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Old 11-02-2009, 05:49 PM   #1
Heather Parker
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Do readers want to know what characters look like?

I just listened to a very interesting interview with Ian Rankin about his Rebus books. He said he had no idea what Inspector Rebus looked like and he had never described him in any of his books. He was interested to discover that readers all had their own idea of what his characters looked like. This made me realise I hardly ever describe my characters in much physical detail either - but I wondered what readers or other writers felt about this? Do you prefer a full description, or are you happy to imagine them the way you want?
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Old 11-02-2009, 06:03 PM   #2
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Interesting question.

I think that, for me, it's a bit variable. Sometimes I read a book where the physical description of the character is never given and it just doesn't matter. The physical description is secondary to the mental characteristics and I think like most people I tend to fill in a physical description in my own head.

Perhaps this is why films of well-loved books are often a disappointment - they can't possibly match everybody's mental picture.
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Old 11-02-2009, 06:16 PM   #3
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It really depends on how important the physical description is to the character and the advancement of the plot.

For example, Lestat is described in detail by Anne Rice because his beauty is an essential plot point and intrinsic to his personality.

By contrast, the main character in Choke is only vaguely described (if I'm rememebering correctly) because his appearance is relatively unimportant.

Heinlein used this to great effect in one book by leaving the description of the main character out until about half-way through and then having it revealed that he was a black man. This shocking revalation that the reader had been living vicariously through a black character they had thought was white was huge to the time period in which it was published.
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Old 11-02-2009, 06:32 PM   #4
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Interesting question.

I think that, for me, it's a bit variable...
Perhaps this is why films of well-loved books are often a disappointment - they can't possibly match everybody's mental picture.
I would agree. Even though a description is given, my mind still interprets and creates a character's picture based on the info given and it's still very likely to be unique from anyone else's image. Now, if the main character is pictured on the front cover, that picture will stick with me throughout the book. The images one creates in their own mind are far better than any real person cast in the movie version. As it goes, the book is always better than the movie!
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Old 11-03-2009, 11:35 AM   #5
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...This made me realise I hardly ever describe my characters in much physical detail either - but I wondered what readers or other writers felt about this? Do you prefer a full description, or are you happy to imagine them the way you want?
Interesting question. I noticed this once in Elizabeth Moon's "Trading in Danger". She appeared to deliberately not describe her characters or settings any more than barely necessary for the story to progress. It was an interesting effect.

I liked the book(s), but I found I wanted just a little more description. Not a lot more, but just a little: tall, short, dark, light, stout, slim, pretty, plain, etc. I don't want or need to know the curve of a character's eyebrow, but I do like a general feel for the character and how others see him.

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Old 11-03-2009, 12:33 PM   #6
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I think most readers will picture the character whether or not the author has described his/her appearance.
A great Idea for a thread would be to ask which actor/celeb looked like a well described Character, ie Lestat. I think most people probably did'nt picture Tom Cruise, but even with a detailed description I think the answers would be extremely varied.

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Old 11-03-2009, 01:53 PM   #7
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I usually don't picture characters in great detail, unless the plot requires detail. It's nice to know about looks in general terms, but rarely anything beyond that. It's nice to have basic looks established not too late in the tale, in case there is a reference later on. It's annoying if you're halfway through a book and has a vague impression of the character and then suddenly the author mentions looks radically different from your imagination. Black rather than white for example.

Reg. actors; I've just read "The Road" and I knew it has been made into a film and I knew the main character was played by Viggo Mortensen. Since I've recently watched Lord of the Rings, I kept seeing Aragorn in my mind, as that character. It was distracting.

Tom Criuse was too short for Lestat, but he has all that frenetic energy that Lestat has, and was a good choice.
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Old 11-03-2009, 04:26 PM   #8
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Really interesting points. I didn't know about the Heinlein book but it must have had a very powerful effect at the time it was written. I also hadn't considered that this may be why so many films of books disappoint. I have sometimes watched the film first and then read the book . After seeing The Eagle has Landed, I could only ever see Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin. But from the comments so far, readers do seem to like a rough idea of physical appearance - but not every last detail of clothes, etc. Thanks for your help!
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Old 11-03-2009, 04:55 PM   #9
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I find I *don't* usually visualize a character. It's ME while I'm reading .... and I'm always looking out through his/her eyes (even if it is not written in first person) so I never look at the character. Just what's around him/her.
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Old 11-03-2009, 04:57 PM   #10
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I can't concentrate if I'm reading a book after i've seen the movie
Let my imagination picture the characters, unless, of course, it's important for the story.
For example, no movie about vampires I've seen could describe the beauty, horror, attraction etc. for Dracula's brides better than Stoker made me see with my own mind! That's why maybe I'm dissapointed each time I see a movie. Not to mention that in a movie they leave out all the interesting stuff.
But ok, I guess there is an exception : in a dirty book you need a lot of those physical details.
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Old 11-03-2009, 09:06 PM   #11
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I find I *don't* usually visualize a character. It's ME while I'm reading .... and I'm always looking out through his/her eyes (even if it is not written in first person) so I never look at the character. Just what's around him/her.
Interesting. I always thought my perception would be the common one. ie as a fly on the wall. Obviously I was wrong. I even found this reading Times Arrow by Martin Amis, which couldnt be more 1st person.
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Old 11-09-2009, 02:23 PM   #12
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I agree that it can vary according to character, story and situation whether or not you need much of a physical description. I've actually had readers take me to task once or twice because the character description I applied came too late in the story, and the reader already had a fixed (and different) appearance in mind by then!

BTW: Arthur C. Clarke also used the "surprise race card," in a way, in Imperial Earth: His main character was African (or European, but so dark-skinned from time in space as to resemble an African), something which was not revealed (or depicted as anything other than an ironic fact) until about 1/2 of the way through the novel.

I've come to believe that a general description of a character early-on seems to help readers fix them in their minds, and better identify with them as the story progresses. When I don't provide a character description, it's usually because that character really is forgettable beyond the moment!
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Old 11-09-2009, 02:29 PM   #13
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I'd rather imagine what the character looks like based on their personality and how they come over in the text.

I think a couple of distinguishing features are ok - say if the character has something unique about the way they look - but I'd hate to read a lengthy description of what a character looks like because there's a good chance it won't match up with the image I already have of them.
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Old 11-09-2009, 04:11 PM   #14
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BTW: Arthur C. Clarke also used the "surprise race card," in a way, in Imperial Earth: His main character was African (or European, but so dark-skinned from time in space as to resemble an African), something which was not revealed (or depicted as anything other than an ironic fact) until about 1/2 of the way through the novel.
I've seen a couple of series where the surprise race card wasn't played until the second book! It always makes me suspect a belated bid for political correctness, especially if it seems to be dragged in by the ears for no particular reason. Two examples are MacAvoy's Twisting the Rope and Diana Wynne Jones' The Merlin Conspiracy.

I also get really annoyed when the author can't keep a character's physical description straight. Niven and Barnes pulled a howler like that in one of the Dream Park books - he describes his hero gazing at his red-haired reflection "as if at a stranger", as well he might, considering that he had black hair a chapter or two previously!

Oh, and another pet peeve of mine is the (usually new) author who insists on describing the character's (usually the love interest's) clothes in elaborate and unnecessary detail.

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Old 11-09-2009, 04:45 PM   #15
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Oh, and another pet peeve of mine is the (usually new) author who insists on describing the character's (usually the love interest's) clothes in elaborate and unnecessary detail.
Writing in unnecessary detail about a character's appearance, clothing, or background is a pretty common thing with new authors. If it has a direct bearing on the scene (for instance, clothing detail used in explaining why one character is so sexually attracted to another), there's nothing wrong with it. At least, elements like that tend to happen early-enough on in most stories to inform you what kind of story you're about to read (or put down before it's too late).
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