Describing our characters

The author of the book I am reading right now has a tendency to supply a physical description when introducing a new character. His physical descriptions include what the character is wearing though, like advanced airport security, he will happily penetrate the clothes to the body beneath – especially if the character is female. Here are two examples.

‘How beautiful she was in her pink silk dressing gown, which allowed a glimpse of her shapely curves and the delicate outline of her breasts with their prominent nipples. Her long black hair was gathered in a ponytail, leaving her face free. Her eyes were large and dark, her feet were bare and her nails were painted bright red.’

‘Her dark blue linen suit and her white silk blouse accentuated a nice figure, and with her sensual lips, well-groomed shoulder-length red hair and tanned complexion, she looked like a film star.’

In case I am giving the wrong impression here, the author writes crime novels, not erotic fiction. But on the evidence so far, he is more interested in female bodies than male, though he does also make reference to what some of his male characters are wearing.

I question this approach on two levels. The first is whether, immediately on meeting a new character, we should expect a physical description. It is surely an unsubtle way of going about things. After a while, it comes across as the verbal equivalent of painting by numbers. Character – description. In a third person novel the author can tell us directly what a person looks like, and he has every right to do so.  But the fact that we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.  (I can hit my thumb with a hammer but it isn’t recommended.)

The second question is whether we need so much physical description anyway. Someone could be the body beautiful before us in all her glory and dressed to match, but if her ears are bookends for a vacuum why would we care? So I would hope that we vary the amount of physical description we supply according to how significant it is. I’m told that some people, in their choice of clothing, are making a statement – I am an important person, I am successful, I am powerful, I have a body to die for, I have a body to pay for. In such cases describe them by all means, but not all at once and perhaps, on occasion, through the eyes of another character in the book?

Naming Your Characters (1/2)

For an author, choosing names for characters may be difficult but must surely be important, since certain names may have resonances which need to be considered. For example, and with apologies to anyone so named in real life, if you come across a character named Algernon in your reading, what might you expect? Firstly, that the book was probably written many decades ago and that the author was English. I would also tend to expect that the character was useless, and probably effete with it – a chinless wonder. So in my case, I am responding to the name with an off-the-shelf selection of stereotypes. But I will not be alone in that.

Or how about Sally? To me, Sally is cheerful, well-built and positive. A force for good. She is also energetic, played hockey, cricket and lacrosse at school, and cycles up vertical walls for charitable causes. As for Phyllis, she has too often been the butt of the same bad joke to be useable.

As well as suggesting a certain type of character, a name may also suggest social class. This is a difficult subject, since perceptions of social class vary greatly from one location to another. Returning to Algernon, we may be sure he didn’t mine coal, but he may have been a clergyman or an accountant. As things stand now, it may be that people who name their children after celebrities or pop stars are more likely to come from a lower social class, however we define it. So if you meet a girl called Gaga you can draw your own conclusions. Many other parents follow the fashion of the times while some try to create one of their own. In the past few months I have met a Destiny (a girl of unconstrained explosive force) a Saffron, a Miami, and a Xania.

Some names may be so neutral they can be safely be used for secondary characters without further thought. For me, James, Richard, David, Mary and Susan are in this category. But if we would like a suitable name for our hero, heroine, or villain, then we must give it more thought and live with our choice for a while till we know we are comfortable with it. Would you call your hero Herbert or your heroine Priscilla? I wouldn’t.

[Confession. I started giving this subject  more thought when I discovered that I’d used the same name for the main female character in two different books. When I realised what I’d done I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed at the time, but the name was one to which I was deeply attached and the fictional bearer of that name completely to be trusted. I then had to come up with a different name for one of these women and I didn’t find it easy. She was Lyndsay. How could she be anyone else? As stupidity goes this would take some beating].