Another month, another authors’ Round Robin. And another through-provoking question in our writers’ group…
What do you define in your writing about your characters and what do you leave to the reader’s intuition? Is there anything you never tell about a character?
There’s a LOT to these questions but they got me thinking in particular about how much – or how little – detail writers need to give about a character’s physical appearance in order for readers to develop their own mental picture.
What constitutes a ‘good picture’? 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 2012 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 it seems Tolstoy may not have had that sort of image in his mind at all.
How about another great heroine, Lizzie Bennett? What picture do you have 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?
In romantic fiction, having a mental image of the hero and heroine is important, because physical attraction is part of falling in love. But how much does the writer need to convey? My feeling is readers like to have some description of the hero’s looks, but that too much can potentially kill the romance for them.
I’m an editor of romantic fiction and as an editor it’s important not to give the writer advice that might alter their individual ‘voice’. Lots of writers seem to think they need to go straight for describing the hero’s hot abs and sixpack as soon as he appears. Everything is subjective, but my feeling is this is too much, and some readers may even find this a turn off. And if the hero does a regular job but he’s so packed his muscles are the first thing you notice, why is he spending so much time in the gym? Is he massively vain?
My feeling is a regular good-looking guy can be far more attractive to readers than someone magnetically handsome. But do you actually need to say all lot about his appearance, in any case? Maybe not a great deal. Colour of eyes, colour of hair, perhaps a particular distinguishing feature. The reader will fill in their own idea of what makes this character hot. I think facial expressions can say so much more about a character than their appearance. A smirking character is a lot different to one with a warm smile.
Creating character and backstory
I’ve concentrated on conveying a character’s physical description in this post, but our topic this month is about all their characteristics. Just like real people, characters in a novel have a whole backstory. How much of this do readers need to know? Who the character’s parents are? Where the character went to school? Their best friend? Their favourite food? Their deepest, darkest secret?
This is a question I’ve found impossible to answer here, as so much depends on the actual story. All I know is that most characters need at least some background, as they can’t just have dropped into a story from nowhere, and their background also defines the person they are at that particular point in time. How much of their history and even of their personality the writer needs to portray, though, depends on how much the reader needs to know – and since every story is different, I’ve found it too hard to give a simple answer in just one blog post!
This has been another interesting topic. If you’d like to find out how the other authors have answered our Round Robin question, please click on the links below!
What do you think about physical description? 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!