Characters: Should You ‘Paint’ Them?
Throughout history, writers have gone to heaps of trouble describing their characters – especially the principal ones, such as hero, heroine, and antagonist – in great detail. But I’ve resisted that urge, for one very good reason (at least, to me, it’s a very good reason).
I never describe characters beyond the lifting of an eyebrow or perhaps having long, slender fingers because I figure that, should I describe my hero as tall, with long wavy blonde hair, blue eyes, and cupid’s-bow lips, that may be a good description of what I take a hero to look like…but it may not be what the reader sees as a typical hero. And that especially applies to my female readers. they may prefer short, black-haired men with spectacles perched on their noses and a carnation in their buttonhole. So by describing my hero to fit with what I see a typical hero as looking like, I may, in fact, be describing what a reader sees as a villain. And that would ruin the story for the reader.
There are actually two exceptions: one was Lord Tarkus, the 1400-year old vampire ruler from my Society of Vampires series. I wanted him to have long, shoulder-length white hair, brushed straight back, be short, but powerfully-built, and given to wearing suits with a blue sash diagonally across his chest and a silver medal on it, so I described him as such. (It has just occurred to me that I probably got my description from Granpa, in the old television series, The Addams Family. Oh, well…
The other exception was Mason Thurlow, whom I described as shaven-headed, dark eyebrows, seven feet eleven inches tall, and very powerfully built. They are the only two characters I created and described, because it seemed important to me.
Yes, I took a risk, and I broke my own rule of never describing a character fully, in order to give the reader as much opportunity as possible to put their own imagination into the story. But they were two characters I wanted described accurately. And they were the only two.
The easy way to test this theory is the same way I’ve done it in the past: get a group of people together – I did, in one of my creative writing classes, back when I had the time to teach and to write – and have them write out a description of their typical hero, heroine, and villain. You’ll find, with even as few as two participants, those descriptions will vary greatly.
So no, I don’t believe in describing characters. I may be wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time. But until 99% of my readers come back at me and say: “We want your heros to look like such-and-such,” I’ll go on doing it the way I have. But in saying that, I of course acknowledge we all have the right to think our own thoughts, and there are probably many, many people out there who’d disagree with me.
And I’m always open to criticism: another rule I have is ‘always listen to the readers’. So whether you want to agree or disagree, let me know on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I promise…I will listen.