Saturday, April 19, 2008
Description, the sequel
So when do paragraphs of description of characters work? Or any such description?
1. When it’s necessary for the readers to differentiate between characters on a physical basis.
In George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, it was absolutely necessary that readers knew what Prince Oberyn Martell and Ser Gregor the Mountain were wearing, carrying and fighting with before the duel to the death began. Those details just couldn’t be woven in gradually.
On the other hand, a description of a heroine rarely requires a mention of her “full breasts”, “perfectly shaped breasts” or “perky breasts”. Readers will assume that she’s normal-looking in this regard, as opposed to having twin zeppelins or two aspirins on an ironing board.
Descriptions of what the characters look like are often required in fantasy, where people can be very dissimilar from what we would consider the norm. Races in my own work have fangs, blazes, lateral lines, marks, camouflage skin, stingers or more eyes than expected – and that’s just differences in the head and face. A reader would be lost if such differences weren’t made clear.
It’s up to the writer whether to have such details in a paragraph at the start or to weave them into the narrative, but they should be included.
2. When it’s necessary for readers to know what a character looks like.
In Orson Scott Card’s novel Hart’s Hope, the antagonist envies the Flower Princess’s beauty. So how does Card show that beauty? Well, he describes the Flower Princess as being the most beautiful woman ever to have lived, because she has never told a lie. No mention of specifics, so every reader who tries to imagine her will imagine the most beautiful woman for himself or herself.
It’s a clever technique. If Card had written that the Flower Princess had black hair, sapphire-blue eyes, a perfect mouth and high breasts, that would never have had the power of his works-for-every-reader description.
Richard Adams also avoids specifics in The Girl in a Swing. At the end of the novel, I felt sure the heroine, Karin, was drop-dead gorgeous, but on reading it again, I realized that Adams had never described her. He only showed how other characters reacted to her. Their responses made it clear that they thought she was lovely, and so I thought she was lovely too.
The bottom line is that a non-specifc description may sometimes work better than stating exactly what a character looks like. Leave it up to the reader’s imagination – which will paint the kind of picture that works for the reader.
3. When the descriptions don’t risk losing reader sympathy.
Too much description of a character’s beauty – unless the character is in a Judith Krantz novel, where I expect it before opening the book – and I’ll be turned off, especially if such description is a fulsome listing of all the character’s flawless features.
Personally, if I want to make it clear that a character is beautiful, I’d pick one or at the most two characteristics and say that he was broad-shouldered or that she had eyes like mother-of-pearl. That would be much more palatable. Less is more.
I don't mind reading how lovely a minor character is. But identifying with the hero or heroine, feeling what they feel and struggling with them towards their goals, is easier for me if the author isn’t stressing how gorgeous they are.