary clarity in my mind.
This begs the question: is a standout physical detail genius or needless?
I told you I’d get to the reasons why a standout physical detail is a good idea. They are thus:
a. It makes the character stand out above the pack.
b. It gives the reader a visual hook for that character.
c. It’s useful shorthand for referring back to that character.
d. Done right, it defines and characterizes that character.
A good standout physical detail will fit the character. It grows from who the character is, not the author’s need to create the next Harry Potter. Let’s take Agnes N
itt. I’m relatively sure that Terry Pratchett did not sit down at his computer one day and say to himself, “I really need to include a morbidly obese person in this novel.” If he did, it’s not evident. Agnes being that drastically overweight is just her. It affects her whole life, her relationships with other characters, her view of herself, and drives the story to a large (honestly, no pun intended) degree. And I know that J.K. Rowling didn’t think to herself, “This boy wizard of mine is great, but he needs a gimmick… I know! A scar!” She saw him that way from the start: a boy with messy hair and a lightning shaped scar. The story of how he got that scar became the story of who and what he was, and what his world is like.
Are you noticing a trend? You should. Good standout physical details are part and parcel of the story, not imposed as an afterthought because the author wanted to spice things up. Originality comes from the character, not the detail. If it’s imposed by the author, the standout physical detail quickly degrades to the rankest cheese.
Standout physical details should impact the story. If you chose to make your character an amputee for the sake of originality, then showcase that amputation when it’s convenient and otherwise forget it exists, you’re doing the story and the character a disservice. A missing limb, an odd scar, lavender eyes, they all affect the character and those around him or her. Maybe your amputee gets along fine and never misses his or her limb, in fact doesn’t think much of it unless he’s tying his shoes, that’s great – but if the new people he meets don’t think much of it either, you’re in trouble. Think of how Harry’s scar affects his life. It means he’s got to keep it hidden or he’s instantly identifiable. There’s a whole history contained in that scar that he doesn’t like to remember. It drives the story. It has to, just as Agnes Nitt’s weight affects her story, and our own physical quirks affect ours. Understand that anyone with a standout physical detail is going to stand out, and explore how that impacts the story.
If the standout physical detail is part of your whole character’s physical and personality profile, it will seem less like a gimmick and become simply their crowning detail. This is why I spent so much time earlier on physical description in general. If you’re going to include a standout physical detail, make it part of the whole person, not in itself the whole person.
Now, I just know you’re going to ask me, “How do I chose a standout physical detail for my characters?” My advice is, don’t. Don’t set out at the beginning to create one. Just see the whole character, and if something pops, use it. Otherwise, you’ll end up imposing something on a character who doesn’t have it, doesn’t want it, and will fight you on it to the bitter end, with the result that the standout physical detail that seemed so clever at the outset ends up looking like the author’s cheap attempt at attention mongering.
Characters don’t have to have some outrageous physical characteristic to make them memorable. If nothing presents itself, focus your energies on their interior life, their attitude, their relations with other people, hobbies, habits, or hygeine. Look for their standout traits elsewhere. Don’t plead with them to become quadruple amputees just because that would give the story something unique and of “human interest” that would look great on promo materials and makes for a handy sound bite.
All right. You’ve decided (or your character’s grudgingly admitted) that there’s a standout physical detail in the offing, and yes, you should probably also let the reader know what this bloke or blokette looks like. Here’s some guidelines for getting it in there without driving the reader nuts.
1. Do it early, before the reader has cemented their own image.
2. Get the standout physical detail and a general sketch bunged in before you go for a finely detailed portrait. Start small and build works as well here as it does for great drama.
3. Don’t stop the story for a physical inventory. Introduce the details a little bit at a time, preferably while also doing other things like furthering the plot, setting, theme, and so forth. Get your character away from mirrors, pools of water, and any other reflective surfaces you’re tempted to make them linger over in order to get the description in all at once.
4. Don’t harp on the subject. Once you’ve established the standout physical detail (and other physical characteristics), don’t bring them up every other paragraph thereafter. Only mention them when they become important to the story, or when the character is likely to notice them, or other characters notice them. Speaking of which…
5. Make sure other characters notice them. Don’t leave your reader wondering if they’re all blind or the author’s stupid. If you’re putting in a standout physical detail, it had better affect everybody to at least some degree, especially the character involved.
Right. That about does it. You should have all the tools you need to avoid cheese and write better-than-average descriptions. You should have no albinos (unless your book is entitled The Secret Life of Albinos). Your standout physical detail is growing, perhaps literally, from your character, not coming down from God on High (otherwise known as You, the Author). You’re fully aware that all physical detail is just a portion of what makes a character a unique entity. You’re set.
Now go make your characters stand out.