So If You’re a Redhead, a Blonde or Brunette*

Physical AppearanceOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dennis Lynds, Gladys Mitchell, Michael Collins, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Rex Stout, Sarah Caudwell

27 responses to “So If You’re a Redhead, a Blonde or Brunette*

  1. Margot-
    While we may have good descriptions of the physical appearances of Holmes, Poirot and Wolfe, what about the narrators? I don’t remember ever reading a detailed description of Watson, Hastings or Goodwin in any of their novels.
    Rob Smith

    • You know, Rob, you have an excellent point! The only things we know, for instance, about Hastings is that he is taller than Poirot and has a ‘toothbrush’ moustache. And we don’t know even that much about Watson or Goodwin. That may have been deliberate, done for the purpose of calling attention to the ‘main’ sleuths. But whether it was or wasn’t, you’re right that it doesn’t provide us with much information at all. That’s really interesting ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  2. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    To describe or NOT to decide; that is the question!

  3. Interesting post, Margot. Hmm, I prefer to describe characters–especially important or recurring characters–by “piecemealing” their descriptions instead of an “all at once” approach. My protag PI, Mac McClellan, has an “eye” for women. He usually describes the ladies by telling how they “fill out” certain items of clothing or the like, and usually with a touch of humor. Other “one appearance” of very minor characters will get a word or two, usually honing in on one or two striking assets they might have, whether it be “a mouth with a few yellow teeth” or “the buttons threatened to pop off her blouse.”
    Unseen descriptions–what makes a certain character “tick”–are very important also. It’s not always easy to let the reader “see” what cannot be seen. 🙂

    • That’s true enough, Michael! And it can be tricky to let readers know what a character is like in a natural way (i.e. without ‘information dump’). Thanks for sharing the way you go about describing your characters. I think it’s interesting (and effective) that you describe them in terms of how your protagonist sees them. Not only is that logical, but it also gives you a way of showing (not telling) what your protagonist is like. Mack finds women attractive, so it makes sense that he’d notice their figures. Another character might see the same woman as lively/smart/flighty/dangerous/whatever. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Interesting! My first reaction was to say I don’t care at all, but then of course your examples… appearance is important with Holmes, Poirot and Wolfe in explaining their characters somewhat. So I guess I care so long as it’s relevant. But I do prefer to be told in drips and drops as the story goes along rather than being given a physical description every time a character appears. I read one book which shall remain nameless (but was a much-hyped book version of a TV series) where one of the main characters was described about a thousand times with only the slightest variation in words – including what he was wearing each time, which seemed somewhat redundant since he wore the same red overalls throughout! And every time the female character was mentioned there was a reference to her large staring eyes. I was at screaming pitch by halfway through… 😉

    • 😆 Now that’s a great mental image, FictionFan! I understand precisely what you mean, though. That sort of verbiage really is tiresome, particularly when it adds nothing to the plot. And that really gets at the heart of what you’re saying, I think. Physical description can add to a story – can even be important to it – if something about it really serves the story. It’s when it doesn’t serve the story, or is repetitive, that it’s a problem. And I couldn’t agree with you more on that.

  5. Margot, I like the descriptions of Holmes and Poirot. I read them now after a long time. I don’t pay much attention to appearances unless I’m reading a Western, in which case I soak in all the details from the cowboy to the gunman and from the town’s only saloon to the distant ranches. I agree, the way a particular character looks would lift a story in so many ways, as Moira continues to inform us through her clothes in books (or clothes on characters) posts.

    • You’re so right about Moira’s blog, Prashant. It’s a treasure trove of insights on the way characters dress, among other things. And there’s definitely something about the atmosphere of the Western town, with a saloon, the sheriff’s office, and so on. It’s a wonderful context for a novel.

  6. Less is better for me. I only want to know characteristics relevant to the story. Otherwise I imagine my own people. I think this has changed a lot over time. I am amazed at the detail Golden Age books give.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Patti, about the difference between classic/GA mysteries and today’s. Certainly there are different emphases than there were at that time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more physical detail then than there is now. Hmmm…..something to ponder, for which thanks.

  7. tracybham

    I enjoy descriptions when they are there, but honestly I forget about them and have my own image of the characters, especially the main characters. Nero Wolfe is an exception of course.

    • That’s interesting, Tracy! I suppose we all have our way of thinking about what a protagonist looks like, whether that image ‘fits’ what the author had in mind or not.I think that’s one of the fascinating things about people – the different ways in which we think.

  8. This is an interesting in isn’t it Margot? I wonder if it’s to do with what sort of learner the writer is: kinesetic, visual or auditory. If they are kinesetic they may describe how the detective is feeling, visual and they will tell you what they look like, auditory and their character may huff or cough … just a thought 🙂

    • And an intriguing one at that, D.S.! Certainly our different intelligences impact the way we look at the world and experience it. So it makes complete sense that writers would be influenced in that way. And so (probably) would their stories. That really makes sense to me. And it is interesting to think about the different ways in which authors invite you to get to know their characters. I really appreciate the ‘food for thought.’ 🙂

      • It’s one I’ve been mulling for a while. I’m a kinesetic learner and I think this shows through in Blake and Delilah. I sometimes like to try and guess what other writers are when I’m reading too 🙂

  9. Thanks for the mention, Margot and Prashant! This topic is right up my street because I count on good descriptions to enable me to find the right picture. But I do understand that sometimes less is more with descriptions. Apparently in the best-selling YA Twilight books, the heroine was never described, with the idea that young female readers could insert their own selves in the character…

    • Oh, now that is an interesting point, Moira! Allowing the reader to, in a sense, put herself in the story. Hmmm….intriguing. And if that’s the goal, I can see why one would want to leave the description up to the imagination. But yes, I’m sure it’s a lot easier for you to imagine what someone’s appearance and clothes are like if you have a solid description. Sometimes I think it’s a bit tricky to get the balance right.

  10. Howard

    Glad to see Michael Dibdin mentioned. The Aurelio Zen novels are unusual and quirky and I have loved every one of them. I was so saddened to read of Dibdin’s death.

    I’d recommend “Ratking” as a good place to start, unless you, like me, like to begin at the beginning of the character. Either way, read Dibdin!

  11. kathyd

    Well, with Nero Wolfe, one has to know his description because it’s part of the enjoyment of the books. If he were an average-looking man who wears average-looking clothes, would we be so intrigued and entertained?
    Now, Guy Pearce plays Jack Irish, so he’s obviously a handsome guy. And the gorgeous Rufus Sewell, from Britain, plays the very Italian Aurelio Zen. So we have a mental picture of both of these characters from the TV shows.

    I don’t always know what characters look like. I don’t know what Guido Brunetti looks like or Paola Falier, or Elettra Zorzi, but the TV shows portray their appearances, a few to my surprise.
    And one of my favorite U.S. private eyes is V.I. Warshawski. I don’t know about her appearance, except her age. We know she’s physically fit. But when I saw at Sara Paretsky’s web site what the author thinks her character looks like, I was shocked.
    So, it’s often hard to know.

    • It is hard to know, Kathy, isn’t it? There’s something about knowing a character’s physical appearance (and your example of Wolfe is a great one). And in some cases, it’s really important to having an understanding of the character. On the other hand, if you don’t have a clear description, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t really enjoy that character. And you make a solid point, too, about the way we sometimes get a strong mental picture from watching a TV adaptation.

  12. I like to know a couple of defining qualities of the character but prefer the rest be left to my imagination.

  13. What an interesting post – I’d say if we have scant details I tend to imagine the character from their ‘voice’ especially if it reminds me of someone I know. I definitely don’t need to know what colour their hair or eyes are for instance but I do like something to go on even if that is fairly non-descript.

    • There is a balance, isn’t there, Cleo? Some information is useful, but readers don’t need every detail in order to use their imaginations. And there are other ways to envision a character. I like your use of the word ‘voice;’ that’s exactly the word for it, I think.

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