OK. Who here suffers from an irrational hatred of something or someone? A hatred so blind and all-consuming that you only have to see the object of it to start foaming at the mouth? A hatred that you can’t explain in logical terms – a hatred that is the exact opposite of love at first sight?
Yeah. Me too.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. I’m here to talk about my perfectly reasonable hatred of character descriptions in books.
I’ll be gallivanting happily through my latest fictional adventure, caught up in the political machinations of the Zo’aran people or a race across the plains on dinosaur-back, or whatever, and then I’ll come across a sentence like ‘Xyantha pushed her flowing blonde hair back from her face and folded her slender arms’.
In one line, the book has lost all its joy for me and I want to give the author a good smack around the head.
First of all, no-one thinks of themselves in terms of their physical characteristics. An easy way to tell this is to rewrite the sentence in first person. “I pushed my flowing blonde hair back from my face and folded my slender arms.” I’d get some funny looks if I tried telling that story over a few drinks, and not just because flowing blonde hair would look pretty weird on me. As a general rule, the only time anyone ever notices their own appearance is when they look in a mirror. (But please, please don’t let your character look in a mirror. Not unless it’s important to the plot. And maybe not even then.)
Second, it strikes me as both lazy and self-indulgent on the part of the writer. Self-indulgent because there’s no denying that all writers fall in love with our characters. We know exactly what they look like, and we desperately want to share that with our readers so they can appreciate how dashing/beautiful/badass our darlings are. But let’s face it, author comrades: readers don’t give a damn. They’re far more interested in what the characters do. (When was the last time you decided you really liked a character because of his eye colour?) Which brings me to lazy: there are so many better ways of letting your reader know what your characters look like, without boring them with a shopping list of attributes. And the most obvious of these is only to describe a physical characteristic when another character has reason to notice it. That way, it’s a reaction – a character-revealing response – and not just a fact.
The exception, of course, is if the characteristic is a key part of the story – Xyantha wondering why she’s blonde when every other member of her family is dark. But in that case, the description of her blondeness wouldn’t be an intrusion by an author who wants us to know how awesome-looking Xyantha is; it would be a way to show important aspects of her character, her emotions and reactions. And that’s OK with me.
Of course, inevitably, in that particular case it would also turn out that Xyantha is not her parents’ child, but a half-elven orphan who is the heir to an ancient magical bloodline and destined to save the world. But that’s the subject of another rant entirely.