Character Appearances: To Specify, or Not To Specify?

I’m a extremely visual reader and writer, which means that I picture very vividly the characters that I’m either reading or writing about. Ask me to share my vision of a specific character, and, even if I didn’t invent her, I will be able to describe her physical features in great detail, as I imagine them. If I were a better artist, I’m sure I could even draw them from my head.

Unfortunately, my idea of what a character looks like doesn’t always line up with what the author intended. Last week, I read a YA novel where the male love interest was described very early on as “tall and olive skinned, with dark hair.” Not super specific, but clear enough. However, the author doesn’t refer to his specific features at all throughout the rest of the book, describing the character only as “beautiful,” or occasionally, “gorgeous.” This lack of specificity gave my forgetful brain the leeway to imagine him quite differently than the original description. I pictured him with golden tan skin and waving chestnut hair.

I imagined him like this. SO SUE ME.

Which is fine. It’s my brain. But when I picked up the sequel and the author reiterated how the character actually looked, I was in for a shock. “He looks like what?” I said, while combing furiously through the first book for the original description.

Describing characters is something every writer does differently. Some authors go into great detail, enumerating freckles and glints of green in hazel eyes and lopsided smiles and crooked noses. Other authors choose to describe their characters very broadly, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Each method has its merits, but also its drawbacks.

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, sketched her protagonist Bella’s appearance, but didn’t get into specifics. In an interview, she explained that she “left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes.” By leaving a character’s appearance open to interpretation, she hoped to make her more relatable to readers.

But this method can have a darker side. Many of you will remember the disturbing furor that arose when a young black actress was cast as Rue in the movie version of The Hunger Games. The author, Suzanne Collins, describes the fragile 12-year-old in the books as having “dark brown skin and eyes.” While this may seem explicit to some, the broadness of the description resulted in many readers whitewashing an ethnically diverse character. Similarly, while Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame has been universally portrayed as a young white woman, Rowling only ever described Hermione as having bushy brown hair, brown eyes, and prominent front teeth. There is nothing to say Hermione isn’t a woman of color, yet everyone assumes she must be white.

Personally, I prefer specific descriptions. When reading, every nugget of information about a character’s appearance helps me flesh out the imaginary person in my head. And when writing, I want my readers to be able to clearly see the characters I’ve invented.

To a certain extent, everyone’s vision of fictional characters will always be different than the person who authored them. But deciding to describe every feature of a character or electing instead to broadly sketch a general appearance can have ramifications on how your readers ultimately interact with your fictional world.

Do you prefer specificity in your reading/writing? Or do you prefer to imagine the characters without relying on the author’s description? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

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3 thoughts on “Character Appearances: To Specify, or Not To Specify?

  1. Shauna Granger

    I go back and forth on this. I think we superimpose our own idea of what the character looks like no matter what. But what if the author thinks one thing is “gorgeous” and it’s a total turn off for you? I was vague with character descriptions in my first book and people noticed and weren’t fans so I try to be more specific without limiting the reader’s imagination.

    1. I definitely get what you’re saying. I read a book a while back where the author mentioned that a male love interest was really good-looking, but short. Lack of height is a turn-off for me, so it was hard for me to relate to the MC’s attraction to him for the rest of the novel.

      A delicate line to tread, for sure! You want your readers to be able to paint a picture without feeling like they’re doing a paint-by-number!

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