I was meeting with my writer’s group this week, and as always, we discussed our latest projects and what we are doing with them. Somehow, the topic of characters’ physical descriptions came up and it lead to an in-depth discussion on how authors describe the appearance of their characters.
This is a topic I’ve seen pop up on Goodreads, Google+ and other places where writers gather to chat. It intrigues me that something that seems trivial sparks such debate, as akin to writing in present or past tense, how explicit a sex scene should be, and so on. I say this because I am the type of writer who likes to describe the appearance of my characters.
Not that I go into total detail, right down to a small freckle or chipped tooth. But I do like to tell a reader what color is the hair and eyes of my characters. I do this because I find it fun to imagine what my characters look like. I’m the kind of author who often wonders what actors would play them, if my book or other story ideas were to ever be made into a movie or TV show.
In addition, I believe hair and eye color say a lot about how that person would be perceived by readers. Whether we like it or not, people are judged by their hair and eye color. Dark haired men are seen as seductive and masculine, while blond men are seen as boyish and playful. Blond women are seen as youthful, fun and a target for casual sex. Brunettes are serious and good for long-term relationships. Redheads are vivacious and easy to remember. Blue eyes represent innocence, while brown eyes represent seriousness.
Granted, these are all stereotypes that can be largely untrue. But color represents something, especially when it comes to hair and eyes. And the aforementioned stereotypes do come to mind more often than we admit (the saying “blonds have more fun!” is a popular theory). So, when I am deciding what my characters look like, I can’t help but consider what hair and eye color represent.
My main character, Claire McCormick, has brown hair and blue eyes. I deliberately chose that because I wanted a mix of innocence and seriousness for her. She’s a 22 year-old college grad who is naive and insecure in a lot of ways, but has room to grow and be tough. She’s also not an aimless, carefree person. So with that, I gave her brown hair and blue eyes.
Now, imagine I made her a blond. That would change your perception of her, yes? It could also change your expectations of her. Red hair just wouldn’t work, and neither would jet black hair. Don’t get me started on pink, lavender or gray hair.
Some would point out that if light-haired men with light-colored eyes appear harmless, why did I make the evil Daniel Poncher, Claire’s vampire boyfriend, look like that? Because I wanted to through my readers off. Since Daniel is practically the abusive boyfriend, giving him dark hair and eyes might make readers more fearful or angrier at him than they need to be. He might also come across as too sinister than he already is. So by having him with light brown hair and blue-green eyes, he’s less threatening, even though he is a threatening character. I simply wanted to have a contradiction for Daniel, and it also makes it easier for me to write about him. Having him tall, dark and handsome (OK, he is a handsome guy) just wouldn’t have worked for me.
Now let’s look at height. Daniel is medium height, about 5’8″ while Claire is a medium sized girl at about 5’5″. This is the first time I ever mentioned their exact heights; I only mention that they are of medium height once in The Dark Proposal. I left it vague because I did want my readers to figure out their exact heights on their own, and also because the exact measurements weren’t too important. But did it matter to mention that both Claire and Daniel were of medium heights for a man and a woman? Yes, because I feel with those heights they are both less threatening and more likely to be taken seriously by readers. If Claire was something like 5’2′, readers would probably fear more for her physical safety in the hands of Daniel. But if she were 5’10”, they would probably feel she should beat him up in retaliation (then again, relationship violence can happen to anyone of any size). At the same time, I feel having them as medium sized makes them easier to relate to and are more approachable as characters.
There’s a lot of explore with this topic. So much goes into why authors make their characters look a certain way, or choose not to give any description at all. It is perhaps a bigger topic than choosing to write in present or past tense, or writing violent or explicit scenes. It gives a whole new meaning to the saying, “To be or not to be?”
What are your thoughts? Do you think certain hair and eye colors effect how you see characters? Does it matter or not? Or is it all subconscious?