Tuesday 8 November 2016

Physical Description for Characters

When you're reading a book, how do you feel about physical descriptions of characters?

Do you like to know exactly what a character looks like, from skin tone, to hair and eye colour, to height and weight? Or do you prefer to use your imagination?

For myself, I tend to be very light on my character descriptions. Unless it's plot-relevant, you probably won't know what colour my character's hair or eyes are, or his skin tone, or how big his biceps are (I know romance readers need all those details, but suck it up).

And there's a conscious reason for that: I feel that every reader's going to imagine a character based on his or her own cultural experience.

For example, in Stingers, my protagonist is a skinny thirteen-year-old boy. That's about all you get - although I might mention at some point (I can't remember) the fact that he wears a school uniform - which is relevant, because in South Africa, public school kids wear uniforms.

Who's to say that that character isn't black, or asian? In my mind he's a middle-class white kid from a middle class family, but I mean no disrespect or prejudice by that. If you want to make him a poor black kid from the township, I'm not going to tell you you're wrong, because it's simply not relevant to the plot - like Hermoine from Harry Potter: J.K. Rowling never said she was white. When they made the movies, they cast a white actress, but there have been stage performances in the US where she's been black.

Does it make a difference?

Worse, it could hamper certain readers' enjoyment of the story, I think, if I insisted that a character looked a certain way - unless I was specifically writing a book about hatred towards blond(e)s, for example. Then I might insist that a character had blond hair - then it would be relevant.

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