How Do I Look?

The other day, as I was catching up on my TBR pile, I found myself being repeatedly thrown out of book. It wasn’t for lack of pace, uninteresting premise, or dull characterization; it was for the constant physical description of the main character.

Description is a tricky thing to handle in books, especially if the narration is told from the first person (as was the book I was reading). Sometimes I notice the description, other times I do not. Why? What makes for a smooth, almost invisible description of a character’s looks, and what makes for a jarring one?

Some of this is a matter of personal taste, of course; I am someone who prefers physical description of character’s in books rather vague.1 But there are some writers who are very particular about their characters’ looks, and whether or not their descriptions throw me out of a narrative come down to a few things:

1. The description feels shoehorned in.

Your mileage may vary on this one, but nothing is more distracting than reading a passage where plot is moving forward, only to have it interrupted with descriptions of the character’s hair or eye color. For example, a sentence like this would jar me: She packed her bags, determined to flee the country. Before shutting the suitcase, she made sure she had enough blue and green blouses, to set off her sea-green eyes. Just because she was a fugitive of the law didn’t mean she had to look like one. 

I feel there is a time and a place for descriptions. When characters meet for the first time. When characters are being compared (or comparing themselves) to others. When a character’s looks affects how others perceive him or her. Think of all times you think of the way someone “looks” in real life; a character should be thinking along similar lines. For instance, when I look in the mirror, I am not lingering on my dark eyes, strong jaw, and sharp chin. I am wondering whether or not I look tired, or if the spaghetti I had for dinner left any marinara on my face.

2. The description feels, for the lack of a better word, too “favourable”.

This…is tough. While I prefer showing over telling in prose, there are some times when telling actually trumps showing. I especially feel this way when it comes to describing someone attractive. What people find attractive varies from individual to individual, and a detailed description of a character’s physically appealing qualities makes me roll my eyes. Phrases like her long, slender legs or his well-muscled forearms are perfectly fine, but instead of being shown physically that a character is attractive, I’d rather been shown emotionally.

So how to write description in such a way that isn’t distracting? I think people, when they come across others they haven’t met before, will focus on one or two things that stand out. Race/ethnicity, an unusual birthmark, or perhaps a haircut. J.K. Rowling does this quite well; Harry’s lightning-shaped scar, his untidy hair, and spectacles; Hermione’s bushy hair and too-big front teeth; Ron’s red hair, freckles, and lanky height. These are distinguishing physical characteristics that help the reader recognize the character, both on the page, and in other mediums, like the screen or fanart.

Very few people will notice the dimple in someone’s cheek, or the relentless symmetry of his or features upon first sight. It is only after some time that we begin to build mental images of each other. It is the same with characters; when presented with a laundry list of characteristics, I will probably forget what the character is supposed to look like. But if we get the details bit by bit, they reinforce and solidify a mental image, similar to how we would create mental images of those we know best.

What do you think? Do you have pet peeves or quirks that distract you when it comes to physical descriptions of characters in books? Leave us a comment below!

  1. There is one, rather important exception to this rule: I would rather be told, upfront and as soon as possible, if a character is NOT WHITE. It is all-too-easy to erase a character’s ethnicity—think of people’s reactions to Rue being black in The Hunger Games—and I prefer direct, irrefutable textual evidence of a character’s not-whiteness.

15 Responses to How Do I Look?

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Sep 2 2014 at 7:26 am #

    I very rarely read it. Physical description is like any other, text to skip as I look for the next bit of something happening. If the appearance doesn’t matter to that, then leave it out. In my own writing, the characters live on the wrong side of their own skin and aren’t going to go around thinking about what they look like.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Sep 2 2014 at 7:30 am #

    And I have to disagree with you about the ethnicity angle. If it matters to the story it will come out, but I see no need to be told that someone is black or gay simply as part of a description, or to go on about it myself.

  3. Laura Harner Sep 2 2014 at 7:41 am #

    I completely disagree with the demand a character’s non-whiteness be broadcast as soon as possible. Talk about being white-centric. I don’t demand to know a person’s race/ethnicity when speaking to them on a telephone. Or whether they’re gay, handicapped, blond, Christian, old or young. Needing to know a character’s race or ethnicity “right up-front” with “irrefutable textual evidence of a character’s not-whiteness” smacks of prejudice. Why would anyone assume that every character is white unless she is told otherwise?
    What a boring, awful world it would be if my entire universe was always made up of white people, and people of color needed to announce themselves before entering.

    • JJ Sep 2 2014 at 8:22 am #

      No one wants to live in a world where everyone is white, but the reality is, many of us live in a world where the default assumption is of whiteness. I’ll bring back the example of Rue from The Hunger Games; there is textual evidence that she is a person of color, even though it’s not outright stated. And yet, when they cast a little black girl in the movie, an astonishing number of people were surprised. Why? Because because it wasn’t outright stated. Katniss too, could have been read as a character of color (and maybe people did), but a white actress was cast. Why? Because her ethnicity is textually ambiguous. Dark hair and olive skin? Is that white? Or a person of color?

      I’ll use a personal example, two of them, in fact. When I speak on the phone, many people assume I am white. How do I know this? Because when they see me in person for the first time, they flat-out tell me “I thought you were white.” As a little girl, I scoured every book for every hint, every little bit of textual validation that I existed, that I could be an adventurer in a story too. Not a lot of mixed-race Asian girls in the stories I read as a kid. It would have been nice to have that reassurance.

  4. Claire M. Caterer Sep 2 2014 at 10:00 am #

    It’s interesting what you say about Rue in THE HUNGER GAMES. She was clearly black to me, and I never heard of the controversy about the casting. (If I had, I’d have said, “Huh?!”) I take note when an author describes skin color, because it seems to be a common thing now to NOT state race outright, but to describe characteristics instead. In the HP books, we usually get it from a name–Cho Chang, Parvati Patel, etc. Dean Thomas is black, and I suppose JKR must’ve said that outright, because I knew it right off. But perhaps some authors are trying to show the ambiguity of mixed race. One character (the POV) may not identify a mixed-race character as such because he/she doesn’t know the facts, and may just see olive skin or whatever. It’s an interesting point.

  5. Elissa Sep 2 2014 at 11:47 am #

    What gets me are cliches, no matter what the character’s ethnicity. If I ever read about another heroine with a “heart-shaped face” and “button nose”, that book is going straight in the trash.

    I do think character ethnicity is important, but it should be deeper than skin color. A person’s back-story defines their character, both in real life and in fiction. Ethnicity–who we are and where we’re from–is back-story. If the color is just painted on to give the story “diversity”, it doesn’t work for me. A good writer can show me a character’s ethnicity without telling me their skin color, and show me how that background influences their personality.

    Still, when writing for younger audiences, I do think it helps for the author to be blunt about ethnicity. Children and young adults don’t always have the world awareness to catch subtleties. But if ethnicity isn’t important to the story, maybe olive skin and dark hair is the better way to go. That lets the reader imagine the character any way they wish. In the end, I’ve always felt that engaging imaginations is a writer’s most important job.

  6. Rowenna Sep 2 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    I think the question of how to and when to reveal race or ethnicity is an interesting one. For me, as a reader, I sometimes imagine characters with physical characteristics, including race, that were not the author’s intention at all! I’m in favor of subtle clues for any depiction–to capture a feel for the character, but to allow the reader to imagine the character for him or herself. That includes race–and when I write a character, I truly don’t care if my reader doesn’t get that she was white or he was black. It’s not important to the kinds of stories I write–and though showing diversity is important, I don’t feel the need to say “Bob is African-American and Peter is Chinese” in order to effectively write a diverse cast. I’d rather talk about, for instance, Peter’s grandmother making traditional recipes she remembers from her childhood in Beijing. In short–I don’t treat characters of color any differently than white characters in terms of description.

    Frankly–this may not be a very nice opinion–the people who reacted negatively to Rue being black does not reflect on how Collins wrote the character, but on them. I thought it was clear that Collins intended Rue to be black, but even if you missed that–or even if she had been white in the book but black in the film–there’s no reason to react in a negative way. There were those who read Katniss as black, too, for what it’s worth. I remember some surprise and disappointment expressed when a white actress was selected.

    • Elissa Sep 2 2014 at 3:59 pm #

      Rowenna–yes! “Peter’s grandmother making traditional recipes she remembers from her childhood in Beijing.” That’s exactly what I meant by showing the ethnicity without relying on physical description.

  7. Becki Sep 3 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    Interesting discussion on disclosure of race/ethnicity in writing. As much as we know it’s not fair, we do automatically assume a character is white if not otherwise stated. And the sad thing is (to continue using the Rue casting shock as an example) that even if it IS shown in the writing, unless the author says ALSO THIS CHARACTER IS BLACK (etc) people will STILL assume white. It’s like readers miss the hints towards ethnicity completely because they’re so convinced what ‘white’ is a default.

    I actually think Susanne Collins’ way of disclosing race/ethnicity was really well done. Skin colour wasn’t shoved in your face but it was alluded to in character descriptions. If more authors were to write like this maybe eventually readers would pick up on them more quickly.

  8. Madison Sep 5 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    Great article, JJ! I’m in agreement about favourable and shoehorned physical description – that example with sea-green eyes made me cringe. Maybe it’s because I’m an inattentive reader, but I think that the only physical characteristics that matter are the ones that matter to the story. Who cares what colour her eyes are unless they shoot lasers or something? I have a friend who writes about a girl with a missing eye and arm – those things are important to know because they affect what she can do and see – but I have no idea what colour her remaining eye is.

    Regarding ethnicity, I fully agree! I can’t remember who wrote it now, but this year I read an article by an author/reader who said that “if race/ethnicity isn’t mentioned, she assumes the character is white”. I thought that was really interesting because she is African American, and she went on to say that she had grown up surrounded by a very diverse group of people but only ever read about white people. I’m looking forward to seeing this change – I want more diverse casts in movies and other media, so why not books, too? I think that a lot of writers are offended (maybe?) by this idea, because they don’t *intend* for all their characters to be white, but I think the truth is that their cast will be passively white-washed simply because they’re not actually visible. It takes very little effort to combat this, so why not? If our goal is to have readers relate to our characters, why wouldn’t we put in a twinge of effort to help more people relate to diverse characters?

  9. Haneen Ibrahim Sep 5 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    as a beginner in the world of writing I find this article really helpful, and I can not agree more on what you said about the need to know about a character’s ethnicity/race, I’m a person of color and when I find that a character in a book looks like me it makes me feel happy, that this author knows I actually exist, of course if the writer can make me know without saying it out front it’s good too but if it wasn’t stated at all i’ll just conclude that all the characters in the book are white and that is it. I do not think we have reached this time in the history of humanity that race doesn’t matter, it does. Thank you.

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