Reaction post to Cait Grace’s question-raising post “Do You Even Like Character Descriptions?” over at Paper Fury (which, FYI, is my very favorite book blog and is hilarious and insightful).
Cait has a tendency to bring up interesting bookish topics, and I was writing out a comment there in response to this one, but decided to turn it into a post of my own, because I had no idea I had so many thoughts or thought so strongly on this topic! o.o (I’ve actually done this before with one of her posts…) Huzzah for bookish discussion starters! (Thanks, Cait! 😀 )
(This is in no way to bash her post or opinion, or anything! She raised some fabulous points, and I would just like to share some ramblings of my own on the topic, because this book blog is exactly for things like this when I would randomly like to talk about bookish things on a Saturday morning. 🙂 )
So go read her post first. Done? Okay. Here we go…
Okay, so here is a case where I disagree. I want ALL the descriptions!! I’ve gotten SO frustrated with books these days where people DO think less is more and are afraid of “telling” and actually bothering to EXPLAIN what their characters look like to us poor readers, and have been told not to infodump. So they tell us nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. For like paaaages. And then suddenly they start to drop little hints… and then you realize you’ve been imagining the characters ENTIRELY WRONG. And you have to try to re-imagine them but… nope. It doesn’t work. THIS DRIVES ME INSANE.
And then you spend the rest of the book trying (unsuccessfully) to twist your already fully-created mental image of the character into the version the author is TELLING you (too late) that they look like. Even if you do eventually manage to see it right, it’s exhausting, and it’s not nice when it takes a ton of effort just to see what the author says. That’s not how books are supposed to be.
Honestly, this happened with me with Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, which I’m going to use as en example. Don’t get me wrong. I ADORED that book (except for the creepiness being a bit much for this squeamish reader…). But honestly I was so annoyed that it didn’t come right out and describe the characters and have done with it right at the beginning so that we could move on. Like, is it so hard to just say “Kaz was seventeen and tall and thin as a musket and had gorgeous raven-black hair and an angular face and” etc. going on about his fabulous coat and black eyes and black gloves and his raven cane. Like, is that so hard??
Fabulous authors can pull these things off if they want to, if they’re not afraid of what they’ve been “told” to do… And there are some amazing and gorgeous descriptions in Six of Crows, too! So it’s not like there’s none… There just could have been enough to not leave me confused…
I’ll be honest, it took me like CHAPTERS to even begin to get the correct mental image of Kaz and the rest. Because Kaz had a cane and a raspy voice? At first, I thought he was like fifty or sixty. DON’T JUDGE. I DID. Like… an old man. And then something else happened (I think it mentioned his hair being black?) and I was like ohhh maybe he’s like thirty? AND THEN EVENTUALLY IT COMES OUT AND SAYS OH BY THE WAY HE’S SEVENTEEN. And I’m like ohhhhhhhhhhhhh. Okay. He’s three years younger than me and he’s awesome and handsome and cool AND IT TOOK ME LIKE A CHAPTER OR THREE TO KNOW THIS. Ugh.
It’s partly my fault, because I should have known that it’s YA and hence he had to be 18 years or younger? But for those not aware of that thing OUTSIDE OF THE BOOK I MIGHT ADD, it’s just tragic to not even know what the character looks like.
I mean, giving little tidbits at a time instead of just outright saying things can be a good mode of suspense? I’m okay with that for most things in a book. But not what things LOOK like. We shouldn’t be in suspense over things that if we were actually THERE, we would SEE with our eyes!
Because books are not like movies. We cannot SEE the things unless the author TELLS us or IMPLIES to us.
I think authors have a responsibility to tell the reader things!! Leaving us in the dark is mean at worse, or neglectful at best… We authors can see the entire story in our head, but the reader only gets as much of it as we happen to write. (I remember I once sent my first NaNo story to someone to beta read, and at one point I said the characters ran to the corner. The reader wrote back and said “the corner of what?” Because I had entirely neglected to describe the fact that they were in this awesome broken down tower thing!! I saw it all in my head, and forgot to mention it.)
So yes, getting back to Six of Crows: because I was clueless and it didn’t occur to me that they would all be kids because it was YA, I literally did not realize, for like a chapter or three, that Kaz and all of his gang were young. I literally thought that they were just grown up people! Like… a regular gang! And then I figured it out and was like “ohhhhh. That’s so much cooler that they’re young!” This could have been avoided with a simple sentence or even word about it.
But like I’m saying, this happens with lots of books these days, not just Six of Crows, I’m just using it as an example (and I love the book!! I just… wish more things had been outright stated). Authors seem afraid of telling the reader things. And this bothers me.
When there’s a movie, you can imagine the characters because you SEE the faces and the whole person and what they look like. So that’s easy. But in a book, it’s just words, and words are powerful but they have to be the right ones. And I do just imagine characters a certain way unless it’s outright stated, so I’d like to have that, please and thank you… And I think this is largely why people do use over the top descriptions, like extravagant eye colors… I’m guilty of it myself. 😛 People can understand things like colors, but you can’t really fully describe a FACE. We’re drawn to things like eyes and hair of particular color/kinds because we can easily grasp what those look like.
Because of the imagination thing, building things out of words, that is why things ARE so open to interpretation, which is actually a wonderful thing about books, because readers can each have their own individual versions in their head, and that’s what makes it unique!
But unless there are specific things to pin these descriptions around (like vague age, hair color, curly hair, eye color, etc., even if they ARE unrealistic) then all the imaginations are going to vary so differently, and like Cait said, they are really good indications of the characters!
Like, getting away from faces, the way characters dress is a HUGE indication of their personality! Even just a choice mention of that particular red scarf with the sparkles, or that dark blue fedora, or that black leather jacket (yes, I know some people say it’s a cliche but I still love it and will not apologize).
And I’m not saying that there should be necessarily ALWAYS mounds of description every time a character comes in… I’m aware that some people don’t like lots (personally, I don’t mind). I’m just saying, give us the basics fairly soon after we meet them so that we can imagine them somewhat correctly! And yes, something visual that sets them aside as a quirk so that we remember them out of the hordes of other characters we read. People REMEMBER Holmes’ hat, Kaz’s crow-headed cane, Howl’s blue-and-silver suit, Katniss’s braid, and various unique eye- or hair-coloring etc., which, call it unrealistic if you will, but does a marvelous job of setting characters aside in your mind.
This is getting rather long and rambly and I feel like I had other things to say, but there you go. My bookish rambles of the day.
Long story short: I like description in books, particularly for characters, and I like it early enough to do some good. 🙂