Characters’ Physical Descriptions in Fiction: An Argument in Opposition

Last year, while having parts of my WIP critiqued by a CP, I received an unexpected bit of feedback.

It had to do with the physical description of a certain character.  Specifically, the fact that, in her mind, I hadn’t provided a physical description at all.

You need to tell us what this guy looks like.  I don’t know whether he’s fat or thin, tall or short.  I need that information to place myself in the scene.

Interestingly, I maintain that I did describe him:

He seemed to be in his early thirties, and when his features relaxed, like he’d looked that way since his early twenties.

I intentionally left a lot to the imagination.  For one, I chose to focus on details that best reveal this character’s notable personality traits—a jovial, rakish, well-travelled adventurer who has denied himself no thrilling experience, no matter how ill-advised, and thus wears the marks of his great laughter, great pleasures, and just as often great calamity upon his face.

For another, to a point, I’m opposed to describing a character’s physical appearance.

Part of this is because what many people consider to be an effective physical description—height, eye colour, hair colour, hair style—is not only boring and clinical, but forgettable.

It fails to convey anything unique about the character as a person.

Another reason I’m against physical descriptions is because, unless it really does matter, it matters not at all what a given character happens to look like.

(Don’t) colour your world

In my medieval WIP, the protagonist’s physical appearance matters, at least in concept.  She is meant to look like a feminine version of her father, matching him in hair and eye colour, both of which are intentionally different from those of her sisters, who both more so resemble their mother.

That this contrast exists is a requirement to my story’s plot.  What isn’t technically required, though, is that I specify all the colours in question.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t specify.  Once I got talking about similarities and variances among people’s appearance, assigning the protagonist and her father dark hair and a neutral white skin tone compared to the blonde, pale white other daughters just seemed easier on the reader, giving them something concrete to call up in their mind.

Indicating the colours also allowed me to play with the notion of the family outcast or “black sheep”—which my protag is—in a more overt way, and also to subvert it through her being the protagonist at all, and thus heroic by definition.

But all this was still a conscious choice on my part.  Whether or not a character has blonde hair vs. dark hair vs. blue hair usually has zero bearing on the plot, and mine is no exception.

More often than not, a character’s physical description is driven by what appeals to the author—the author’s idea of what’s attractive if the character is a love interest; what’s frightening if the character is a villain; what’s cool and attractive, yet relatable for the main character.

These sorts of descriptions are also driven by what’s commonly seen among popular visual media (e.g. Edward Cullen’s beautifully tousled hair in Twilight, Frodo’s intense blue eyes in the Lord of the Rings, Okoye’s stark, statuesque bald head in Black Panther).

But stories that lack such descriptions allow for mental casting by the reader.  They let the reader visualize the characters for themselves instead of having the author’s vision imposed upon them, the result of which, in my opinion, is a more personalized reading experience.

~

Related post: An argument in favour

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5 thoughts on “Characters’ Physical Descriptions in Fiction: An Argument in Opposition

  1. ‘Appeals to the author’ will be why people buy YOUR books, and not someone else’s – because they like your taste in men, your vision of what a woman should be, your way of writing – and authors can be so very different.

    My criterion is the same as yours: Does it matter to the plot?

    If yes, then the reader is going to need to pick up a description somewhere along the line, preferably before locking in to their own, different, mental image.

    When I read about the actresses who fought for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, I remember thinking ‘some of them are blonde – that won’t do at all!’ The fact that their hair could have been colored, or they could have worn a wig (the movie came out in 1939) never occurred to me. I would have to go back to the book to see what the description was, but I do remember that Mitchell said Scarlett was not beautiful – and of course Vivenne Leigh was.

    But the style of writing where the author stops and gives you a visual portrait when you meet someone now turns me off: Jonathan Kellerman does this, describing his very different characters in great detail, and it stops the story dead in its tracks for me. He wants me to jump to stereotypes of BEHAVIOR from stereotypes of APPEARANCE. It feels old-fashioned.

    And you’re so right about films – Lord Peter Wimsey will always be Edward Petherbridge for me, even though Ian Carmichael portrayed the detective in films first. Carmichael did not fit my mental image, especially not of the detective in the later books, and I couldn’t see him doing the humanized detective who fell in love with Harriet Vane. Little mental gymnastics one does.

    More than any reader, YOU have to know what your characters are like – so you can portray them fairly and consistently. It’s the cool part of writing.

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    • ‘Appeals to the author’ will be why people buy YOUR books, and not someone else’s – because they like your taste in men, your vision of what a woman should be, your way of writing – and authors can be so very different.

      Totally agree with this, but only so far as how different authors make their characters behave. I couldn’t care less an author deems a physically attractive character unless it is something widely divergent from mainstream Western beauty standards, in which case it will again come down behaviour since such a character will be seen as behaving differently than expected or accepted by the status quo (e.g. a fat or physically disabled heroine behaving like a confident femme fatale).

      I think the prominence and prestige of visual media makes many writers inflate the importance of physical appearance, often at the expense of actual character development. A gorgeous hero in a book requires a lot more (or at least different) work to come across as a complex person than does a gorgeous hero in a TV show.

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      • Always did like Travis McGee – John D. McDonald knew something about making a character attractive to men AND women.

        ‘fat or physically disabled heroine’ hit a bunch of buttons. It takes a lot of something to make a character successfully fight the stereotypes. I’ve always hated the big switcheroo in Shrek: yes to the result – the heroine doesn’t have to be thin and conventionally beautiful, and absolute no to their methods. There isn’t a woman on the planet (okay, none I know) who wouldn’t love to magically be slim – and it was a slap in their faces to watch the ‘heroine’ just give it up. And for Shrek! I cannot see any good in that ‘plot.’ It was done far too clumsily, and is not believable at any level.

        Health has been too long conflated with appearance and with worth – which should make readers question what they’re being offered.

        The visual shortcuts are so strong because they’ve been reinforced by the media forever.

        Just like our retirement community’s original brochure which used attractive older ACTORS instead of residents.

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  2. Can I sit half way? ‘He ran his ink-stained fingers through his unruly hair’ in the course of a scene conveys something of the physical character. ‘Like a cat, he snatched the book from the table’. Already you have some picture, woven into the story.

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