Today I wanted to write about something that I was recently reminded of by a friend of mine, who recounted to me a conversation she overheard in class.
On her table, the name of a particular girl in our school was mentioned (who dropped the same class earlier in the year), let’s call her Anesa. Amidst the table gossip, they exclaimed that they “hate” her, and after that: “Anesa has such a fat arse!”, “She’s so ugly” – even the way they said her name was laced with contempt. The worst part is that Anesa is far from overweight, and that their hate wasn’t justified with negative particulars of her personality, but from her physical experience. For example, instead of basing their hatred on social behaviours, choice of clothes, or even her manners, they based it on her weight.
Then again, hate is such a strong word.
Say what you will about judgemental behaviour and general shallowness of some people today, but I think the conversation relates very strongly to stories. More than often, it’s a stigma to have the protagonist of a story have a perfect body, curvy in all of the right places (can’t tell you how many times I have read this line!) and yet still be considered skinny and athletic. Of course I promote the idea of a healthy body weight, and as aesthetic beings, humans are drawn to other humans that are more attractive, but when it comes down to it – does appearance truly define description? Is beauty as mortal in literature as it is in real life conversations?
I also think this highlights the importance of creating real people and real characters in fiction. Many characters are portrayed with a standard and yet simultaneously perfect body type – coincidentally attractive to the outside world despite having little mention of the character’s routines of exercise, particularly in Young Adult fiction when a teenager character often has an unhealthy diet or heavily consumes alcohol. Somehow, they still maintain their amazingly flawless skin! Perhaps they just have some amazing new L’Oreal cream …or they’re a vampire.
Additionally, I think it’s great to move away from the traditional assessments of physical attributes, rather than the standard images anyway – not simply body weight, but the associated eye colour, and hair colour too that are becoming norms when describing characters – which is especially the case in a love interest. Instead, we should focus on more on specific traits, because honestly in real life, are the only two things you look for when you meet other people eye and hair colour? Even posture, the way a character holds himself can already tell you a great many things.
Consider the following passage:
The man walked towards her, his green eyes blazing under the moonlight. His pale skin glimmered with a translucent glow, completely flawless, deepened with the hollow of his strong jaw line. He smiled, revealing a wolfish row of white teeth. His head bowed to dip the fray of dark hair over his piercing golden eyes, framing the stubble that had started to hedge over the sides of his face. Each strand of his hair fell so perfectly, gleaming in the dim light, each thread a twist as thin as a string of cobweb. His dark eyes glowed, and he drew a hand from his pocket, sliding out the unmistakable shape of a knife. His chiselled lips curled up into a smile. “Hello again.”
From this passage we can infer a chilling character, subjectively attractive with lovely skin. Perhaps then we can infer confidence, arrogance, and danger. But there are not really any distinct features, little has been gained in this description. The man is not memorable, and thus separated from the world around him. In short, most of it simply isn’t needed.
The man walked towards her, his black boots clapping through the puddles between them. His steps were slow, teasing, like a predator honing in on its wounded prey. The paleness of his hands slipped into his pockets, into the darkness of his cloak, where his knuckles tightened against something that was inside. Around his wrist was a thin, red band that poked out from the hem of his shirt, the string was frail and wrinkled, with three black beads on one side, etched with strange, silver symbols. The beads brushed against each other as they dipped further into his pocket, and he drew out the unmistakable shape of knife. The silver of the blade glinted, and then the predator knew he had won. “Hello again.”
Although this example is far from being polished, it does show the importance of focusing on the small things – the red band and what it might mean is much more interesting than the easily tiresome and overused description of the man’s mesmerizing eyes. A mix between the two passages taken in sprinkles would be much more effective. Also, the man’s weight and physical body is never really clarified, allowing the reader to make up their own interpretation of how they imagine this attacker, and yet still there is some tension being built up. Focusing on the small details of the character’s actions makes them far more active than passive, too.
Please note, I don’t suggest that there should be no physical description of a character, but it certainly shouldn’t weigh down the story. It’s far more interesting to have a hook – a distinguishable feature of a character that immediately provokes the reader’s interest. A red band around the wrist, a deep scar, an eye-patch … Even a pet parrot on the shoulder.
Try it yourself! Describe a character in 100 words without mentioning their eyes or hair colour, instead using a distinguishable hook. Please share your descriptions below and see what a difference it makes to development by focusing on the little details.