Characterisation is obviously key for a writer.
For writers whose novels are character driven rather than dependent upon a page-turning, precipitous plot, this becomes even more vital.
But the problem is: how much information do readers want or need?
Obviously, if an aspect of physical appearance impacts upon their nature or disposition, knowing key details – the vital statistics, as it were – of a character is key to understanding them. And in that case, it may well be something that propels the plot.
But if facts about colour of eyes and hair are insignificant does the reader need to absorb a careful description of these features? Or will it inhibit the reader’s freedom to imagine and come to their own impression?
I find this quite a challenge – trying to decide how much to desribe and how much to leave to interpretation.
As the writer, I need to know. I often create my own image of a character’s appearance from an actor who I can imagine in the dream situation of a screenplay version. For younger characters, I take details from students I have taught in the past – that child’s hair, that pupil’s way of walking – and gradually build appearance from these photofit pieces.
But I tend to use such details sparingly as it can simply sound too clunky and banal to load the text with – yes, Too Much Information.
So often, we imagine characters from classic novels, not from the text, but resembling the casting in various tv or film versions. Pride and Prejudice? Several Elizabeth Bennets probably come to mind depending on which version you most enjoyed. The same, no doubt, for Emma. Jane Austen herself gives us scant detail – we learn more about her characters, in fact, from their dialgoue rather than direct description – which is a lesson in itself to writers trying to communicate characters to readers.
We know that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is thin and pale – both attributes condemned by mid Victorian England where plump was considered a compliment for a womsince being thin indicated poverty. We also know, of course, that Mr Rochester is brooding and dark-haired – how could he be a Bryonic hero if he was insipid and pale, after all?
Thomas Hardy tells us that Bathsheba Everdene has a bright face and dark hair but indictates more about her from her actions, taking out a small mirror when alone in order to survey herself attentively …she parted her lips and smiled. And as for poor doomed Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles it’s enough that Hardy tells us early on that she has large, innocent eyes and wears a red ribbon in her hair for us to watch out for her tragic trajectory …
So perhaps we need to include just a little about physical appearance, small, significant details, and rely more on actions, body language and dialogue to build our characters and communicate them to readers.
Clothes, of course, are another topic altogether.
Clothes do say an enormous amount about us as people and therefore the way a character dresses has to be important.
At least I find I have to know the contents of a character’s wardrobe to feel I really know them.
But maybe that’s just me as a clothes obsessed individual who devotes a disturbingly large amount of time to the subject of what to wear and what to buy …
And it’s a subject – the description of characters’ clothes and their significance, not my sad obsession – that I am going to return to in a later blog post.
In the meantime, happy November reading!