Tag Archives: the significance of physical description in fiction writing

Here’s Lookin’ at you, Kid

I recently read a really good article by Margaret Atwood (I can’t find a link to it online, which is a shame) about the importance of dressing your fictional characters, and getting it right. She talked about the fashion cut-out games she used to play with as a child during the war, where you took printed ‘dolls’ and printed clothes, cut around the outlines, and used one to dress the other in any way you pleased. I remember them from my own childhood, too; they were endless fun, particularly the ones you could colour in yourself. Customisation, baby. It’s key.

The point of talking about dolls was to illustrate the importance of clothes, appearances, and the descriptions thereof in your writing. For Atwood, this appears to be important; she discussed the lengths to which she went in order to get the clothes right for her novel Alias Grace, which is set in a women’s prison in nineteenth-century Canada, for instance, which involved months of painstaking work. Only the most astute of readers would have known, in all likelihood, if she had got it wrong, but that’s not the sort of writer Atwood is. She also wrote about her influences when designing the clothing for the characters in her masterwork The Handmaid’s Tale, which drew on historical sources as well as advertising imagery from her youth. She argued, persuasively, that clothing ‘maketh’ the setting – if a reader can’t believe in a character’s clothing (i.e. it’s not functional for the role they’re playing in their world, and completely logical and sensible and ultimately, easy to picture) it undermines the whole believability of the story.

Well, yes. I found myself nodding along with all this, agreeing wholeheartedly – and then realising, like a slap across the chops, that I don’t do any of this in my own writing. None of it. In fact, something I tend not to do at all is describe the people in my stories, unless it’s a situation where they have three heads, perhaps, and that knowledge is vital to the reader’s understanding of the plot. In my most ‘finished’ work to date, my début novel The Eye of the North, I don’t describe my main character very much besides the fact that she’s wearing a dress. What colour is the dress? I never say. What fabric is it made from? Unspecified. Her coat? The same. She’s wearing one, but it could be black, or blue, or canary yellow. It could be a floor-length, fur-collared beauty, or a dinner jacket. This never struck me as being significant; as a reader, I tend to like it when writers leave imaginative space around a character’s looks, so that we can picture whoever we like in the lead role.

But maybe I’m wrong about that.

It could also be down to the fact that I, as a human person separate from my writing life, do not care about clothes at all. My mother despairs of me. I have, at most, two pairs of wearable jeans (one for the body and one for the wash – it’s logical, right?) and maybe three or four shirts/tops which I alternate, without a lot of thought as to fashion, colour coordination, and so on. If something fits me, I wear it. If it’s clean, all the better. I’ve never been fashionable, because it just doesn’t come into my sphere. I’m interested in fashion as a human endeavour, and as an art form, and I love the style of the forties and fifties, for instance – but I’m entirely the wrong shape, everywhere, to dress like a glamourpuss from the war era. For me, it’s strictly an ‘admiration from a distance’ thing. So, maybe that’s why I don’t dwell overmuch on physical appearance in my writing. Emmeline (my main character) is described, in sketchy terms, somewhere near the end of my book, but as a throwaway comment; how she looks isn’t important to the fact that she’s strong, independent, intelligent and resourceful. Her dress is only described when it gets in the way, and likewise her boots. Essentially, Emmeline dresses for convenience, a lot like me.

I wonder if I’m alone in not being too invested in an author’s physical descriptions of their characters, though. I love Haruki Murakami, for instance, but one thing that drives me round the twist with that author is his tendency to linger, rather lasciviously, on the physical attributes of his female characters. It irritates me both because it’s not necessary but also because it’s rather unrealistic, and makes me think ‘oh, yes. Here’s the author again, intervening in the thoughts of his made-up people.’ I also tend to get annoyed when an author introduces a character to us by saying something like: ‘And then Tony turned the corner and there was Billy, all six-foot-four of him, his straw-yellow hair askew beneath his flat cap. He turned, his bright green eyes lighting up as he smiled at his oldest friend, the gap between his front teeth making his broad, sunburned face look relaxed and almost childlike. He took a step in Tony’s direction, holding out one broad, rough-palmed hand in welcome.’ I’d rather know that Tony had to look up to meet Billy’s gaze (hence, he’s tall), or that a gust of wind knocked the hat off his head (hence, he was wearing one), and have him talk about his work outdoors (hence, allowing us to imagine that he’s sunburned and weather-beaten). Is it just me?

Anyway. Next month, with any luck, I’ll be starting the edits for The Eye of the North. We’ll see, then, what my editor thinks of my tendency not to describe the physicality of my characters. There may be wailing and gnashing of teeth – and lots of research into fabric, dress design and ruffles. I shudder at the thought!