Monday, June 23, 2008

Who do you see?

So the hubs and I were discussing my blog post for the day, which was going to be about "street teams" and the writer/reader relationship. It's still a topic I want to blog about, but frankly, our discussion veered off and gave me the giggles, and I'm in the mood to have some fun today rather than be serious, so this is what you get instead. (You'll eat'll eat it and like it!)

How it got started was talking about reshelving books, which led into a bit about how AA authors are relegated to the AA section. Hubs pointed out that AA crime/noir writer Walter Mosley is shelved in Crime. Hmm.

"Well, crime isn't like romance," I said. "Maybe AA romances are shelved in AA because there's a feeling that white readers won't be attracted to an AA hero?" (Okay, disclaimer time: This is simply conjecture on my part. I'm not accusing anyone of anything, I'm not saying I feel this way, I don't approve of this shelving practice, and this is only a lead-in to today's topic. I know you guys know that but I wanted to make it clear anyway.)

"So, what," said the hubs. "People won't read a book if the hero isn't their type?"

"Well, I'm not generally attracted to blond men, so I look for books with dark-haired heroes and I'll buy one of those before I'll buy a book with a blond hero. And if the book looks really good and I can't resist it but the hero is blond, I picture him in my head as dark anyway."

Hubs shook his head. "That's weird. You wouldn't be interested in the story if the hero wasn't attractive to you? You wouldn't enjoy it anyway?"

"Well, if you look at naked lady pictures, don't you have a particular type that you like to look at more than another type?"

The conversation degenerated a bit from there, with hubs suggesting outlandish social studies wherein the hair color of naked ladies is disguised and men are asked to grade the photos's attractiveness level, etc. etc. From there it went to whether or not I picture certain actors and/or actresses in my head when writing characters (I don't) and that there's no way to be certain the face you describe is the face the reader sees, etc. etc. etc.

But it made me start thinking. When reading a books, of any genre, do you try to picture the character as described, or do you tend to put your own "face" on the characters? Do you like or dislike lines like "He looked like Brad Pitt"?

I dislike them. I think it's lazy. But more than that, I think it limits the reader's imagination. I want to give them room to play; I want them to have some freedom of interpretation. Not that I want things to be totally ambiguous; at this point hubs was suggesting I write character description like, "He was dark, or maybe pale, or short or tall." Ha ha. So my description tends to be sketchy, just enough to give the reader an idea.

But even then, does my propensity for tall, dark heroes turn off those who like short, stocky blonds? Or does it bother you when you get only an outline? Does it bother you when you don't get a description right up front (This is another issue; there are people who get upset when a character isn't described right away while at the same time condemning every writer's trick for describing. No looking in mirrors allowed, no thinking about the color of your hair as you push it out of your face, no "pale tresses", no nothing. I agree with all of those--well, except for "She pushed her dark/pale hair out of her face," because I think complaining about that is a little pedantic, although I don't do it myself and don't think it's a huge deal either way. I mean, I may not think "I'm pushing my blonde hair out of my eyes" but if it's in my eyes I'm seeing the color and I do know what color it is anyway)?

In other words, what do these people look like to you? Does that change as you get to "know" them better? Does their appearance have any effect on your enjoyment of the book?

A Couple of Endnotes:

The Book Roast blog is up and running! So please pop by and hang out for a while, there's lots of cool stuff going on!

Thanks to all those who emailed or commented about my MIL. She is fine, doing very well.


Bernita said...

Hee, I like the tall and dark too. I distrust blond men.
And no, I don't describe people in great detail, especially my heroine.

Kim said...

Jeez, I'm one of those whoe writers whe tends to describe my characters in bits and pieces partway into the story.

I'm with you on the tall dark and handsome hero, but I will read s book even if the hero's blond. I just don't think I get as into it, as it would with a dark hero.

Anonymous said...

I like the characters to be described in pretty tight detail (and I'll often put someone I know or an actor in the character) but I can't stand it when the environment, especially an outdoor environment, is described to death.

I had to stop reading Cold Mountain because I got tired of reading descriptions of foliage. -V95

Robyn said...

Weird decriptions bother me. How can someone have an assertive nose?

Generally, I get a picture in my head and I stick with that no matter what the author says. If you say he's blond but that's not what popped in? Too bad. He's dark.

Whirlochre said...

Inserting predefined images (eg Brad Pitt) into character descriptions is a no-no for me, as is outlining absolutely everything from hair texture to mannerisms to numbers of buttons on jackets.

I like to go with one or two smackingly vivid teasers, as early as I can fit them in, and then dribble a few more details in later.

Revealing your protag has a foot long nose right at the end of the book is a no-no too.

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitly don't want to see characters as described as looking like any celebrity. That would take away from my enjoyment. As for types, I tend to form my own pictures of what they look like. And I don't have any preference for one color hair on women over another.

bettie said...

If a writer is relying on the hero's physical appearance to engage me, that writer won't get my interest or my money. Good writing is what makes a hero (or heroine) attractive--and for me, attractive also means distinctive. I'm sick of 6'5" TD&H heroes with washboard abs and "chiseled" features--they all tend to blend together.

I really, really hate descriptions that flat out say a character looks like "X" actor. It's lazy, and it's a turn off because I hate actors ;)

I do sometimes imagine characters look different than described. If a writer doesn't flat out say a character is white (which happens quite a bit, since for most white writers, "white" is the default color for people and only characters who are not white get their skin color or race mentioned), then I will assume the character is brown.

Kerry Allen said...

I'd like an order of sketchy physical description, please.

Honestly, if I look at a person in real life, I could not tell you to the inch how tall he is or what he weighs (I would make a lousy witness), so I always have a little eyeroll when a description gets that detailed. (Unless the describer is a cop or doctor or someone else who could logically be expected to note details like that, of course.)

Gimme height in relative terms: he's half a head taller than everyone else in the room, her chin rested comfortably on his shoulder while they danced, whatever. Skip the build---most people are going to supply a hero, in particular, with the one of their preference, and I, personally, get a little irritated when the lean, muscular swimmer's build I've given a guy gets bitchslapped to the side by "massive shoulders that wouldn't fit through the doorway" or whatnot. Gimme hair color, eye color, and any outstanding physical characteristics (scars, tattoos, glasses, bionic arm with Howitzer attachment, etc.) to work with, then let my imagination do its thing, please.

My perception of exacting descriptions is that the author is a control freak ("Your inadequate imagination will be allowed no leeway to misinterpret my divine artistic vision"), and if that author persists in bashing me over the head with description to make sure I'm seeing things "correctly," I will generally avoid that author in the future.

BernardL said...

I don't have a problem with authors using a celebrity look alike in a description. It should be used sparingly, and I think it works better with supporting characters. Personality brought out in dialogue means more to me than the physical looks.

kirsten saell said...

I have used a celeb descriptor--when filling out my cover art request form, not in my narrative. Ugh. I suppose if I wrote contemp, I might use them for the odd character, and in a tongue in cheek way: "She looked like Angelina Jolie, only sexy."

Writing fantasy, I don't have that option, even if I wanted it.

I do occasionally use a celeb (or someone I know) as a jumping-off point for the physical description of a character, but the physicality of my characters honestly doesn't remain that vivid in my head.

When reading, I find the words themselves at least as engrossing as the imagery they evoke. Sometimes the most intimate scenes are ones I don't even try to picture in my head, because it's more about feeling the scene than envisioning it.

See, now I don't even understand WTF I'm talking about. It's all very metaphysical.

Time for a gin and tonic, I think...

laughingwolf said...

if i see shit like: he looks like brad pitt, i toss the book, never to be picked up again

give a general description: she pushed her dark hair away from her pale face... is more than sufficient for my imagination to kick in and fill her in to to MY liking

get specific in how/what they think, and how they walk/talk/act, though

Gabriele C. said...

I prefer sketchy descriptions and my own imagination. :)

Thw wrong sort of looks won't keep me away frm a book, but it may happen that I would push the guy off the bedside, lol. Jamie in the Outlander series is a good example: I'm all for small, slender hands, and his are described as large several times. He's still fun to read about (in the first three books before the series got bogged down in irrelevant details), but he's not attractive to me.

If that makes sense. :)

Sam said...

I ditto Gabriele - sketchy descriptions are more to my liking. And I loved the Outlander series until book 3, when it just got too bogged down, as Gabriele said. And in line with your post - I couldn't ABIDE Brianna, Claire's daughter, so I stopped reading the series in order to get away from that character! (weird, isn't it? But if I hate a character, I just stop reading the book, lol.)

December/Stacia said...

OMG Sam!! I HATED Brianna, she's the reason I stopped reading the books too! Clomping around Colonial America pregnant, insisting she doesn't need to get married? And she's supposed to be a historian, who would have known how dangerous that sort of behavior was? Ugh!

Demon Hunter said...

Shelving sucks...

Anyway, I really don't mind descriptions. If it's well written, I'm fine---doesn't matter if it's too much or too little to me.

Gabriele C. said...

It's not so much hate - I love hating Cersei in ASOIAF, but getting annoyed. Sure, in big epic Fantasies one annoying character (Sansa) would not make me put the book down, but it could easily happen if it's the hero/heroine in a novel centering around a small set of characters.

And the annoying female characters surely spoiled WoT for me. Braid tugging bitches, the lot of them. :)

Jennifer said...

Gabriele, I just can't get around annoying characters - I've put down several books because of them (male and female!)
And December - LOL!!! That is too funny. Do you think we should write to Diana and ask her to kill Briana off if she writes a new novel? I think I'd like her better if she were dead.
There was Helen, in the Elizabeth George novels (detective Linley) and I hated that character too! Ms. George killed her off (without any urging from 'moi' - she must have realized she'd created a monster) and now I'm back enjoying her novels.

pacatrue said...

I have a very poor visual memory and imagination, so more than a few sketchy items is a complete waste on me. I can't put all of those details together no matter what. Instead show me the impact the person's physical appearance has on others. I'll make up the rest or, more commonly, leave it vague.

Yes, what is an assertive nose?