One of the many benefits of reading is that it allows us to use our imaginations. In fact, I think most readers probably don’t want every detail provided to them. Not only does that get tedious, but it can also be insulting. So authors tend to leave some things to the reader’s imagination.
But what about physical descriptions? Should the author give a lot of detail about what a main character looks like? Do readers want to know whether a character is short or tall, heavy or slender, dark-haired or blond/e? Many people would say they want to know at least a bit about a main character’s physical appearance. But of course, there’s the risk of giving so much detail that it becomes burdensome.
Some authors have provided quite a bit of information about character appearance, and that has its advantages. It’s easy for the reader to conjure up the image the author intended. And the author can make a character distinctive (e.g. Dennis Lyndes’/Michael Collins’ one-armed PI Dan Fortune). And that sets a character apart from others.
For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle was quite specific about Sherlock Holmes’ physical appearance. Fans know that Holmes is,
‘…rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’
This description and a few other details that come up in the stories has made Holmes as iconic a physical presence as anything else.
The same may be said of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Captain Hastings describes him,
‘He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible.’
Poirot’s luxurious moustache and his sense of the sartorial have also provided readers with a very clear visual image of what he looks like. So, casting directors have had a very specific ‘look’ they’ve wanted for those who’ve portrayed Poirot on the screen (with all due respect, David Suchet is Poirot. Just sayin’). Christie’s Miss Marple isn’t described in quite as much detail, but Christie makes it clear what she looks like.
There’s also Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s well-known for his bulk, his large head, and his yellow silk pyjamas. Of course, Wolfe has linguistic idiosyncrasies, too, that make him distinct. But even if you consider just his physical attributes, it’s easy for readers to develop a solid mental image of what he looks like and how he moves. I know, I know, fans of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley.
On the other hand, though, there are plenty of fictional sleuths whose appearance isn’t described, or is only briefly alluded to, with few details. One of the most famous is Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar. Tamar is a former Oxford don, who now serves as a sort of mentor to a group of young London lawyers. Granted, this series is only four books long. But within that span, we are never even told Tamar’s sex, let alone other physical details. It’s left completely up to the reader’s imagination what this character really looks like.
There’s also little given about Peter Temple’s Jack Irish. We can get a very rough approximation of his age (not in his first youth, but at the same time, not in late middle age, either). We also know that he’s a ‘regular guy,’ so he’s not a formal dresser. But we’re not given detailed information about what he looks like.
We aren’t told an awful lot about what Michael Dibdin’ Aurelio Zen looks like, either. We know that he’s Italian, and that he’s based in Rome. And we can make a few probably logical guesses as to his general appearance. But we don’t really get a lot of information about it. So it’s left up to the imagination.
And some readers like it that way. They prefer to make up their own minds as to whether a character is tall or short, has long or short hair, is heavy or not, and so on. Other readers want more detail than that. In fact, on an interesting note, when I was planning this post, I found there were many more instances of characters who are described, at least somewhat, than of those who are not. That makes sense, when you consider how much we rely on physical appearance to help us identify people. In fiction, physical appearance can also be an important element of character development.
Where do you stand on this? Do you like to have a lot of detail about what a character looks like? Do you prefer no detail at all? Perhaps you’re the sort of reader who’s happy with vague description (e.g. tall and middle-aged, with a slight beer gut). If you’re a writer, how much detail do you provide?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (It’s) Hairspray.