It’s always a probem to know how to describe a character’s physical appearance. Often the best course is to say as little as possible, especially if it isn’t relevant to the plot. Better for the reader to form his or her own picture. The more effort the reader puts into this, the more personal and intense will be the imagined result. That’s one of the reasons why films of favourite books often prove so disappointing, and why authors who have any sense will oppose the depiction of characters on covers.
In the new novel I am working on now, the heroine is merely described (so far) as having “kindly, beautiful, greenish eyes”, while her identical twin has “auburn hair”. The rest of it can be deduced by the reader according to the reaction she produces in the other characters.
A hoary and overworked ploy is to tell the reader that the character resembles some famous person. Long ago I read a novel by John Barth in which the protagonist looked just like Gregory Peck. That was OK to the extent that everyone at that time had seen Gregory Peck at the pictures; not OK to the extent that, while Greg was to a large extent typecast (e.g. his roles in Cape Fear or To Kill a Mockingbird), he also played the weapons-grade nutter, Ahab, in Moby Dick. As a result, stray ideas intruded on Barth’s characterization.
Barth was also hamstrung by the paucity of people whose looks were widely known to his readership. It would have useless for him to say that his character resembled, say, Antonio Gramsci, because almost nobody would have known what he was talking about.
In a passage I was writing yesterday – having so far failed to give any hint at all about my hero – the heroine is thinking about him. I suddenly realized I could now get away with this:
Singer. Was that a Jewish name? He even looked a bit like Mahler, she had decided, on first meeting him. The young Mahler. Good-looking, really, in that intellectual way. Widely read. Cultured, unlike Michael Fitzgibbon. Or even, she was tempted to concede, Charles. No: she closed that avenue off.
(“Charles” is her fiancé.) Now, this story is aimed at the sort of people who will know who Mahler was, so that part of it is all right. Many of them will own CDs of Mahler’s music, and so may well have been exposed to images of the great man. But for anyone who doesn’t know what the “young Mahler” looked like, and can be bothered to take the trouble, enlightenment is only a click away.
As reading migrates more and more to the electronic, we can expect to see ebooks embedded with hyperlinks, easily accessed via pop-up windows activated by the equivalent of a mouseover. But these need not be restricted to strictly factual or technical matters: we may be at the start of a change in the way novelists interact with their readers’ imaginations.