Describe thyself, mortal!

by on Sep.21, 2012, under Process

One of the issues that I struggle with in writing is physically describing my point of view character. So very many readers come back with “I wish I knew what the protagonist looked like.”

This is a tricky subject. Gazing into a mirror is far too obvious, and will get snarly comments from editors. Switching to another point of view character is an easy habit, but many more of my readers would prefer me to use a single PoV character.

I’ve been googling around on this topic, and the Internet has spoken.
This is hard.

Unfortunately, that’s about all it has to say. The best I’ve got is to let the character interact with themselves in some manner that gives hints. Combing their hair, or tearing it out I guess is more likely in my stories.

In contrast, I was just listening to the Mary Robinette Kowal and others say in The Story Board, Episode 2 that it’s better to not describe the protagonist. That describing the protagonist takes away the reader’s ability to imagine themselves in that role. In doing so, I would need to choose to leave those readers unsatisfied.

If you are a writer, how do you tell the reader about the protagonist, through the protagonist’s eyes? Do you just leave it to the reader’s imagination?

If you are a reader, which do you prefer? Do you find that clearly described characters turn you off?

1 Comment for this entry

  • Matt Hayden

    Interesting question, Jo.

    I think the answer is “it depends.” And by that, I mean that it depends on the character’s inner life. In William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” series, we don’t really know much about the morphology of the main characters – indeed, Cayce Pollard is *never* described directly by name , and is defined by her interior life and other characters’ descriptions of her outfits. It’s not until the third book that we get a taste, by inference, that she is a small and extremely beautiful woman.

    Likewise, Hollis Henry in the second and third books – we know she’s a former 80s/90srockstar, and are left to image her from her interior life and a curious gathering of images implied by multiple references to a portrait by famous rock portrait photographer Anton Corbijn, in which she’s posed and wearing a tweed skir – but nothing else. I think, at one point, she’s described as dark-haired, but there’s nothing beyond that; you infer her being from what she thinks.

    On the other hand, you’ll have someone like the Sally/Molly character that Gibson wrote much earlier in his career, where she’s described far more directly – and it’s an interesting inversion, because we are only ever allowed two very fleeting glimpses into the character’s interior life, both of which are essentially confirming what we’ve already guessed.

    A lot of speculative fiction, to my mind, has often focused on morphology because it has been key to establishing differences necessary to drive the plot. As authors mature, their characters change, becoming more or less interior, and more or less (often less) explicitly described.

    As a writer, I try to be subtle and avoid anvils and hammers; let the tale tell itself by what it shows. As a reader, I don’t care as long as it’s engaging and well-written.

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