Monday, September 22, 2008

Describing beautiful characters

In previous blog posts, I’ve written that the personalities of characters are more important than their appearances, mostly because it’s easier to win reader sympathy through characterization than through descriptions of a person’s beauty. But what if a character’s beauty is necessary for the story? If readers must believe a character is physically attractive to the power ∞, what are good ways to accomplish this?

1. State upfront that the character is physically perfect.

This hyperbole can work quite well in high fantasy, where – when done well – it’s part of the poetry and grandeur and magic of that subgenre. The Flower Princess in Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope is the most beautiful woman in the world, because she has never told a lie. Likewise, if the writer establishes at the start that the magic mirror shows whoever is the fairest in the land, the readers don’t need extensive descriptions to prove that yes, the woman in the looking-glass really is the prettiest.

It’s not easy to connect with such a character on a mental or emotional level, though. I’d like to read more about Dagny Taggart or Elizabeth Bennet or O-Lan, but I don’t feel the same interest in the Flower Princess. She’s too nice, too pretty, too perfect. But in the context of Hart’s Hope, she fulfils her part in the plot, and her perfect beauty is an important part of that.

2. Show how other characters react to the heroine.

It’s usually a heroine; I’ve yet to read a fantasy where the hero’s magnificent appearance plays a role in what he does or what happens to him. If other characters admire her appearance, feel physically attracted to her or tell her partner what a lucky person he/she is, readers will think of her as beautiful even if you don’t actually describe her.

This phenomenon reminds me of a psychology experiment where subjects read a short description of a medical operation. After that, they were asked whether words such as “surgeon”, “scalpel” and “incision” appeared in the description. None of those words had been used, but the subjects recalled that yes, they had read those words.

Likewise, if you show other characters responding to the heroine as though she is a lovely woman, the readers will agree that yes, she’s lovely. The other characters don’t need to spell out that she’s pretty, as long as they respond to her beauty. That’s much more effective than going into detail about the heroine’s body type, breast size or hair color.

3. Describe the character.

This is both the easiest and most difficult option. There’s nothing easier than stating a character has emerald-green eyes, thick dark hair (in most of my early drafts, characters have thick dark hair) and a slim well-muscled body. But such barbies are a dime a dozen.

In other words, a description intended to show readers that a character is extremely beautiful needs to be skilfully written, especially since such rhapsodies have the potential to turn readers off. I like them in Judith Krantz novels, but they rarely work for me in fantasy. The descriptions in fantasy that I do like are either poetic.

Skin like lilies, hair like apricots.
Tanith Lee, The Book of the Mad

Or they’re idiosyncratic, intriguing and provide an insight into personality as well. For instance, there’s a world of difference between these two descriptions.

Joanna had short red hair.

Any decent woman would wear her hair long. But no one would ever mistake Joanna for a decent woman – and that hell-colored hair was only the start of it.

The first description is flat and factual; it could come from a police report. The second is crackling. It has personality. And it makes me want to read more about Joanna. Which in the end is what everything – description, character, plot, style – should do to readers: make them keep reading.


Anonymous said...

great post -- it will definitely challenge me with my desciptrions of "beautiful people" in my writing and not resort to tired cliches.

Marian said...

Thanks for commenting, and you're right that it can be a challenge. I remember a short story I read some time ago, about a blind man who fell in love with a woman who had a lovely voice. Physically, she was ugly, but he couldn't see that. He could only hear her voice, and that was like music, so he thought she was beautiful.

Maybe an intriguing description could also focus on some other aspect of the character than appearance, and still make the character seem (physically) attractive? As you said, a challenge!