If you go for the Gerber baby type, I come from a family of very cute babies. For a variety of reasons, it’s not something the relatives comment on, which, blissfully—perhaps especially for a girl—meant a youth engaged in action, not image. The grandparents and aunts and parents talked up deeds (working hard, tucking in your shirt) rather than genetic inheritance (being tall or smart, having a marketable ratio of long-twitch to short-twitch muscle), and largely they were successful. I only learned how to do makeup after being in community theater, and after meeting someone, I can far more readily tell you, say, their stand on gender roles than their eye color.
My family’s efforts didn’t mean we were never judged on our appearance, of course. A woman told my grandmother what a darling child I was, and then heaved a big sigh and said, “If only she had blue eyes.” (As a four-year-old, I thought this statement was ridiculous; how on earth would I have anything but my eyes?) I got a job outright on my looks once: when I lived in Japan, a man chased me down shouting “California girl! California girl!” He wanted me to offer grapefruit samples to the customers at a high-end supermarket. I was kitted out with a red-and-white striped apron and I got to eat lunch in the staff cafeteria; this is why I know how to say “Don’t worry, it’s not sour” in Japanese.
Perhaps the family training is why my early drafts have very little description in them. It’s not the first thing I think about, usually, when I’m getting engaged with a story idea. It certainly hasn’t been a plot point, but a moment of what I thought was Divaliciousness may be just that.
I’m messing around with another novel idea. The hero of this one was a secondary character in my NaNo project, so he’s familiar to me, and the heroine is an archeologist or a geologist or a geologist disguised as an archeologist—haven’t gotten that far into the mystery yet to figure it out—but at some point they have to escape from Turkey. This will be difficult in part because they are both blond, and I spent some amount of time stomping around the other day trying to figure out how they could pull this off, and why. Why couldn’t I just make them dark-haired, if it was giving me such trouble? I haven’t written a word of this thing; I hardly have an outline.
I don’t know, that’s why. Because I can’t.
At some point in the stomp it was time to take a bath, and it hit me. Gaspard, this blond hero, is a child of immigrants to France, and had a tough time as a child. This I already knew from NaNo. Now I realized that sometimes being blond was, he felt, the one characteristic that made him like the natives; it was his ticket to move up and out. So when this badge has to be hidden, it’s going to be a pang.
I don’t know how or even if any of that is going to show up in the novel. But the hair color has now become part of who Gaspard is, not just a convenient bit of data. It’ll help me build a coherent personality for him as I continue the story.
8 thoughts on “Identity and Appearance”
Lots of good food for thought here. And very true that while appearance may not be important to “us” (or to our characters), it is very often important to others.
SO many judgments are made based solely on appearance– one of the reasons I like “meeting” people on the internet, actually. You are forced to weigh a person’s words instead of their physical appearance (says someone who has too often been judged at first glance and dismissed as a dumb blonde).
One of the luxuries of being a white person in America is that this obvious overt reaction to our appearance isn’t usually the main event. It turns out I write a lot of things about identity, but this is the first story where what someone looks like is turning into a story point, and not just my mood about what actor photos I want to look at for inspiration while writing.
It’s amazing how a simple think like hair color can provide such an enormous block to a writer… or person. You’re right, Gaspard’s attachment to being blonde never needs to make it into your story, but just that YOU know it may be enough. Btw, what color are his eyes… it’ll make all the difference in the world whether I like him or not haha
All kidding aside, when writing screenplays, we are specifically taught NOT to describe characters hair color, eye color, height, etc because it will limit how the role can be cast. If its not important to the story itself, we’re taught to leave it out completely.
Ha–he has whatever color eyes Jude Law has (and most harmonious those are). Which had nothing to do with why I was reluctant to change the hair color.
I totally empathize on the screenplay front. I’m working on a project that the director-filmmaker is now thinking of shooting in New Mexico for a variety of reasons. Not just any physical description, but I’m thinking half the last names will need to be changed once we cast. A screenplay holds a different place in the process of imagining the story than a novel, doesn’t it.
I really like your family for not focusing on appearance and genetics – unfortunately my family was not so advanced in that thinking.
So yes, to an extent appearance is important to me when I write. But for me it’s more about visual clues as to a characters personality. I meet the characters before I get the full story, and they don’t talk to me much when they first get formed. I have to learn their personalities by the way they move, dress, react, then talk to them.
Interesting aspect on screenwriting, not adding any physical limiters. I remember when Eragon was made into a movie, the characters had different hair styles, colors, even personalities, etc and it bugged me because it wasn’t like that in the book.
Good thing screenwriters take that out of the equation, and don’t have to deal with fans getting nitpicky about appearance lol.
Some characterization tip I got somewhere–it’s not just how they look, but why. So the guy wears khakis and oxford shirts . . . because he’s colorblind (my dad always got tweed jackets on deep discount–the mustard-colored ones no one else wanted but he thought were gray) . . . because he’s trying to blend in . . . because he’s sick of arguing with his mom about appropriate attire . . because his roommate made a bet. . . . For me the fact that a character is capitulating to his mom’s tastes is likely to come first, and then I’ll pick the outfit.
Great post, and so true. I tend to give just enough description for the reader to be grounded in the scene and have an idea what the characters look like. Get me to the action and the plot first, I’ll fill in later what everyone looks like.
RE: escaping from Turkey– The southern portion of Turkey has a substantial Kurdish population. You might investigate Kurdish dress customs to determine whether there’s some sort of indigenous headgear that would work to hide their blondness.
The whole post, though, hearkens to some things I wrote recently on revising one’s characters, and specifically, an article on how to think about physical attributes in context of a character’s whole self-image and outlook on life. In case it helps, here it is: