It occurs to me that in yesterday’s blog post about the protagonist for my upcoming NaNo novel, I didn’t provide a physical description of Fiarra. In fact, in a lot of what I write I don’t describe or mention physical aspects of characters much, beyond gender (essential for pronouns), characters’ ages (though these are often relative to one another than absolute) and occasionally general information like height and build.
I often struggle to visualise characters – both when reading and when writing. Even when characters are described in detail, I often forget the “identity card” type details – hair colour, eye colour, that sort of thing – and remember the “personality” details, the scruffy coat, the smart shoes, the styled hair, the preference for wearing ties. I remember the character’s choice of appearance, not what genetics has gifted them. When I do physically describe characters, that’s the way I describe them primarily.
Novels aren’t a visual medium. They’re verbal. We have words only to establish character. Unlike visual media like screen, stage and comic formats, we can’t rely on the audience knowing what a character looks like. We can’t insert subtle visual cues to reveal character; all characterisation must be revealed explicitly through words on the page.
And because novels aren’t visual, because they are read and not seen, it is a character’s actions and voice that distinguish them from one another. Physically they could be identical clones, provided that their personalities are distinguishable. On screen, perfect clones would soon get confusing and visual clues are needed, such as clothing or hair styles, or the addition of a beard for versions from the evil parallel universe.
I don’t put much store on characters’ physical appearances. I don’t deliberately ignore it, but I don’t go looking for places to make things known either. Often I don’t know until I write it what colour hair a character has, how tall they are, what their build is. I rarely have an image in my head of what a character looks like when I’m writing them. As long as they are formed solely of words, what they look like feels irrelevant; considering it is an indulgence, not a necessity.
But am I missing out? Is it easier to write a character when you know what they look like, or is their personality enough?