When I read a good novel, I identify so strongly with the main female character that I picture her as looking a lot like me—not necessarily the plump little old lady I am today, but the idealized version of me at the character’s age (maybe a little more voluptuous, taller, and put-together than my actual self). If the author describes the character as she envisions her, my subconscious won’t necessarily accept it. If the character’s inner dialogue matches my thought process, she’s obviously me. I cast myself playing her part in the movie version in my mind.
Doesn’t everybody do that?
Apparently not. Because in critique groups, people often say to me, “Could you describe your main character so I can visualize her?” Why shouldn’t readers visualize the character any way they want to?
In the olden days, authors often gave a complete description of their characters as they introduced them. The problem with that strategy is that the action stops. Nothing’s happening. You’re telling, not showing. You don’t see that so much in contemporary fiction. Now authors are sneaky about throwing in little bits of description here and there. Charlotte sighed and ran her fingers through her curly auburn hair. I struggle with that as a reader, especially if I see Charlotte with straight brown hair like mine. But is her hair’s texture and color important? Does it move the plot forward? Probably not.
I think I’d rather know more about Charlotte’s nature or motivation. Why does she make the choices she does? What is she hoping to accomplish? Who is she trying to get even with?
I see the necessity for describing a person in a nonfiction story, especially if the person isn’t a well-known celebrity. Then you want to see the person for himself, or at least through the eyes of the author.
But in reading fiction, you want to experience the events as if they were happening to you. You want to reside within the characters. That altered state is easier to enter if the character looks just like you. Too much description breaks the spell.
Granted, this is just my opinion. Write your story true to what you believe.
So, what do you believe about character description? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Now go to South Africa for a quilt festival. Be sure to watch the video, although it may give you vertigo. She runs through the whole exhibition hall and films hundreds of quilts in a few minutes. My eyes (and her camera) don’t focus that fast, and maddeningly, she doesn’t linger at some of the quilts I most want to get a good look at.