Saturday, April 09, 2016

Blame Donald Trump. Or maybe the Hillary bashers.

My tolerance for describing female characters only by their looks or sex appeal has dropped from grudging annoyance to downright loathing.

Maybe it's the political arena to blame for this:  the ShiTzu Hair Do talking about women like they're objects; the cacophony of sexist commentary --"You should smile more!" In truth,  I don't care what your political beliefs are here; you can be R or D or voting for Bill the Cat, I'm only saying the political arena has sensitized me to this and my guess is quite a few other of your query readers (ie agents and editors) as well.

So a "beautiful twenty year old" better be a scotch.

A "blonde bombshell" better be a baked confection.

A "long-legged physicist" better mean a giraffe with a Ph.d.

Pub date: August 2016

Hair color is not character.
Facial structure is not plot.
Legs are not enticements to read, they're modes of transport. Or weapons.

Check your query for this kind of auto-pilot writing.

It's driving me particularly crazy right now, but it's bad writing at any time. Your characters must be three dimensional to be interesting, and in a query you don't have time for anything but that which makes the character enticing. Blonde isn't that. Neither is pretty. And stripper really really isn't.


Timothy Lowe said...

Great post, Janet - if you want to read a pretty neat little prologue for Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday", it's here. One of his lovable ruffians gives writers some sage advice:

And although Mack is using male pronouns, I'm pretty sure the advice applies to characters of all persuasions. Dora, the whore from the Bear-Flag, is extraordinarily admirable and well-rounded. That's because she has a goal - like having all the girls donate swatches of their dresses so she can sew a quilt for a man with the flu (I think that was how it went - it's been awhile).

Goals - big and small, noble and ignoble, are great tools of characterization too.

LynnRodz said...

Oh damn, I better get rid of my 20 year old, blonde bombshell, long-legged physicist.

Kitty said...

THANK YOU, Janet, for giving me a chance to vent on one of my pet peeves: too much description of characters, especially when it's not even germane to the story. I prefer almost no description at all. Give the reader some credit and allow the characters to form in their own imagination. Unless a "willowy redhead whose legs never end" is absolutely necessary to the story, what difference does it make if the reader imagines a short brunette? Personally, as the reader, I find all that description (whether gorgeous or not) insulting. By writing detailed descriptions, you burden the reader with picturing it in their mind, which absolutely kills story momentum.

Unnecessary description of anything will kill the story flow: scenery, buildings, rooms, chase scenes, you name it. Follow Strunk & White’s advice: Do not overwrite; do not overstate; avoid the use of qualifiers.

Thank you, I feel better now. :)

Kitty said...

Great catch, Timothy!

Lennon Faris said...


On the flip side, I also get really tired of seeing all guy characters with a perfect physique. Sure, make 'em strong, or with some other pleasant superficial characteristics. But why do they always have to have physical looks that compare to a magazine ad? It's unrealistic and frankly, I think unattractive.

Make me like them by their character, and I'll remember the book forever.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Janet, thank you for this.

Timothy-love the humor in that. Hooptedoodle! Great word. I'd forgotten it existed in speech, it's been so long since I've heard it. I've never seen it spelled.

Kitty-I agree, some description but no overwriting. I did that one time and was caught out by crit partners. Thank goodness. The overwriting meant they did not see the rest of the story, only the tiny unimportant details which interfered with seeing the plot.

There is a place for some descriptive detail of a character. Otherwise, the default image is of a white-skinned person. We've discussed this previously and Janet had one example, at least, on Queryshark.

Yes, I see Janet has a tag in her left hand column for diversity.

Donnaeve said...

I can't remember where I read this, but, ever since I did, I try to leave off descriptions unless I can think of some artful way to throw in a detail or two. Otherwise, I leave it to the reader. (Ala Kitty's comment above)

Besides, reading the sort of description QOTKU provided (IMO) is like reading something published back in the 80s, and if not like that, then at best, it's lazy writing. (QOTKU was nicer, she called it auto-pilot)

In my current WIP, I've shared a few physical attributes of a sister through the MC's eyes. This eventually plays into their relationship, but this post will make me go back to make sure I've been creative/different/unique in the approach.

Cindy C said...

Thank you for this. We talked on the blog the other day about what it means to be a writer. Being a good writer means getting beyond objectification, and the usual accompanying stereotype, for all of your characters. Your characters themselves may be stuck in the superficial, but the writer has to see beyond the surface.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I know! Right! Why must a female protagonist be described by physical characteristics instead of say ability and action- Tough and aspiring horse breeder, gifted musician and outlaw, centuries old mythical and powerful archer, feared and bitter pirate, brilliant and kind misfit.

It is an ingrained societal behavior to value a girl's physical characteristics before noticing anything else. And it sucks.

I was the first girl in my neck of the woods to play Little League Baseball in a boy's competitive league. The papers were sent to take pictures of me on opening day. They mistakenly took pictures of our catcher, a boy with lovely long blonde hair. I was 9 at the time and had not developed any sexual characteristics. Still, I remember so well how the photographer did not even correctly identify the girl. He saw long, blonde hair. Idiot.

My father used to play with my brother and I after he got home from work. One wet afternoon, we were playing football in the mud and my mother erupted from the house and yelled at my father, pointing at me and said "Alan, this is a girl.". My dad shrugged his shoulders and told me to go long and lobbed the football at me. I couldn't think what my mother's point was, but after that she started making bizarre attempts to get me to behave more "like a girl" whatever the Hell that means. Ugh, Janet you hit a nerve. This is one of my pet peeves as well. Thank you for addressing it. And go Bill the Cat!

Lucie Witt said...

I love the beautiful 20 year old. Mmmhmmm.

One of the biggest things I hope writers take away from the current discussion around diversity/representation is if you are writing lazy/stereotypical characters/descriptions you aren't living up to your responsibility as a writer.

The discussion about how much to describe characters is interesting. I tend to go for less is more, but I definitely do include some descriptors.

Sam Hawke said...

On this note, if you'd ever like to be depressed about the world, follow Ross Putnam (@femscriptintros) on twitter - he posts lines from screenplays in the slush describing female characters (always called Jane). Some samples:

The pilot exits, removes a heavy flight mask, long flowing hair spills out. It belongs to a STUNNING WOMAN: JANE.

JANE leads a yoga class on the quad. Her stomach is flawless as she does a bridge.

JANE does her makeup in front of the bathroom mirror. She is tall and strikingly attractive with a dazzling smile we’ll get to see later.

JANE. In her 20’s, she’s angelic, mesmerizing, exudes wise strength.

JANE (20’s), a neighborhood girl with fuck me eyes for him.

JANE, late 40’s, naturally attractive, is having a glass of wine on the island of her spectacular kitchen.

UGH. Sigh.

Lucie Witt said...


Both of my boys had long hair when they very very little - one had dreadlocks and one had longish curls I just couldn't bear to cut.

They could both be standing next to their dad, wearing head to toe blue, and shirts that said "Daddy's little wingmen" and people would **still** tell us "You have beautiful daughters!" (this exact scenario down to the shirts has actually happened).

LynnRodz said...

I have to agree with Kitty, the less said about what a character looks like the better. Unless the character has an unusual physical trait, let the reader use their imagination. I think that's one of the reasons why a book is almost always better than the film version. Most of the time, the actors that are chosen aren't what the reader had in mind.

Donnaeve said...

Timothy - just read from your link - loved it! And it is perfect writing advice.

Sam - I'm following @femscriptintros on Twitter now. Thank you for sharing!

E.M., that was a great story about your earlier sports days - but BUMMER on that guy not getting the right subject. Idiot - yes.

Lucie, I've got a friend here in town who has two boys with long hair, and she gets the SAME thing! She dresses them in very boy type clothes. I'm talking Carhartt, t-shirts with tractors on them, boots, etc. It's crazy.

Christine Sarmel said...

I think it's handy to think in terms of how acquaintances and friends are remembered in real life. Do you remember Susan's eye color or that she makes huge Italian meals when she's upset? Is Don the guy with the great abs or the one who makes a recruiting spreadsheet for not only his favorite team, but all of their opponents as well?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Lucie- I love long hair on boys. My best friend's younger son had the same thing happen all the time prior to adolescence, but he loves his hair so she doesn't make him cut it.

I was always mistaken as a boy until adolescence got hold of me. My hair grew wild and thick so my mom kept it short because she could not make me comb it with any regularity.

In my books, I like Donna, am sparse on character descriptions unless it is necessary to the action or emotional observation of POV character or an internal evaluation of the POV character.

People do notice one another's appearance but it is subjective. So a younger sister jealous of her older sister might remark on how stupid it is boys pay attention to her older sister just because she's pretty despite the fact that older sister is mean as a snake. But that is really meant to tell the reader more about the younger sister. At least, that is my take on it. I could be wrong.

CynthiaMc said...

Bring blonde and pretty worked for me all my life. Now it's a bad thing?

I don't want to live in this world. I'm going back to bed.

Marie McKay said...

I love this so much!

Kitty said...

This is something I’ve been working on which begins:

Jeff dumped me for a sweet young thang named Mandi--with an “i”--a willowy sun-kissed California blonde with legs like a thoroughbred’s and breasts the size of cantaloupes. With our wedding a mere breath away from ‘I do,’ he practically rolled out of our bed and into hers without ever touching the carpet. Thursday night we made love, and Friday I came home and found his note--“I can’t go through with this. Sorry.”--taped to my wedding dress with duct tape. Humped on Thursday, dumped on Friday.

That’s about the most description I’ve given any character, and it is relevant because the main character is a young woman with a weight problem.

I rarely give characters full names unless there’s a purpose. I wrote one story whose characters have no names. It’s in the first person female who privately refers to her dreadful, “flamboyant party boy” boss as Lizard Feet because he wears $800 Bruno Magli lime green lizard skin loafers.

Anonymous said...

Guilty as charged. Thank you, Janet. I can't believe I've done that and recently (in a story.) It IS auto-pilot. My excuse was I'm a dude who stands around talking to other dudes using those descriptors in bunches, with varying relish. In my family, if you didn't tell the girls they were looking good, you insulted them. It's deep in my psyche. And I've seen the damage it has done to the girls in my family over the years. I've railed against it. But there it is sitting ugly on the page. That girl was a beautiful girl. Goal oriented? Body movements? Intelligent? All relative terms. Perhaps context. I think I'm off auto-pilot now but the ground is getting close super fast. My politics are usually auto-pilot also but not this year. This is far too fascinating. Do I sense you are leaning towards Hillary? Not that anything is a done deal yet.

Thanks again. It's good to check in with people more awake than I am.

BJ Muntain said...

Timothy's link

Unknown said...

Kitty, that's a funny description with a great first-person voice! You can feel the pain behind the sharp wit.

Janet, thanks for an excellent rant to kick off the weekend. The tropes I fall into when writing are usually a bit more subtle than this, so I like to ask, does this character have to look/be this way? That's how a slow-talking but fast-thinking Midwestern detective in my MG story got transmuted from a man into a woman.

BJ Muntain said...

It always annoys me reading articles about scientists or authors or women in any field, and seeing these women not only described in terms of beauty (or not), but also as a wife, mother, or homemaker. "Dr Smartypants just discovered the cure for a terrible disease that affects millions of people, all the while being mother to six children." Or "Dr Smartypants - wife of local businessman George Dope - has designed and built a space elevator that will connect humanity to outer space". Or, "Dr Smartypants, in her spare time away from her beautiful kitchen, has just decoded the most difficult mathematical proposition ever."

Because being a scientist is secondary to being a mother, wife, housewife. A way of making women secondary to the world of men.

/rant. Need coffee.

Unknown said...

For a biting/hilarious send-up of the phenomenon BJ mentions, see @manwhohasitall on Twitter.

Katie Loves Coffee said...

Thank you for sharing, Kitty! Love how you told so much story in so few words and made me laugh through your character's pain. Great way to start off my morning!

Mark - so glad you posted, I couldn't remember the account and it's hysterical.

As a woman in the sciences and firm minority in my field of engineering (~10% women), I can appreciate where you are coming from, BJ. The great thing about being a writer is that we get to play a part in changing the narrative. My WIPs include women in the sciences who manage to be someone besides just a "nerd" or a "beauty". They happen to have a wicked sense of humor and more than a little determination :).

Craig F said...

About description:

The first time I slogged my way through THE STAND I was almost stopped. It was this three page description of a flower that almost stopped me.

I finally made it through that section and had to go back and re-read it. It fit that spot and did it wonderfully.

If a huge description fits the context and is done right it can help the overall product. It is not what you describe it is how you describe it. Make it be something your readers can find depth in, such as Kitty's description. Make it have a level above that description.

Unknown said...

Thank you Janet for saying something so important that needed to be said!!!

Except now I'm a bit paranoid.

One of my POV characters is a 19 year old boy. He's supposed to be having a serious conversation with his sister in a pizza place except that his eyes are tracking "a girl in a mini-skirt" as she walks across the room. This is all the reader learns about this girl. She doesn't appear again.

Am I thinking like a 19 year old boy or being sexist?

Janice Grinyer said...

and the writing Choir says "AMEN!"

annnnd -


Characters have brains. Let them use them.

Timothy Lowe said...

Jenny - try giving her a little bruise on one knee. Have the boy wonder where it came from. One line - for texture.

A lot of 19 year old boys look at girls in miniskirts. Nothing new there. Try giving it something new - even a little something?

Just a thought.

Donnaeve said...

Considering some of the questions/comments, I think it might be good to keep in mind that in some cases descriptions do work. Kitty's example is perfect and it works (IMO) because we don't have this omniscient voice telling us this and that about Mandi's cantaloupe breasts and thoroughbred legs. Instead, we're in her MC's head, and listening to her voice.

And then what Craig said is apropos too - in that if description is there for context, it can work.

Same for E.M.'s comment, particularly this, "unless it is necessary to the action or emotional observation of POV character or an internal evaluation of the POV character."

That nails it for me b/c... don't you know after reading this post, I went back to my very first chapter of the latest WIP, and there, in the very first paragraph is...DESCRIPTION (!!!) by the MC of her sister. I'd actually forgot about it!!! (I'm 300 pages from that page so...and I try not to go back and re-read till THE END)

I'll be brave like Kitty and share:

Stampers Creek, North Carolina, 1940
Whenever I hear the birth stories Momma repeats on our special day, I can’t help but think of Laci and how she ended up. Her name alone conjures up a frail and delicate being, someone who don’t fit in with the harsh way of life here. With arms and legs as slender as the limbs of the willow trees growing alongside the Tuckasegee River, and movements as fine as the lines of Momma’s bone china teacups, Laci seems out of place. Deep green eyes swallow any thoughts she might have, except we don’t rightly know what she thinks since she don’t talk.

Kitty said...

Jenny C, that's how a 19-y-o guy thinks. It's also the way a 79-y-o guy thinks. Personally, I think it's a male DNA thing. And "a girl in a mini-skirt" is not over-describing her, either. Instead, his eyes are tracking "a girl in a mini-skirt" as she walks across the room paints a vivid picture all by itself.

Thanks to everyone who complimented my WIP.

Colin Smith said...

The problem with descriptions like "beautiful" and "hot" are they don't really tell you anything. Beauty and "hot"ness are in the eye of the beholder. It's true, there are some things that are objectively beautiful. Most models look "pretty"--that's partly how they got the job. There's something about the physical formation of the face, symmetry and so forth, that is, apparently, naturally appealing. But that's a superficial beauty. I would be okay with a girl being described as "runway pretty" because that's actually tells me something but not too much. But I agree with Janet, the writer needs to ask why they are including that description. Does the reader need to know that the girl is "runway pretty," or can the writer leave it up to the reader to picture the girl however they like?

Those who have been following my A-to-Z posts, did my "D" story overstep the mark on this?

Colin Smith said...

And speaking of description, have you noticed how JKR describes her main characters vs. the way they are depicted in the movies? What happened to Harry's uncontrollable hair? Or Ron's lanky frame and long nose? Or Hermione's big teeth, and her bushy hair after year 2?

Did JKR go too far with her descriptions of people? I think there was purpose behind at least some of them. Harry's hair is a link with his father. Ron's red hair identified him with the rest of his family. Hermione's father's a dentist, so her big teeth are somewhat ironic. But isn't the swotty girl with frizzy hair and big teeth a bit of a stereotype?

What d'y'all think?

Kitty said...

Donnaeve, I think your description of Laci works, and naming her Laci is perfect.

Adele said...

I have a pet peeve: young women whose character is established, fleshed out, and summarized by saying they drive a red sports car. Couldn't she be an independent woman in a gray Toyota Corolla? Just once?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Jenny C and JSF- men do look at women with an eye toward lust- that is biology and is a part of a character. Girls do the same thing with men. People will internally note what they find appealing or appalling in another. I don't think this is what Janet meant. Just don't be lazy with your words.

I think Janet is talking about making the over-sexualized description of a female protagonist (or a male for that matter) as their defining characteristic, especially in a query which is supposed to introduce your MC. At best, such a description is passive. It doesn't tell you what matters.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being blonde and beautiful but is that all there is? Then what, pray tell, would be the story? Now if this blonde and beautiful character was mistaken as a call girl instead of the powerful attorney she is, then it might be relative in her introduction because now we have conflict. This did happen to a friend of mine working in Italy. Anyhow, I think this is on point. Janet will snap her lovely jaws at me if not. Or maybe I need more coffee.

Kitty said...

Colin, no, I don't think your "D" story overstepped the mark on this, although Darren probably objected to the Candy look-alike knocking the wind out of him.

Katie Loves Coffee said...

Adele - right?! Maybe she's an independent, sensible woman who realized the Toyota gets better gas mileage and fits her budget?

My $0.02 on beauty (sneaking in writing on the blog when my kiddos are napping, so forgive bad grammar or spelling), is that it shouldn't be the defining characteristic of any character, especially if you are writing from an omniscient POV.

Further, defining someone as simply beautiful limits the writing. Isn't it more interesting to for a love interest to see your character as beautiful because her blonde hair is tied back so it doesn't get caught in the lathe as she's machining a part? Maybe he's the kind of guy who appreciates a woman who likes to work hard. Now I know something about both characters I wouldn't have known by her long, flowing blond hair.

As far as the miniskirt example, I don't see anything wrong with writing a 19 YO guy noticing a woman in a miniskirt (if it fits the character/scene). Maybe his sister can call him out on it if the relationship dynamics make sense.

Dena Pawling said...

I tend to write characters with disabilities. In my current WIP, the only physical description of my MC is she's female, age 28, doesn't like her hair, and lost her left hand in a car accident.

I'm working on a flash story right now [less than 1000 words] with two characters, one of which the reader learns is a female high school sophomore with cerebral palsy. That's the only physical description of her. The boy in the story I don't describe beyond that he's male and a high school senior. No, they don't date. She's tutoring him for algebra.

Then there's the Bechdel test. Does the book have two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?

I think Kitty's and Donna's writing samples are excellent. When I grow up I want to write like they do.

Anonymous said...

This is not meant as a promotion but I'm in the right place. I'm in the middle of reading We are Not Good People by Jeff Somers and I was appreciating how Claire was described by the m/c. He is attracted to her and letting us know he is attracted to her but not once is she described as simply beautiful (not that I remember.) She's a bloody mess but there are things about her that are attractive to him. Attractive as in magnetics, I imagine. Good stuff. Back to my good Saturday morning read! And thanks three times, Janet. I think you just finished my novel for me. Donnaeve, great writing but I would object to projecting thoughts or lack of thoughts onto Laci. Now I need to buy your book. Thanks.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna, your writing haunting and evocative. I really can't wait to read your book. Wonderful stuff

Kae Bell said...

Lucie Witt's comment about responsibility caught my eye. What is a writer's responsibility? Across genre, subject matter, characterization, description? And at what point does writing about a non-typical protagonist become merely a gimmick to get noticed? Perhaps for another day.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Her name was Candy and it wasn't the only sweet thing about her...

Oh right, I wondered why that stuff had disappeared, so this is why paperbacks are line and half spaced, an inch and half thick and about: relationships now?

Leah B said...

This is oddly coincidental, since I opened this page while watching Master of None's "Indians on TV" episode. Great Netflix series, if you haven't watched.

Any time a book blurb or Kindle sample introduces a character with only physical descriptions--excepting something significant, like Harry Potter's scar--I die a little inside. I don't care if your MC is a leggy blonde bounty hunter with a heart of gold. That's boring. If your MC is a bounty hunter who lives in her Boba Fett t-shirt, that's interesting (to me, anyway).

Julie Weathers said...


I love that description of Laci.

Now I have to get back to my vapid southern belles.

Dena Pawling said...

Kae Bell - "And at what point does writing about a non-typical protagonist become merely a gimmick to get noticed?"

I'm no expert, but in my stories, if you take away the disability, the entire story falls apart. So as a starting point, I would say that if you can't take away the non-typical nature of the protagonist without it affecting the story, it might be a gimmick.

eap said...

Janet, you're awesome.

I think of description the way I think of all the words in an ms--they should be pulling their weight/working for the story.

So if Asshattius proudly tells his direct reports/people who can't really talk back about how he daydreams about flicking coins into the receptionist's cleavage (which Asshattius then salaciously describes for five minutes), well that's gross, but it might work for the story because we learn what kind of person Asshattius is pretty quick.

And being long-legged might be important to know about Melba if Melba's idea of a good time is to hide her petite roommate's cookies on the highest shelf in the kitchen and cackle while she struggles to scale the counter or ferret them out with a ruler.

Lisa Bodenheim--"There is a place for some descriptive detail of a character. Otherwise, the default image is of a white-skinned person."

I think that's a good point. Our skin color impacts how we see the world and how the world sees us. It's like age and gender--they're basic parts of a character that informs their worldview. They don't require pages to describe, but it's good to be aware of them.

Panda in Chief said...

I always think of excessive descriptions of beautiful, sexy women as "Cosmopolitan" writing. The magazine, not the drink. Really bad, overwrought descriptions with no substance. and yes, I read Cosmo during my misspent youth. Now I would be considered to be the most horrible of "Fashion Dont's" in that magazine.

I do, however, love the drink. Pink, and just a little bit dangerous in quantity.

BTW, I am enjoying Colin's A to Z flash fiction a lot. Way to go! haven't had time to dive in to many of the other A to Zers, other than The Art of Not getting Published. She is writing about things we think of as current phenomenons, but had counterparts in the 16th century. Fascinating!

Mark Ellis said...

Not sure if I'm guilty, I'll throw it to the group, this is the only descriptive passage about the MC, and occurs in the first paragraph of the novel:

In the reflection of the framed Tahiti poster, she caught a glimpse of herself—the sheer fall of straight brunet hair, the aquiline nose her mother always said was perfect. Despite these physical attributes, her visage looked tired and as pallid as the clouds outside, even in the camera obscura of the poster.

Unknown said...

In the real world we typically don’t notice perfect physical attributes first or most strongly. Frankly, we notice and remember the oddities. That said, our first memories/impressions of people are often the most strongly embedded, and our subconscious will resist any effort at changing them (just look at political supporters of he who shall not be named.) And so it is with our characters. Whatever image we manage to plant in the reader’s mind will persist throughout the book, unless we try to change it mid-stream, which only works to toss readers right out of the story.

Think about Elizabeth Bennet, the most awesome, beautiful, and kick-ass female protagonist of all time. By the time she meets Mr. Darcy every reader of Pride and Prejudice will have an exact and perfectly formed picture of her physical appearance. The strange thing about this that most readers don’t realize is that Jane Austin devotes not one word towards describing Elizabeth’s appearance until well after Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth meet. Then we get the justifiably famous quote “Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.” At this point his words perfectly match the view of Elizabeth we have already formed in our heads. This kind of artful writing is why Jane Austin is the most awesome and kick-as writer of any sex of all time.

Donnaeve said...

Mark, I, personally like the way you wrote your description. We're all likely guilty of Wee Woodland Critter Syndrome, the ever present worry, worry, worry about the creative descriptions we've used when QOTKU is trying to emphasize we should use a variety of techniques from no description to unique/creative ways to bring our characters to life.

As to what I plopped out here, you all are very kind. This feedback is encouraging/helpful, particularly when I'm trying to get to The End of this latest WIP and will soon be editing.

JSF, thank you for making this comment, "I would object to projecting thoughts or lack of thoughts onto Laci." I've been thinking about that since I read your comment. She's mute, but I'm hoping by what I have her sister say,(the MC)further along in this chapter, it's clear they don't believe she has zero thoughts, but more that they simply don't know what she's thinking. Actually the term I use in the beginning, by a doctor - keeping mind it's 1940 - is "idiot savant" what we today know more commonly as autism (variations of it galore). The mother of course, takes offense at the doc's comment. The character is musically gifted.

Dena - as you can see, I too am writing about a character with a disability, although she's not the MC. When diversity is discussed in writing, it definitely should include these types of stories.

OFF TOPIC: Remember how QOTKU kept thinking InkStainedWench was InkStainedWretch? I keep reading DeadSpiderEye as DeadEyeSpider.

Every. Time.

BJ Muntain said...

Robert: You touch on something I try to tell critique partners: description is okay, but if you give a description too late in the story, the reader is going to have their own view of the character already, and you'll pull the reader out when they realize the character they've been envisioning is wrong.

The fact that Darcy's description comes later, but so perfectly fits the reader's vision of Elizabeth, is artful writing indeed.

Mark: How important is it that we know she has brunette hair and an aquiline nose? The tiredness seems more important. Characters seeing themselves in a reflection and thus describing themselves is a bit overdone, and has to be done very well to be smooth enough.

Janet Reid said...

Mark, I'm not sure I've ever heard a woman describe her nose as anything other than "too big" "too small" "good work by the plastic surgeon" or "Dad's" or "Mom's"

The only time I've heard of a nose described as aquiline is by the docent in the art museum.

When women look in the mirror, I'm sorry to say, they first (and often only) see their (perceived) flaws.

Adib Khorram said...

Donnaeve: For the longest time I thought BJ Muntain was BJ Mountain! Sorry, BJ!

I think the distinction here is when the description is used as lazy writing versus when it is used to convey character. Kitty's example was full of voice and so it worked. Jenny C, what you describe is spot-on for many 19-year-old guys.

As with everything, you have to do it well.

Adib Khorram said...

I heard a nose described as aquiline in The Great Muppet Caper when Nicky Holiday is comparing several fashion models unfavorably to Miss Piggy.

Great scene.

Kae Bell said...

Dena, Really random factoid on missing hands. There is a Medal of Honor recipient named Leroy Petry who lost his right hand when he picked up a live grenade and threw it away from where he and his buddies were during a battle. When asked if he had any regrets about what he did, he says, no, except I wish I had picked it up with my left hand. He's right handed. Or was. Anyway. Stuff like that I find interesting for back story.

Leah B said...

Kae - "And at what point does writing about a non-typical protagonist become merely a gimmick to get noticed?"

Diversity is not a gimmick. Wanting my daughter to be able to read stories, watch movies or tv shows with characters that look like her or have her disability is not a gimmick. I'm so tired of people throwing the side eye and questioning motivations because there's someone who isn't a white guy is headlining the story.

Mark - I have two qualifications for descriptions. Is the description for the reader's benefit or the character's? Is it relevant to the plot? To me, the description sounds like your MC is telling the reader, "this is what I look like". Whether it's also plot relevant, I can't say.

Steph said...

Perfect timing on this blog! I just wasted an afternoon on a book that I spent most of my read fuming about. The author is someone I've read before, and usually I've found her books to be good, albeit fluff, reading. Today's book featured super-handsome soldier guy, mc was thinking about how hot he was even as he was an enormous jerk. Worse, was the way the mc was described, by self-reflection; honestly, how often do brilliant scientists usually think about the size and shape of their chests each day?! (Yeah, my fault for not stopping 50 pages in...)

Panda in Chief said...

Totally off topic: I just ordered The Education of Dixie Dupree! Huzzah! I hope you figure out how to do signed bookplates, Donna. I'll send you an SASE for one.

Can we practice popping champagne corks?

and Adib, who WOULDN'T be compared unfavorably to Miss Piggy? The most fabulously famous fatale in history?

Kae Bell said...

Leah B: "I'm so tired of people throwing the side eye and questioning motivations because there's someone who isn't a white guy is headlining the story."

While I did not use the word 'diversity' in my question, it fits. While you may speak for your own writing, it is difficult if not impossible to speak to the motivations of all writers. Sometimes people use differences as gimmicks. Sometimes not.

I stand by my question. Questioning people's questions is, well, questionable.

Julie Weathers said...

I deleted my previous post because I thought it made me look shallow, and maybe it does. I despise the way Trump focuses on beauty with the red hot passion of ten thousand Betelgeuses. He kept a picture of one of his female managers when she was fat and would flop it out on his desk whenever he was mad at her. She tells the story and says he only did it to make her a better person. What the hell is wrong with you woman?

Even so, I don't want to swing so far to the other side that we are afraid to use physical descriptions in our works or have attractive characters.

I was reading excerpts from a Civil War diary that is for sale last night. The young man is a Texas soldier who joins up and arrives at Gettysburg a few days after the battle. He's horrified that three days after the battle there are still bodies lying out with birds feasting on them. That'll cure your taste for chicken. He also, many times, mentions pretty girls bringing them treats, handing them flowers, waving at them. He comments on a girl with the prettiest blue eyes. These comments about pretty girls or handsome men in diaries are not uncommon.

While I agree a character should be more than their looks, it is a part of the sum total. I always include vibrant elderly characters, heavier ones, disabled because it's part of the real world just as attractive people are.

I dislike reading something where I don't have some idea of what the character looks like. Each to there own, but give me some foundation so I can differentiate them.

Lucie Witt said...

Kae Bell raises an interesting question - what is the writer's responsibility?

I think about this a lot. The best answer I have been able to come up with (YMMV) is that every writer has the responsibility to tell an honest story as well as they can. "As well as they can" means our responsibility to the technical side of the craft (grammar, structure, etc.). "An honest story" means a story that doesn't lean on tropes or stereotypes or caricatures.

(I love the singular they. Sorry for those of you who I know it makes you cringe).

Julie Weathers example of the confederate beauty is a good one. From her brief description that feels like a real woman. We know she's brave. We know her beauty is in some ways protecting her. Beautiful characters can be just as fully realized as any other. You can show the doors in life that open when you are beautiful and you can also show the doors that close. You can show how it complicates your relationship with other women, even your own family. That is, to me, real and honest writing that is NOTHING like the examples Janet gave.

Leah and Kae's comments about diversity, to me, are not mutually exclusive. Diversity is NOT a gimmick **and** unfortunately seem people might try to add diverse elements because they think it is a hot topic right now, without doing the proper research (for example, hard to avoid stereotypes when you don't know what the stereotypes are).

Good writing can present something that looks like a trope and make it sing. Like Omar on The Wire. Black man, lives in the inner city, drug dealer. Some writers would stop there. The writers in The Wire didn't, and the result is a character who is anything but stereotypical.

Julie Weathers said...


I've got a friend here in town who has two boys with long hair, and she gets the SAME thing! She dresses them in very boy type clothes. I'm talking Carhartt, t-shirts with tractors on them, boots, etc. It's crazy. --That describes both of my granddaughters and most girls who grow up on farms and ranches.

Julie Weathers said...

A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight-any Highlander, no matter how old, ill-favored, or crabbed in appearance. A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored young Highlander at close range is breath-taking.--Diana Gabaldon

Umm yeah

Scroll down a bit to Sam having fun in the Tartan parade in NYC today.

Cindy C said...

I can safely say I haven't relied on superficial physical description for my female protagonist because several of the folks who've read the opening have assumed the 1st person narrator is a man. In fact, early feedback I got was to make it clear this was a woman, otherwise readers will be upset when they realize it's a woman, as if I'd deliberately tricked them.

I've tried to do that by having her refer to herself using "her" as a pronoun because I really don't want to have her describe herself. This is something I'm struggling with in the revisions.

Donnaeve said...

Julie...Ha, good pt!

Her boys get really ticked off at this. "I not a giwl!!! I NOT!!!" says 3 yr old Wyatt. And five year old Brandt? He just rolls his eyes. It doesn't help he has eyelashes I'd kill for.

They are known in their "Glammy's" household as the, "wild West boys." (last name is West)

But yeah. Hey, I have camou wear and boots. I get it, and wouldn't imagine girls on a ranch wearing anything different. Most functional/work/sporting clothes are quite generic except for sizes/styling cuts.

John Frain said...

What a great post and set of comments. Interesting how opposite views can both be correct at different times and for different people. I can understand how someone desires sparse or zero description. Yet, some situations call for a little heavier amounts.

I'm reminded of Charles Schulz when asked why he never drew the little red-haired girl, the object of a shy Charlie Brown's affection. Schulz said everyone has their own little red-haired girl. As a reader, we could so put ourselves in Charlie Brown's shoes, that we put our own version of little red-haired girl in the story: gender, hair color and any other physical and non-physical characteristics. I've had over a dozen little red-haired girls, but that's all I'm saying.

Cheryl said...

Colin - But isn't the swotty girl with frizzy hair and big teeth a bit of a stereotype?

I agree, and it goes right along with all the people who complained that Denise Richards being cast as a nuclear scientist was unrealistic.

A broad range of intellect and a broad range of bodies. If men can have them, women can too.

Colin Smith said...

Cheryl: I know this generated some interesting discussion in our household. Was Hermione glamorized for Hollywood after year 2, or was she portrayed as being "normal"--even "pretty"--to counter the swotty girl stereotype? Some in our household simply objected to the movie taking such liberties with the character, and not sticking to the way JKR described her in the book. And that goes back to our discussion today. How much weight do we give to the author's character descriptions? One of the things I love about books is that there is no budget on your imagination, and you can create your own movie of the book as you read, casting whomever you want in the various roles. When you watch a movie, you're locked into the director's vision of the movie, which might be great... or it might not be.

Dee said...

Interesting thought:
If they did the debates in "Full Monty", would the news media rate the participants on what they said, or how badly their bodies sagged? Talk about stereotypes---

Maybe get then off the subject of comb-overs, though.


Mark Ellis said...

Thanks for the input on my description, especially nice to get a take from Janet. Aqualine is out for MC's self-described nose--something else is in.

Amy Schaefer said...

I object to grocery list-style descriptions of a character. Hair this, eyes that, skin tone such-and-such, musculature type x. So boring. So unnecessary. Now, if that description has relevance, especially through the POV of a character, then I'm interested. When X looks at daughter Y, does he see nothing but the mini version of his much-missed late wife? When Z watches her best friend running track like a gazelle, does it fire her own ambition to get out from under the two part-time jobs that are keeping her family afloat, and back to the running that she loves? That's where description matters. That's where you turn a cardboard cutout into a person. Stand that tall, leggy blonde in front of a room of people, and you should get a roomful of different reactions to her. Do they know? Is she kind? A bitch? Does she pick pockets? Go to school? Care for her aging grandmother? Did she have an accident that makes it hard to walk? What those people know or guess about that leggy blonde will color their description of her. Until that point, I'm not interested.

Julie Weathers said...


They gave Emma Stone false teeth to make her teeth more pronounced for the role and her hair was certainly frowsy.

Kids grow up and change. Recognize him?

Being a resident of Books and Writers, I see all the fandom descend and complain to high heaven because the actors don't match their ideas of what the Outlander characters should look like. I tend to avoid the fan threads, but I see the storms. It's amazing how many people argue with Diana about what her characters look like when she's the one who wrote the descriptions.

Mark Ellis said...

"Aquiline" yikes.

John Frain said...

Did you read Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain? I don't remember both cowboys off the top of my head, but one of 'em wasn't too easy to look at with buck teeth and a mop of hair. You sure didn't see that guy show up in the Hollywood movie version.

Right or wrong, Hollywood decided moviegoers pay more to see their favorite stars looking glamorous. So whether it's Harry Potter or scores of others, the stars on screen usually don't match their namesake in the book.

Leah B said...

Former comment was about 101% more incendiary than it needed to be.

Kae - "I stand by my question. Questioning people's questions is, well, questionable."

Your question is forcing minority characters to defend their existence. I will, 100% of the time, question that logic.

Julie Weathers said...

I rarely give characters full names unless there’s a purpose.--

Oh mine have full names. Lorena Dobbs McKenzie. Captain Baron Patrick Callahan. General Pierre Toutant-Gustave Beauregard. *sage nod*

I'm not sure why aquiline would be verboten. Cleopatra supposedly had an aquiline nose and that appearance was much admired in ancient Roman women. One of my young spies has an aquiline nose, which seems appropriate since his name is Hawkins and he has a decidedly hawkish appearance.

Anyway, as always, we each have our opinions of what we like.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Completely off-topic. It's Saturday evening here.

So QOTKU, what a lovely 25-year-old Macallan to have as part of your stash. Complements of a particular author in your Reef? I looked up that bottle of Single malt Scotch Whisky. Holymoly. I just spent that amount on a refrigerator, which I hope will last me a very long time.

I wonder if I have ingredients to make blonde bombshells. Those look pretty enticing too.

Mark Ellis said...

Julie, my sense of Janet's comment on the word aquiline was that it would work fine as an omniscient POV descriptor, but as a character's POV self-muse it's too formal.

Craig F said...

I have to admit That I like Lisa's thinking.

"My, Mr. Maccallan. what a lovely red label you have. You couldn't be a day over eighteen."

I'm actually the twenty five year old Maccallan."

"Really... Glug...Glug...Glug."

Scream at y'all tomorrow.

Julie Weathers said...


I'm misreading then. What's new? I tend to dislike characters describing themselves and I cannot stand the looking in the mirror device unless it's someone looking at a wound or new scar and musing.


Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

What Dena said: I believe in description of a character if it forwards something in the story. In one Novella I do describe the size if her naked breasts and the blondeness of her hair because they serve vital plot points. Our Heroine was cursed to wander as a ghost--naked, it turns out, as clothes aren't a part of our soul. nobody would help her because in 1916 England, nobody would take a naked ghost seriously. When her body is found, some of her blonde hair is stained dark after having lain in a crypt for a century.

My editor gave me grief because I hadn't given my hero any physical description other than 'neat and clean'. (story is told from his pov) Heaven forfend I forget to talk about his wavy blond locks.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Diversity is so much more than skin colour. It's about entire experiences and heritages. I love reading about diverse characters because it takes me into a whole other world. That said, I hate reading about 'white' characters who's skin has been painted dark just so she appears 'diverse'.

Me said...

I agree with Janet. Character development happens on the inside; it explains why they do what they do and why they are the way they are. Being blonde doesn't explain why a character does stuff. (It shouldn't anyway)

Anonymous said...

Appearance is a hot button topic for me -- I've spent years being judged by mine, including being told more than once that I couldn't possibly have written something because of my looks -- and I hope you all can appreciate the extreme self-restraint I'm exercising right now.

I will say that in the novella I wrote, I purposely didn't describe the physical appearance of either the male or female MC. There was a bit about the moonlight shining on her hair and a description of the look in his eyes, but that was the extent of it. After a few people I knew had read it, I asked what they imagined the characters looked like and the answers were really interesting. Everyone I asked came up with a slightly different description (including one guy who imagined the woman as being red-haired with a lot of freckles). None of them needed my help to "see" the characters. And not one of them described the characters the way I saw them in my mind.

Janet is right. Many writers need to re-think what they assume to be important when crafting characters who will be memorable to readers.

DLM said...

Mark, since you asked, I'm not wowed here. I've said for YEARS (Trump has nothing to do with it, this has always bothered me), "If I never read another scene where a woman looks at herself in a mirror and ponders her appeal, it will be too soon." As a first paragraph, there's no action here, no hook. No story.

I blogged about this today, and included one of Julia Sugarbaker's wonderful takedowns - and Donald Trump even rears his ugly head as she salts the earth. The video is here:, the good bit begins at 16:44, and The Donald is at 18:40. It is, as Dixie Carter always managed to be, glorious and magnificent. And I don't EVEN mean her looks.

Leah B: beautifully put.

Mark Ellis said...

DLM I take your (and others) point about women pondering themselves in the mirror, but think you misread; this sentence occurs in the first paragraph, it is not the first paragraph.

Colin Smith said...

Diane's link:

Heidi: That's an interesting observation--why do we always imagine ghosts would wear clothes? I can see how zombies would wear the clothes they were buried in, but ghosts are supposed to be the spirits of the departed. Do their clothes die too? I know, seriously off-topic, but I'd never thought about that before.

DLM said...

Mark, either way - this passage does not hook me into the story. The only information I have from this is that your character is tired and attractive.

Surely there are other ways to convey a character is fatigued - and many intriguing reasons they might be. Tell me *why* she is tired, or tease me about some important aspect of her character. If her appeal is in fact central to the story, make me understand why. Otherwise, put away the mirror compact and get me into the story. First pages - every word counts.

BJ Muntain said...

Adib: You are not alone. The number of times I've been called 'Mountain'... I can't count that high. :) Sometimes, if people really don't understand how to spell my name, I tell them "It's mountain without the 'o'." :)

Julie: You gave a quote by Diana Gabaldon (a great one) then mentioned Sam in a parade. I thought, "Sam Sykes? Cool!" I was actually disappointed that it wasn't. :)

Julie Weathers said...


Sorry about the Sam mix up. I remember years ago at Surrey having a drink with Sam (Sykes) at the bar and asking him what he was studying in college. Literature, but he was going to quit and start writing. I remember thinking, very motherly, "Oh, please finish college just in case." He seems to have done all right without my advice. It just goes to show. Don't listen to me.

I loved that Sam Heughan was having so much fun in the parade. Of course, I may be partial to kilts and bagpipes.

roadkills-r-us said...

Janet- THANK YOU. It's gotten to the point that I rarely read books containing descriptions like this anywhere near the beginning. When such occur, there needs to be a really good reason for it (as a couple of writers here have shown). But you've given me a great idea for a short story. Thanks.

Luci- hear, hear!

Colin- I think Rowling nailed it. She does use stereotypes, but she uses them to excellent effect, eventually turning them inside out. She makes us think about them.

Kitty- I love the way you think. I want to read the nameless story!

Jenny- I would say the majority of 19 year old boys would track that girl, whether they meant to or not. Guys are generally wired to react visually. That's not necessarily good or bad; it's how they deal with it that ultimately makes the difference. (I'm not excusing anything, BTW. Learning to control yourself matters.)

Heidi/Colin- I suspect ghosts traditionally wear clothes because ghost stories make their biggest marks on kids, and traditional western mores are typically terrified of kids thinking about nudity.

When I was talking to artists about cover art and illustrations for YOTDL, I came to realize that I had left a great deal to the reader's imagination in terms of many characters' looks. Among other things, that means that if I ask someone to draw a dragon for my book, and it doesn't violate what I have written, it may not look much like what I imagined. And that's OK; if the artist clearly saw something, I did my job. Several people have told me that they love how much detail I have in my books, how they can see the characters clearly. They didn't notice that I don't describe the characters much in a physical sense. This makes me extremely happy.

One of the few writers I love who uses a great deal of physical detail is Tolkien. I know his style drives some people crazy but I love it. Different readers like different levels of description. That's good, because so do various writers!

Anonymous said...

I just want to say: oh my goodness, YES.

And it goes the same for those YA authors who write about teenaged boys the same way. Telling us about the guy's abs, dreamy eyes, or rippling muscles, is not a substitute for giving him a personality, even if he IS part of your infernal love triangle...

abnormalalien said...

I saw this yesterday but I still find it absolutely hilarious. Particularly the leggy physicist. While there are occasional tall, skinny dudes with nerdy glasses, if any author had ever spent more than 10 minutes in an actual physics department, they would know a more accurate stereotype. Which is: elderly man of non-guessable age with white (or grey) hair. A bald spot that is conveniently combed over with the long wispy side strands. Often short or stooped. Lot's of plain slacks and button up shirts but my favorites are the ones with elbow pads. What the heck are those for anyway?!

Oh and if there happens to be someone in the department under the age of 50 (hello new faculty, post-docs, grad-students), their wardrobe is almost singularly long sleeve, blue button up shirt (of the more casual, possible denim variety not fancy schmancy) with jeans or slacks.

However, there are very few I would describe as "leggy."

DLM said...

abnormalalien, I spent great swaths of my childhood in a physics department, as the child of a prof. True it may be they're seldom Barbies, but let it not be said there are not some cute physicists... Especially the student lab assistants, of course. Back in the 70s/80s/even the 90s, there were scarcely any women at all.

My dad, in the space of one year's worth of retirements, went from the youngest member of the physics faculty to the eldest. One of the new hires that year, we knew was called The Physics God by his students. That was probably about 25 years ago now, and I have some extremely fond memories of They Physics God, who was always a good friend and a good colleague to my dad. He grew older gracefully, and as far as I know he's well on the road to being a very distinguished God Emeritus indeed. It doesn't hurt his looks at all, that he also happens to be a very fine human being.

abnormalalien said...

Ha DLM, you are quite correct; I never intended to say that there aren't cute physicists. In fact, there are many attractive physicists. But when I hear the term leggy I don't think Barbie leggy, I think scrawny, tall, lanky looking. That whole geeky/nerd stereotype propagated by the media and entertainment. To be fair, I haven't seen many Barbie leggy physicists either; women physicists don't seem to follow any stereotype at all in my experience. Short, tall, fat, skinny, average, glasses or no glasses, all hair colors, skin tones. All different dressing styles. What I meant was that the nerdy stereotype just isn't right often. In our department, older men with comb overs and blue shirts just happens to be the thing.