05 January 2014

The Abundance of Irrelevant Physical Descriptions

Last night, I realized I was in a reading slump.  In an act of desperation and sheer, bloody boredom, I picked up a book from my shelf that had been there a while, a book I had every intention of reading when I bought it, but one that I had lost a lot of my enthusiasm for since.

The prologue was good. Well-written, if lacking a true edginess that I was craving, and intriguing enough to get me to keep going.  It looked promising.

Until it wasn't.

I hit upon the first physical description of another character within the first page or two of the first chapter -- of a guy character.  I immediately dropped the book.  (I actually did drop it. *wince*  Luckily I was sitting on the floor so there wasn't significant damage.)

I am so tired of brown gold eyes that burn under a dark tangle of hair, skin tanned by the sun (no really? the sun? go figure), and arms cut with muscles and scars.  So tired of it.

I curse whatever trendsetter got this rolling: describing a character's appearance ad nauseam.

My deal with describing a character's appearance is this:

If it holds no significance to the plot, it needs to go away.  Just *swoosh* delete it.

Again: if a character's physical characteristics have no bearing on the plot, it should be deleted under the category of extraneous dribble.

When I see this in a novel, my estimation of the author goes down.  To me, it's a trait that is rampant in unpolished, amateur authors.  But now that it's almost expected in novels, it's growing into the higher ranks so that even authors with 5+ books under their belts spend far too much time on how the main character is slender, with hair that is "mousy brown" (really? we just keep going back to that don't we?) that is impossible to do anything with, and plain facial features.

No.  Stop it.  

I appreciate that descriptors may flood your rough draft, and that's fine.  I'm guilty of it myself.  But don't leave them in if they don't actually matter.  

Also, almost always having the main character's best friend (if a girl) be immeasurably prettier and more confident than them?  

No.  That's enough.

Some examples of physical descriptions that actually play into plots:

Harry Potter was told from the day he found out he was a wizard that he looked just like his father, James, with his jet black, messy hair and gangly build, but that he had his mother's eyes: emerald green, and almond-shaped. For those of you who have finished the Harry Potter series in either its novel or movie form, you'll know the significance that Harry's physical appearance had on Snape's story. Snape's backstory is crucial to the plot that is Harry's life.

That's just one instance within the Harry Potter series. And this is not even going into the fact that his lightning-shaped scar is the symbol that carries the entire story and that it also makes him instantly recognizable, which causes him all kinds of problems.

Another well-done example: In the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima, the two main characters, Raisa and Han, are described in short but sweet detail. (But in Chima's excellence, it does in no way impede the progress of the story.)  Raisa is short and thus it puts her at a disadvantage when she fights because she is more than likely going to be fighting someone much taller and heavier than herself, and also her mixed blood, which makes her skin caramel-colored, makes her stick out a bit.  Han's descriptions matter too, with his impressive height and white-blond hair and silver cuffs that can't be removed.

Then, in Kristin Cashore's Fire, the main character possesses unearthly beauty.  In this story, this is bad.  Her beauty is the source of half her problems, several of which result in assassination attempts.  If Fire had not been so beautiful that she instantly captures the minds of men (and several women), the entire story would have been different.

Here's an example where physical descriptions have been used to show the differences between two groups of people:

In Veronica Rossi's Under the Never Sky trilogy, there are two groups of people: Dwellers (those who live in Pods and whittle away their time on simulators) and Outsiders (those who live off the land).  Aria lives in the Pods.  She's slender from a controlled diet and incredibly pale from never having seen real sunlight.  Perry, an Outsider, is tall and tanned and scarred.  Each one would be instantly recognizable to the other group and this causes tension in the plot when the two finally meet.

If a character is slender, we don't care.  Unless the character sticks out like a sore thumb because the style, in the story, is to be curvy.  This is something that potentially causes the character emotional turmoil.  This in turn creates tension.

But even something that has potential to create tension isn't enough.  It has to actually happen.  It has to make a mark on the story.

In all these examples, the character's descriptions matter to the story.  For Raisa and Han, just in the first book alone, both characters have to diguise themselves in order to accomplish their goals because their regular features would give them away.  So it's fitting that Chima paints their picture from the get-go and then puts in subtle reminders to the reader about their stature along the way.

But in a story where knowing every inch of every character has no relevance whatsoever?  I'm so tired of these seemingly endless descriptions of characters' physical appearance.  It weighs down the story.  It halts progress.  It stagnates built-up tension.

A typical example of this is eye color.  For the love of people's sanity everywhere, eye color is irrelevant.  The only time eye color is relevant is if it marks your character as different, and this difference causes them trouble.  Say your character is from a kingdom where the regular eye color is blue, but they find themselves in a country where the typical eye color is brown, a country they happen to be at war with.  That is relevant.

Harry Potter has a scar that marks him for death just as much as it makes him a symbol of hope.  Han Alister has his irremovable cuffs that he can't disguise when people are out to kill him.  Fire's beauty has men trying to kill her and marry her all at once.  Aria is tossed out into a world of Outsiders where her pale skin makes her more susceptible to the elements and hostile Outsiders alike.

When a character's physical appearance puts them at risk, that is relevant.

In the long run, we all imagine characters differently anyway.  If it's done right, I tend to think that we'll all come up with roughly the same idea through our masterful skills of deductive reasoning. 

For example: If a man is a soldier, it's natural to imagine someone muscular and deeply tanned from spending time outside.  He'll have scars from fighting and a weathered face from traveling.  He'll move with a fighter's grace.  He'll keep his weapon on him at all times.

All of that information was gleaned from the simple fact that he's a soldier.  It likely does not matter that he has dark brown, feathery blond, or fiery red hair.  It likely does not matter that his eyes are blue like the sea in the morning with flecks of gold near the center, or that his skin is the color of burnished copper from the sun.

Does.  Not.  Matter.

If a man is supposed to be sexy, trust me, give him charm and suave and we'll make up the rest with more details and flavor than a writer could probably ever give us.

And just to be honest, about the eye color thing, I don't think I've ever been in such close proximity to a guy where I could spot different specks of color in their eyes especially if I had just met them.  And if I had been so close, I doubt I would notice regardless.