Judging by the cover

How much work do you put into defining, and describing, a character’s appearance?

When I was a teenager, I described my characters in detail. I had clear images in my mind of how they looked and I wanted readers to get that same image. I also loved (and still love) crazy anime hair colours. I’ll admit I was guilty of this:

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But the books I read increasingly gave me the impression that describing characters in such detail was juvenile. I also came to shy away from unnatural hair colours, at least in traditional fantasy, for the same reason. I also prefer these days to make my characters more average-looking. After all, the world is not made up of Doctor Dooms and Captain Americas; it is made up of Johns and Jenns, Abduls and Taniquas. And I prefer to write stories about those regular people.

Yet, as a reader, I enjoy reading full descriptions of characters, getting an image in my head as clear as the author’s, and as accurate. And increasingly, my rebuttal to those reasons not to describe them in detail—show, don’t tell; don’t info dump; it’s not that important—is why not? It’s all fiction, and in my case, it’s all fantasy and science fiction. What problem is it to go ahead and describe characters in detail? One can go on too long, of course, but that is true of anything.

Aside from that, a character’s physical appearance says a lot about them. It is an extension of their personalities. How a character dresses or looks or styles their hair tells you a bit about them.

For example, take Damian, the star of my Sisters of Chaos trilogy. Her most distinguishing feature is her vivid yellow eyes; of course, they show that she’s different, and she’s spent the vast majority of her life hiding them behind a veil, until she makes a conscious choice not to hide them anymore. She styles her hair nicely, because she is effeminate and because she’s trying to show that there’s more to her than her strange eyes and what they represent. Yet, she makes fashionable gowns for herself that accentuate her body (slender, not shapely), not try to emphasize features she doesn’t have. She doesn’t wear corsets or padding or anything; she’s trying to show her best self, yet she is honest to a fault and does not want to be accepted for something she’s not.

Then there’s Garrick. He’s Marvel Studios ripped and very attractive, with an infectious/roguish smile. He is constantly aware of how he is perceived by others, and adjusts his posture, speech, and expressions to maximum effect for whatever company he’s in. Partly he does so to get whatever he’s looking for out of the encounter, and partly it’s to get the respect he has desperately desired throughout his life, and it also serves to cover up his own insecurities.

Maybe you don’t get all of that with a strict description of how a character looks, but the fact is, there’s a reason behind every character’s appearance. A character might be wearing an expensive but ill-tailored suit because they’re new money and don’t know how to live the high life, but want to. Maybe a female character refuses to wear a bikini because she’s self-conscious. A male character might have a patchy, or overly thick, beard because he’s trying to compensate for a babyish face he gets teased about otherwise.

All these details are more than just giving a reader a clear picture of the character the author is depicting; they’re clues into the character. And as readers, we also form opinions of the characters based on how they look, because that tends to show pieces of the character. Whether those opinions are affirmed by the character or challenge our biases, it adds to our understanding of the character.

And really, what’s wrong with describing a character’s appearance in detail?

On self-image

A few weeks ago, I was walking through a shopping mall when I passed by a kiosk selling face cream or some such thing. A salesman tried to stop me as I walked past, but I waved him off. Then, the other salesman decided to try his luck on me with a different approach.

“Miss, there is a small problem with your pores.”

He was obviously leading into how their product could help, but I didn’t break stride. I tried to inject some lightness into the situation when he told me not to be shy and I called back, “It’s not shyness, it’s laziness.” It’s not a lie; I find a lot of personal care stuff to be a hassle and don’t bother with it.

But a number of years ago, a comment like that would have devastated me.

As a teenager, I hated getting my picture taken, even avoided looking in mirrors. I had a laundry list of aspects of my appearance that I felt looked ugly, though the worst of it was my many (cosmetic) skin problems. Coupled with teenage hormonal depression, it was all I could see when forced to look at myself and I was very self-conscious about it.

Largely, due to the aforementioned laziness, my method of dealing with it was to avoid mirrors and cameras and not think about it, but occasionally, I tried to do something about it. None of it worked. A certain multi-step acne treatment did nothing, despite my dilligently following the system for a month. I even tried putting egg yolk on my face when I read that that would help.

Eventually, I gave up. Although I wasn’t any happier with the decision, I accepted that nothing I could do would help.

I don’t care anymore. I can’t care. I was more miserable trying something that promised results and failed to make a difference than if I just accepted that I couldn’t do anything about it.

Eventually, this led to acceptance of myself, though I don’t kid myself that it was all a matter of attitude. I was very lucky. My depression gradually faded in my early 20s, letting me build my own self-confidence, some of my skin problems cleared up naturally, and I married someone who tells me I’m beautiful every day – and while I didn’t believe it at first, I ultimately realized it doesn’t matter because I knew he does.

I’m no longer afraid of mirrors and cameras. But I look back at the person I was and the person I could have been if any number of things had been different, as well as the many, many girls and women who struggle with the same self-image issues, and a tactless comment like the one from that man only trying to sell a product rankles me. That’s the kind of careless remark that can keep someone up at night in tears, thinking they’ll never be pretty.

The worst part for me is that given all those lucky factors that contributed to the self-confidence I have today, I’m not the right person to be giving advice on the topic. So to anyone who might face that type of casual belittling, I will just say that you are not alone.

And to anyone who might use such a tactic to sell something, I would like you to know that no matter how you intend it or how politely you phrase it, a comment like that can be very hurtful. Dangerously so, in the case of someone with depression or another mental illness. Wouldn’t it be better to make a sale based on a positive experience rather than a negative one?