Devil in the Details
Whilst reading my novels, which I am certain you either have or will in the very near future, one thing you will not find is physical descriptions of the main characters. Unless something about their appearance is essential either to the development of the plot or the character, I don’t do it. I won’t do it. Other authors go into details about height, hair color, eyes and often even their clothes. Generally when I am reading, that’s when I skim-skim-skim. Especially in a romance novel. How am I supposed to relate to a twenty-two year old statuesque blond? I am sure I am in the minority here. Indeed, after my daughter read The Proud and the Prejudiced, my modern twist on Pride and Prejudice, we had the following exchange:
Her: You have to describe what the characters look like.
Me: Not gonna do it
Her: Mother, if you are going to be a romance writer, you have to.
Me: I am not a romance writer. I am a writer who occasionally writes romance.
Her: You have to describe...
Me: I hate to read physical descriptions of characters in romance novels, so I must represent SOME demographic.
Her: I hate to read them too.
Her: BUT I AM YOUR DAUGHTER! You HAVE to-
Me: Nope. It's not going to happen. This will just be my signature style.
Perhaps I do not like them because I was weaned on Jane Austen. Her physical descriptions of characters were as explicit as Jane – beautiful, Bingley – good-looking, Darcy – tall and handsome, Charlotte – plain, Lydia – stout, Mrs. Gardiner – elegant, Mr. Collins – tall and “heavy-looking,” Anne de Bourgh – “pale and sickly.” I believe the most detailed physical description she reserved for Lady Catherine: “a tall, large woman, with strongly-marked features, which might once have been handsome.” Austen never called them blond or brunette nor named the color of their eyes (Elizabeth’s are merely described as “fine” and "dark"). Particularly when writing an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I think it unwise to describe Elizabeth and Darcy since anyone so enthralled with our beloved couple to continue their adventures through variations undoubtedly thinks Elizabeth looks like Jennifer Ehle, Kiera Knightly, or (heaven forfend!) Greer Garson. As with Plato and his dog, we all have our ideal form of Elizabeth and Darcy. Similarly, no matter how many times I read those opening words to Gone With the Wind – “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful” – I always think of the quite beautiful Vivien Leigh.
Although Mrs. Bennet wanted to know about the latest fashions in London, Miss Austen did not describe the clothes beyond being fine or fashionable (of course, if she had, perhaps Greer Garson's Elizabeth would not have been dressed like Scarlett O'Hara) although the occasional colour of a man’s coat might be mentioned – particularly if it were red. That works for me! Like Mr. Bennet when his wife begins to describe the lace of Mrs. Hurst’s gown, I protest against “any description of finery.” Give me action, dialog, inner monolog, plot! If it has no bearing on the plot or the development of the characters, such as a petticoat six inches deep in mud, I’m not interested in clothes. (Actually, I am not interested in clothes in real life either. Coincidence?)
I suppose this all boils down to Writing 101: Subject, Purpose, Audience. Jane Austen knew her audience to be familiar with the fashions of the time, and detailed physical attributes had little to do with her subject and purpose. In my writing, I know my audience – the readers of Pulse and Prejudice and The Proud and the Prejudiced to describe them, not that they matter. One purpose I had when originally writing All My Tomorrows (an abridged version of The Proud and the Prejudiced), I wanted the heroine Alice to be completely relateable (see reference to statuesque blond above) to my audience, for readers to conjure in their own minds an image of the hero and heroine. After my husband read The Proud and the Prejudiced, he asked who I had in mind when I wrote the characters, and I said no one. Then he told me how he had pictured them while reading, although I will not taint your imaginations by repeating his choices. As I never gave the ages of the protagonists, my husband had selected an actor close to his age as Peter and an actress close to my age as Alice. I love that, and I hope all of my readers see their ideal versions of the characters in my novels.
That is not to say I resist any descriptions in my writing, but I reserve them for the purpose of establishing a setting or creating a mood, not just visually but often with smells or temperature. In The Proud and the Prejudiced, Alice suffers the heat and humidity in New Orleans: “Her skin waged a shoving-match with the atmosphere, the heavy, floral-scented night air covering her like a warm, damp blanket.” (She only escapes it when left emotionally chilled by a confrontation with Peter.) In Pulse and Prejudice, Darcy searches for Wickham in the gaming hells of London: “Darcy made his way through a winding passage that emptied into the cavernous gaming area. It might have been noon or midnight, but the windowless inner sanctum prevented any sense of the natural progression of time. The smoke in the room hefted the redolence of tobacco and wax and men and must.” I just don’t recite the physical attributes that would be found on a driver’s license, nor will I ever. Despise me if you dare!