Reading · Writing

Warning: Characters In Your Head May Look Different Than They Appear

 Catching Fire, the second movie adaptation in The Hunger Games series comes out next month, and the first thing I always think of is the ridiculous fan reaction to character race after The Hunger Games movie released in 2012. When The Hunger Games came out in theaters, shortly thereafter media coverage revealed depressing reactions to characters. This had actually started back when casting news had been released over some fans’ shock that some of the characters were black. Most of this “shock” not only reflected the sad state of socio-ethnic problems that refuse to go away in our country, but also ignorance of what Suzanne Collins actually wrote in reference to these characters’ physical appearance. Rue and Thresh were, indeed, black.

Aside from the larger racial implications with this situation (of which I’ll briefly revisit again later in this post from a writing perspective), it seemed to me a distinctive issue that I have mulled over in my own writing: how important is the description of a character’s physical appearance in fiction?

Certainly, in some cases, physical appearance is an inherent part of the story. A simplification, but race in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye becomes prominent as Pecola believes her world would be different if she had blue eyes. Weight governs Delores Price’s life and behavior in Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. While these characters’ have deeper, underlying issues, many of them manifest themselves in the exterior appearance. In these stories, physical appearance naturally comes into play.

In other circumstances, detail in appearance may come to the forefront to further character development and plotline. Anne in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables has distinctive red hair and freckles. These traits are important as the character is quite touchy about them and several scenes surround her attempts to circumnavigate them. Harry Potter has his distinctive scar, but the rest of him – his mussed hair and taped glasses are also necessary to remind us of his other-than-Voldemort’s-nemesis averageness.

Because of my reading preference and imagination, writing appearance details is much more difficult. I like reading of a character’s physical appearance – but only just enough to get my imagination going in the right direction. I don’t need a lot of specifics. What a character wears can definitely provide insight into his/her personality, but should not be overshadowed by that character’s behavior. I’ve read books that spent more time on these appearance details, almost overshadowing the supposed change or growth the characters had experienced.

In spite of glossing over heavy detail about eye color, face shape, height, clothing, etc. as I read, I can still go into a movie that is made from a book and know that a cast character looks like he/she should. However, I really think that for me it comes much more from an overall feeling of an actor’s portrayal than the appearance of the actor him/herself. For example, I’ve never felt that Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter films seemed right. I think his appearance might very well be a match, but the actor’s portrayal never quite made it for me. In The Hunger Games, I cannot remember at all what any of the characters were supposed to look like from the book, but I can tell you that there was something too soft about Katniss’s appearance in the movie and that Cinna was great (although I expected a slightly more feminine side to him).

The kind of physical description that tends to rub me the wrong way is when an author’s cultural or gender bias comes through too obviously. It is natural for our bias to come through, but I like to weed it out before final copy. For example, I’ve read books where anytime a female character is described, her physical attributes are highlighted, but when a male character is described, the only thing you might know about him physically is that he’s tall. Maybe. Or I’ll read other novels by white authors where race is given for all non-white characters, but the assumption for all others is, naturally, that they are white. I’m not opposed to indicating race in physical description, or body attributes – as long as it’s equal opportunity. If you’re going to tell me someone is Native American, then tell me the other is Caucasian. If it doesn’t matter – ie, add to the story or characterization – then leave it out.

As I contemplate my own writing, I realize that in my first novel, I have probably shown my gender bias in the opposite way that I described above. My male characters have more physical attributes highlighted than my female ones. It’s something for me to consider as I revise it in the future. On the other hand, I’ve made a conscious effort to create the balance whenever I’ve mentioned race. Race plays a minor role in the story, so at times I’ve included whether a character is Caucasian, Latino, African-American, or otherwise. In my second novel, I think I have avoided the direct race card altogether – by design. I don’t know, yet, if I’ve fallen into a snare of white ignorance with this approach. I will gladly listen to any thoughts you have on this front.

Basically, I don’t think I care if my reader’s vision of what one of my characters looks like differs from my own, as long as the feel of the character comes through. I mean, in The Hunger Games movie, Katniss is white, even though I had always imagined her brown, so aside from my initial perception shift, she still embodied the character, so it worked for me. (NOTE: if a character were non-white and I were non-white, and then the character in the movie were made white, I would probably not be okay with this – hence how even more disturbing it is when white people express outrage for an accurate race choice of actors for characters.)

So what I have started working harder at is describing how a character dresses, as I think this reveals far more about a character than anything other physical descriptor. I have characters with tattoos, which already says one thing, but more importantly, it’s the kind of tattoos the characters have. How does the character dress at home? At work? On a date? Heavy make-up or none at all? Jewelry? This tends towards a common recommendation in posts about craft that I read that focus on effective ways to show characterization rather than tell.

As a reader, what do you like to find out about character appearance?

As a writer, how do you go about this aspect of character? Is it important to you that a reader “sees” the character in the exact same way you do?

Billy Joel’s “She’s Got a Way” sure fits the characterization bill. If you come away from a story feeling like you “know” a character, isn’t that the ultimate goal?

6 thoughts on “Warning: Characters In Your Head May Look Different Than They Appear

  1. A good example of this for me is Jack Reacher, the Lee Child character. If you read just one of those books, you’d know a lot about his physical characteristics. He’s big, really big. And he makes use of his size a lot. He also acknowledges when his size is an impediment to his plans. Then they cast Tom Cruise for the part. “Ugh” we all said. He did pull off a lot of the attitude, and that helped a lot. But I don’t think it was enough for me. I think Dolph Lundgren would have been perfect. He’s not as good of an actor, but, especially given his work in the Expendables, his physical nature is basically dead on. Oh well, I still have the books.


    1. Never having read the books, I was okay w/Cruise in the movie. However, given the response when he was announced as the cast actor, it is clear that his appearance had a distinct role in the books. Physical characteristics, in this case, mattered.


  2. Hmm…this will give me something to think about as I read. I’m not one who has a good eye for details when it comes to my surroundings (I know for a fact that I’m a terrible witness when a crime is committed), so I don’t really think a lot about characters’ physical appearance. When I write, I probably avoid describing it at all, which would be a serious flaw.

    Oh, and yeah, it does really piss me off when a non-white character is played by a white actor in a film adaptation. There are plenty of roles for white people. There are plenty of white characters. I can only imagine how people of color feel about that. As for the controversy over the character of Rue, I can only say how very sad that made me. Sometimes your fellow humans are so much worse than you realized.


    1. I think for me it is still more about showing me a round character vs the surface. I sometimes think about Hermione in the movies and how she doesn’t have the big bushy hair that I imagined. On the other hand, she still embodied Hermione as a whole.

      Maybe the whole problem is the movie adaptation. Without it, the whole idea of caring about physical description might not be an issue at all. It still kind of bums me out that the HP movies morphed the character appearances in my head to look like the actors.

      I recently read The Bone Season and it struck me that I had a difficult time painting a picture of what one of the male main characters looked like. I think the author described him when he was first introduced, but not much after that and I struggled, trying to determine if it was a good thing or not that I couldn’t keep him more solidly in my brain. I wondered if it affected how I saw his character vs what I was supposed to see in his character.


  3. Good points to think about when creating our characters, Janet. But I agree with you that I don’t mind if my physical image of the character and the reader’s is not the same (viva imagination), but I do hope that the ‘feelings’ conveyed are similar.


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