October 18, 2011

Well, Why Not?

For those not in the know, I am doing a series of question-and-answer posts: you ask the question, I (hopefully) invent the answer. If you have one to ask, you can just drop a comment on this post or on You Haven't Got an Appointment. Rachel got the first comment in with a couple of inquiries, but I'm going to take her last one first:

Do you disagree with Sarah Stanley from The Story Girl [L.M. Montgomery] in the thought that if you're going to the trouble to make up a character, why not make them good-looking?

What a fun question! First off, I will say that so far none of my characters have been either very good-looking or horribly ugly. In fact, I rarely describe his or her appearance in detail; the pictures that the reader gathers are based on other characters' comments and the main character's actions. In The Soldier's Cross there are only a few comments made about Fiona's lack of any striking beauty; in Wordcrafter it is not much that Justin is ugly, but rather that he pales in comparison to Ethan. Nor is it so much that Ethan is handsome, but that he is so full of life that one forgets he isn't handsome. Tip of The White Sail's Shaking is a very awkward, clumsy fellow, not hideous, but plain and stiff and not exactly a lady-killer.

[Charlie] lowered his drink again and swished it, replying with a clever sidelong look at Tip, “Aye, and it’s not as if you have any looks to recommend you. Anyhow,” he continued, “at least you scared those women away. There is some advantage to your clumsiness.”

That being said, my main characters' looks were not intentional. They just showed up that way. Personally I think that, in moderation, Sarah's remark is true: if you're going to create a character, I see no reason why he or she shouldn't be handsome. One can either go too far to one side and have the character be ridiculously beautiful, or too far to the other and have them constantly bemoaning the fact that they're so hideous. I like a mix of both pretty and plain, and I think the best way to go about it is not to spend too much time fretting about the character's looks. The more you say "his grave and handsome face..." or "her beautiful sad eyes," the more the reader will be annoyed and dislike the person.

I remember reading several of Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence novels and absolutely loving the characters, and then noticing a phrase like "Tommy's homely face..." My first thought was that Christie had gotten it wrong, because I always thought of Tommy as very good-looking. She had never described either him or Tuppence before, but I created a very pleasant picture of each in my head from their actions and attitudes. So less is more, as the saying goes.


  1. Rather Greekishly, I've found that my more striking female characters usually discover their inadvertent good looks coming back around to bite them. One would be left much more alone if one were less pretty. It's a hard world.

    As a visual example, I find this happening in "Merlin." Colin Morgan, I'm sorry to say, hasn't got the chiseled jaw and other features that are typically called "handsome." As a matter of fact, he looks a little silly at times. But even though I can see his face (which one can't do so well with people in books) the character of Merlin shines through and makes his appearance sweet, endearing, and strong. You know Tiberius Lucius Justinianus is like this too, but I find it more remarkable in a flesh-and-blood person.

  2. Aw! Good answers, Abigail! :) Thanks for answering so promptly! :D

  3. I always imagined Justin hansome, but in a differant way than Ethan. Ethan is strong and rather wild, but Justin, less muscled and a city dweller (I always imagine a slim, trim figure) is somewhat of a debonair? handsome like a gentleman in a suit and top hat. Each has their differances, strengths and weaknesses, but that what makes them amazing together. Like two sides of a coin, perhaps?

  4. Jenny - I thought of Merlin, too. That's the wonderful thing about that show: the actors and actresses aren't striking, but they can act. And also I thought of Sutcliff's Justin. Great minds think alike, maybe...? Or related minds, at least.

    Rachel - I may still call you Rachel, mayn't I? I really enjoyed answering! I'm glad you liked the results.

    Lilly - I think of Justin as handsome, too, and he does fill out some later in the story, but objectively I know he isn't. He's fairly plain. Ethan's certainly not plain, but he has too many odd features to be reckoned "handsome" in the conventional sense.

    "The half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole," to quote the Great Dragon and bring this conversation full circle.

  5. ...glomping on to the Merlin tangent, even Bradley James has the crooked teeth, and consequently I think a bit of orthodontia would spoil his looks as far as interesting things go. There is a point where one stops looking real and starts looking made up. And that is why I respect the BBC far more than Hollywood; they are able to create characters without the overload of Crest Whitening Products.

    More on topic, I think your solution (Abigail) is a good one: give subjective statements on the attractiveness of characters to other characters. It is no good for an author to say "she was attractive" when the reader clearly understands from the words and actions of the character that she is a no-good brat; in fact, it often works to the opposite effect. Words like "plain" and "beautiful" are a little better, but in excess they still begin to grate. Of course, the goal is to create characters of great beauty (greater, I hope, than merely "she had curly red locks and emerald eyes") - but at the end of the day, if the reader doesn't understand the appeal of a character without the author repeatedly saying "This is an appealing character," the author is (I would say) doing a very poor job, and that ought to put readers off far more than a few crooked teeth or large noses.

  6. Personally I think Bradley James, as Arthur, couldn't have nearly as many hilarious facial expressions if it weren't for his teeth. (I mean, his teeth as they are. Obviously any of his expressions would be quite frightening if he didn't have any teeth.)

    But moving on - you're right, Anna. And it's not really a tangent to pull "Merlin" into the discussion (although those who haven't watched the show are going "Say wha--?") because it exemplifies the point of this post. As writers, we want to create characters who are appreciated for themselves, not their looks; as actors, the cast of shows like "Merlin" are striving to make their particular character shine, not to look good themselves.

    It's one of those balances, I think, that you have to get through practice and through reading good literature. On the one hand the reader wants to have some mental picture of the protagonist, but on the other hand, too much physical description detracts from the real point: a good character.

  7. I can't help but comment on a weeks-old post, because reading the Merlin tangent gave me a good chuckle. I love Merlin and other BBC shows of the same type because they're so real and intriguing - that is, the characters, the acting, and the plot. It's rare to find any media or novel that has such a great balance of all three.

    Also, I prefer Bradley James and Colin Morgan just as they are, because they are quirky, and that's what makes them so endearing. In fact, I find them almost more handsome because they aren't perfect. I find myself more intrigued by the imperfections of people. If they're perfect, they're boring, which is why I try to give each of my characters a flaw or two.

    But I digress. Now, math awaits me. Algebra doesn't seem half so interesting in comparison to Merlin. :P

  8. Naturally, Algebra can't hold a candle to Merlin!

    I greatly appreciate the emphasis the British put on acting over looks; my family watches many more British productions than American for that reason. All the good American actors and actresses seem to be dead now. It's such a pity.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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