In yesterday’s post, “Body Image vs. Self-Image,” I touched on some of the difficulties in describing characters realistically. For example, if you are writing about ordinary characters and mention that they are overweight and out of shape, you’ve already lost your audience. Even in non-romance genres, such as thrillers and suspense, readers want the fairy tale of beautiful heroine/princesses finding their hero/prince.
To that end, writers are limited in how they describe a character. Characteristics that in the real world have no meaning but are merely the luck of the genetic draw, become destiny in fiction. For example, a weak chin denotes a wimpy character, though in actual fact, it means nothing of the sort. Thin lips, while common in the real world and say nothing about the person, seem to denote a strait-laced character who looks at the world with disapproval. A receding hairline, which means nothing in real life except perhaps an excess of testosterone, makes a male character seem less than manly. Likewise, thin hair on women characters makes them seem ungenerous, though luxurious locks certainly don’t indicate generosity.
Eye spacing is also part of the genetic crap shoot, though wide-spaced eyes are used to show innocence and narrow-spaced eyes to show deviousness.
A character past their youth can have laugh lines, which makes them seem pleasant. But crow’s feet or marionette lines seem to indicate not someone who is simply getting older, but someone who is not taking care of themselves as they are getting older.
I’ve learned to stay away from describing characters other than perhaps mentioning eye-color, hair-color, and a ready smile, and leave the judgement to another character. Although a character — like a real person — might not be all that attractive, they can be beautiful when seen through the eyes of love. Evil characters who might be considered attractive under other circumstances could be seen as ugly from the point of view of the character who is caught in their clutches.
It’s not just body parts that hint perhaps erroneously at character that has turned me away from giving more than cursory descriptions of my characters (more than three attributes is unnecessary in any case) it’s that too many authors who write that their character is beautiful then go on to describe facial characteristics that other people obviously find attractive, but that I don’t, such as pillowy lips, high cheekbones, and a narrow nose. In fact, because of this, I never read descriptions of characters any more — or settings, either for that matter.
It’s a good thing that in real life we have photographs that might tell the truth of how we look (I say “might” because as far as I know, no one’s driver’s license photo looks like them). If we had to describe our thin hair, thin lips, lumpy bodies, to people who have not yet seen us, no one would ever want to meet anyone.
Thinking about this and how we become fast friends with people who would never physically meet the standards of a literary protagonist, it makes me wonder if in real life we ever do see the physical person or if the body is sort of a mirage pasted over the truth of the person, as if we are seeing each other through the mind’s eye. If so, how lucky we are to see each other that way rather than through an author’s eye.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.