Wednesday, October 7, 2009

But She has a Good Personality

I don’t know how it works for anyone else, but when I’m reading a book, I form an image of a character rather quickly. And that image can be based on any number of things. Usually there is some description in the book, but more often than not, what I’m picturing in my head is based on a character’s personality, attitude, or even the things that they say and how they say them. Physical descriptors like eye color, hair color, height, or the shape of a character’s face, are just there to tweak that image, if they have any impact at all.

Are you confused yet?

Okay, this is how it works for me, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. When I read a book, I liken the characters to people I know. This is where the personality traits come in. If a character reminds me of someone I know, that’s how I’m going to picture him, regardless of how the author describes that character. Sometimes this will cause a little hiccup for me if I’m reading and come to a physical descriptor that doesn’t match that image, but I’ve gotten used to it. Usually, I’ll just ignore the descriptor.

What?! But that’s not what the author intended for you to picture! Um, I don’t care. They’ll get over it, I’m sure. I know it wouldn’t bother me, if I was the author. (That’s has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?)

Can you keep a secret? I have a character in my book that has no physical description whatsoever and no one has ever noticed it. Not one single critter or beta reader. Can you guess why?

The why is actually pretty simple—they can relate the character to someone in their own life. And I think that makes that character more personal to them. Okay, so I don’t know any of this for certain, and maybe my critters and beta readers are just being nice, but it makes sense to me.

Let’s take Edward from TWILIGHT as an example, only because most of us have read it, and there’s a movie to see what he really looks like. Well, sort of. Just bear with me, folks.

When I read TWILIGHT and all the descriptions of Edward’s beauty and blah, blah, blah, I didn't picture Robert Pattinson or anyone resembling Robert Pattinson. But Stephenie Meyer said on her website that she could picture him as Edward. She would be the expert on what he looks like, after all. Besides that, thousands of screaming girls have solidified his “hotness”, so who cares what I think, right?

So, what does this tell us?

Different people have different ideas of beauty, and different ideas of ugliness, to be fair. So why would I put a long, drawn out description of how beautiful a character is, complete with head-to-toe details, when I know that not everyone is going to have the same idea of beautiful? Why not just put in a few key descriptors, give him the hottest personality ever, and leave the rest to the imagination?

See, this rambling mess led to a point. I knew I’d get there eventually.

So, what do you all think? Do we need a super detailed description of a character to create an image, or is it better to let that image form based on the character’s, um, character?


  1. Wow, that is such an interesting thought. I also think it even goes beyond physical description a little. For example there are always boundaries to personality portrayed and I think we attribute the rest of their character to them either based on our values, or more likely based on someone we liken them to.

  2. Great post! I like to limit physical descriptions of my pov character, telling only relevant details. That way the reader can fill in the blanks on their own. I NEVER saw Cedric Diggory as Edward. He'll always be Cedric to me, lol.

  3. I like to rely on the reader to complete my physical descriptions. I might say a character has brown hair or blue eyes, but most of the characters I write I don't describe in much detail. I get annoyed by over-done physical descriptions. I read so I can picture them for myself. If I wanted to know exactly what they looked like I'd watch the movie.

  4. This is such a great post!

    I do the exact same thing when I'm reading. I'm reading a vampire novel right now, and one of the characters was instantly Eric from Tru Blood in my mind. When the author later described his dirty, light brown hair, my mind said, "No, he's Eric, and therefore blonde" and moved on. Ha!

    I usually don't go beyond hair and eye color and let people fill in the blanks in my own writing. Excellent point about hotness being in the eye of the beholder. I've never thought about why I don't like too much description, but that's exactly it!

  5. I did not picture Edward looking like Robert Pattinson either. I think most readers form an opinion of the characters themselves. I know I do.

  6. Mack: Good point about the values. That would definitely have an impact.

    Tere: I'm with you on the POV character. Leaving more open to interpretation allows the reader to more readily identify with that character. Sadly, or maybe not sadly, I didn't know RP as Cedric until I knew him as Edward. I still have to read those HP books. Haven't been able to get past chapter two of book one.

    Natalie: Sure, you can watch the movie, but even then I don't think they always get it right.

    Becca: Don't you hate when the author tries to ruin it for you. ;D Hotness is definitely subjective. Anyone who doubts that should do some people watching at Walmart sometime.

    LW: I think that's the whole point. The reader wants the book to be personal, and what better way than to imagine people they know, or even themselves, in the book?

  7. I never really thought about it before but you're right! I DO stumble on a descriptive an author uses if it doesn't quite fit with what I had in my mind for a character.

  8. Since I'm not crazy about description, I don't care much for describing characters either. Let their personality paint an image in the reader's mind. Slightly off topic, but that's one reason why I don't like photographic covers--way too detailed.