Drawing a Likeness: describing characters

How much detail do you give in describing a character’s appearance? Do you convey with precision the shape of their nose, their eyes, their lips, their hair, the quality of their skin, the size of their waist, or do you leave it vague? I have read and enjoyed cinematic book in which every detail is described so precisely that all readers would conjure up an identical image of each character. Personally, though, I lean towards keeping it very very vague.

I am inspired in this by various sources. Firstly, my Latin teacher at school who was much like Mary Beard in her enthusiasm for the subject. She thought Latin should be a spoken language and wanted us to read Virgil’s Aeneid as an exciting novel. Unfortunately, she left to have a baby and was replaced by a hapless peripatetic teacher with the result that the whole class failed their Latin GCE. But I digress… What I vividly remember was her delight in the lack of physical descriptions of people. Dido was ‘beautiful,’ but we’re not told in what way she was beautiful. We are left to conjure up our own idea of a beautiful woman. I have always liked the collaborative idea of readers being involved in an active way in a book by having to fill in gaps with their own imagination. Everyone conjured up their own image of Mr Darcy until Colin Firth fixed him in stone.

A second source was The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. It’s a very good book, one of my all-time greats, and very cleverly adapted for film. It is extraordinarily detailed in its descriptions, which is one of its many appeals. But then I came up against his mention of Sarah Woodruff’s dark-brown almost exophthalmic eyes. Exophthalmic, meaning bulging. Almost bulging. What is almost? How close to actually bulging? My image of Sarah was instantly transformed into a morphing freak show and I lost hold of her as a character. I wished he hadn’t put that, because it completely broke the thread.

The third and probably most significant reason why I generally don’t describe my characters is that I am hopelessly face-blind. In fact whole-body-blind. A friend asked me once to describe someone who had called at her house while she was out. I had had a reasonably long conversation with him on the doorstep, but all I could say, with any certainty, was that he was a man. Was he tall or short, dark or fair, fat or thin? No idea. Colour of hair, eyes, was he clean shaven? I could only gape like a goldfish. I couldn’t even hazard a guess at his age other than him being somewhere between 18 and 65. Probably. She laughed. Please God, don’t ask me to work with a police identikit.

As in real life, I don’t really see my characters in any physical detail. I see inside their heads well enough, and I see out through their eyes, but mostly their faces are an unimportant mystery. Of course sometimes I have to add some physical details about height, build, colouring, because it serves a purpose and adds a significant understanding to the story. “Janice smiling, gaps in her teeth, flaking skin, thin fair hair straggly and knotted, always a scab of dried snot under her nose.” (The Unravelling). It applies in my latest book, The Covenant, where a certain degree of physical description is essential for reasons I shall not divulge.

Mostly, if I feel a need to describe them in any way, it’s more in terms of the impression they give to other characters. “Nothing big or loud, no star qualities, just a slightly neglected one-eared teddy bear, or a comfortable old slipper, quiet and affable.” (Michael in Shadows). If I describe Tada, in The Covenant, as looking like an Old Testament prophet, I am sure most readers could picture that for themselves.

If I keep it vague, at least it will save me from any disappointment when one of my books is made into a Hollywood blockbuster and my characters take actual form on the screen. It’s bound to happen eventually, of course.

14 thoughts on “Drawing a Likeness: describing characters

  1. I know the term prosopagnosia – problems with recognising faces – because I suffer, too. Reassuring to find someone else with the ‘affliction’. Don’t know if it extends in my case to bodies as well, but very likely. When shopping my husband will sometimes sidle up to tell me something along the lines that the woman wearing the bright green skirt and too much lipstick is xxxx, a good friend/neighbour/dentist/etc. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I avoid detailed descriptions of characters. The more likely reason, as you say, is the fact that the imagination can conjur up a far better image to fit the situation. I used to love the Sunday televised serials, often works by Dickens, but seeing the actors was always a shock because they were nothing like they should have been.

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  2. And I thought it was just because I was short sighted! I often speak to people thinking I know them – and then wonder why they look strangely at me.Is that the opposite of prosopagnosia?

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  3. I’m all for a vague description – done well, it can be really evocative. In one of Iris Murdoch’s books the protagonist’s face ‘creams and mantles like a standing pond’. Evocative, and funny, too! Much better than the intense blue eyes and chiselled jaws found in so much popular romance.

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