Recently I came across this interesting article on Wonkomance about how readers ‘see’ the characters in a book in their imagination. It got me thinking about how much – or how little – detail writers need to give about a character’s physical appearance in order for readers to develop an inner picture.
What constitutes a ‘good picture’? For example, does the reader need to ‘see’ a character in exactly the same way the author has imagined her? What if the reader’s picture is totally different from the author’s? Does it matter? Take Anna Karenina, for example. How do you picture her? Do you think of Keira Knightley in the latest film version? Or maybe the fabulous Vivien Leigh in the 1940s’ version? Both actresses are slim and gorgeous. Is this how Anna Karenina ought to look?
We all have our own image of Anna Karenina in our minds, so it might surprise you to know that nowhere in the novel did Leo Tolstoy describe her appearance. There are a couple of paragraphs in which the young girl Kitty is envious of Anna’s elegance and stylish dress, but elegance and style aren’t just reserved for thin people. The only description in the entire (long!) novel is that Anna has ‘plump hands’. That’s it. And ‘plump’ definitely doesn’t describe Keira Knightley! So as readers (and film producers) we’ve assumed that Anna Karenina is a slim, conventional beauty, when in fact Tolstoy probably didn’t have that sort of image in his mind at all.
How about another great heroine, Lizzie Bennett? Do you have a picture of her in your mind? Keira Knightley was cast again for this role, in the 2005 film. Personally she didn’t fit my imaginings at all. Again, there is little description of Lizzie in the novel. Darcy famously comments on her ‘fine, dark eyes’, and that her figure is ‘light and pleasing’, although lacking symmetry (I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that :) ) Bingley’s sister bitchily points out that Lizzie is ‘sadly brown’ after her walk over the fields, which suggests Lizzie tans easily. The author comments that Lizzie is shorter than Kitty Bennet. So from this very little description I have a picture in my mind of a small, slim, dark-haired girl with flashing dark eyes. Is this the same picture you have? And does it matter if it isn’t?
I’ve been pondering on this subject a lot recently, since I’m just finishing my present WIP. Another romance author – who kindly critiqued the opening chapters – commented that I’ve given no description of the heroine apart from the fact that she’s blonde. This omission wasn’t deliberate on my part. I have a very precise image of the heroine in my mind. She has a curvy figure, for example, and is definitely not thin, but another reader commented she would find it hard to relate to my heroine because she’s ‘slim and attractive’. She’s not slim in my mind, and nowhere described as such, and it’s interesting that this reader has assumed that she must be. As far as being attractive goes, of course my heroine is bound to be attractive to the hero, since he falls in love with her. All heroes find the heroine attractive in romance novels, in the same way Count Vronsky falls passionately in love with Anna – but that doesn’t necessarily mean all romance heroines are conventionally beautiful. Maybe the reader will just assume a romance heroine is slim and beautiful, unless the writer specifically states otherwise?
What do you think? Do you expect the author to describe everything about the characters’ appearance, or do you prefer to have just the merest details and to form your own picture? And do you ever watch films and think the actors look nothing like you imagined them in the book?
If you have any comments at all I’d love to hear from you!