Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What do your heroes and heroines look like?

I have an ‘inner vision’ of my characters as soon as I start a new story, and it’s occurred to me that all my heroines have had long dark brown hair (usually wavy) and either brown or hazel eyes (with one exception - Jess in ‘His Leading Lady’ who had blue eyes). I’ve never yet had a blonde or auburn heroine. However, my dark-haired heroines don't all look alike in my mind’s eye, as I can distinguish them very clearly.
My heroes have been more varied – two have had dark hair and deep brown eyes, one was dark-haired but with blue eyes, and two had light brown hair and blue eyes.
I can’t define why I choose these colourings. I don’t think I make a deliberate choice; instead, the characters seem to create themselves for me once I start writing about them.
Apart from describing their hair and eye colour, however, I don’t usually write much more about their faces. That’s mainly because I find it difficult to describe faces, unless they have some very distinctive feature. So I keep to very ‘standard’ descriptions. The heroes might have wide foreheads, well-defined jaws and maybe the trace of dimples. The heroines may have heart-shaped or oval faces, or ‘attractive bone structure’, whatever that is!
So, although I can see the characters in my mind, I think I tend to let the reader develop their own mental image of them, which may or may not be influenced by the cover picture, if the characters are shown on that.
I find it easier to describe their figures than their faces, but I admit I go for the stereotypical ‘romance book’ hero – tall, with broad shoulders and slim hips, and the heroine is usually slim, of course (as slim as I used to be in my 20s - a long time ago!)
While I was thinking about this topic, I started to wonder if I should actually be making more effort to describe my characters, beyond these basic details. However, as I'm writing the description of the hero from the heroine's POV (and vice versa), I wonder if the brief description is sufficient. After all, how many of us (in real life) actually describe someone's face, either to ourselves or to someone else? We don't (or at least I don't) analyse someone's facial features in any great detail.
All of this led me to wonder - how much description do you give of your characters' physical appearance?
And, just out of interest, how would you describe this guy? Someone posted this photo on Facebook recently and  I did actually challenge myself to describe him, but realised I was still using my usual phrases!


  1. I tend to describe my hero and heroine throughout the book, and usually focus on different areas each time--sometimes the face, sometimes the body, or different body parts ;) For the picture you posted, I'd probably only describe his eyes and his hair, as those are the things that strike me most. And he reminds me of the Downton Abby guy--the one who married Mary (I haven't seen the finale yet, so don't give anything away please!).

  2. Jen - yes, I think it is Dan Stevens who played Matthew Crawley (but with deak hair instead of blond) - and you don't have to look far online (or on FB) to find out what happens in the finale - but I won't tell you.
    I'd describe the hair too, and maybe the 'well-defined jaw'(to use one of my over-used expressions!)
    And Happy Birthday to you!

  3. I try to pick one or two prominent features to describe for each character and not do a full body scan. I
    Image guy? I'd describe his eyes as they looked at the heroine so their description would be special to just her. His hair is great, too.

  4. You're definitely making me feel better about my brief descriptions of my character's features i.e. picking out a couple of distinctive features that appeal to the other person. I've read descriptions of characters that were far more detailed than mine. hence the title of my post this week. But maybe it's a case of 'less is more' for facial features.

  5. I don't like to over-describe either my heroes or my heroines. If the heroine is the placeholder for the reader, then I worry that if I describe her as different to how the reader sees herself, then she will be put off. And I don't describe my heroes much because everyone's idea of attractive is different! I really don't like those men described as 'stacked' - all rippling muscle and enormous thighs - urgh!
    Eyes and hair are plenty. And, for some reason, hands...

  6. Jane, that's a very good point about the reader being put off if the heroine is too beautiful to be true! Agree about the rippling muscles - definitely not my scene either.
    And it's interesting you should mention hands - I have a 'thing' about those too!
    Thanks for dropping in!

  7. Yes, I prefer to give a few details like height, hair and eyes and then leave the reader to imagine. In my own mind I know EXACTLY what my characters look like but I would hate to have Character X remind a reader of their detested Uncle Fred.
    My least favourite expression is "hot guy". Attractive, sexy, whatever but as Jane just said, every reader's view of "attractive" is slightly different. Thank goodness or a lot of us would be very lonely!
    Great discussion by the way. Thank you.

  8. Had to laugh about Uncle Fred, Ailsa! I think you;re right, though, that we should leave it mainly to the reader's imagination. As you say, everyone has their own ideas about what constitutes 'attractive' - and in the end, it's the personality and not the appearance of the character that really matters.

  9. Great question. My main characters have been similar in both of my books. In Discovery at Rosehill, Camilla was rounded, medium length brunette, mid forties (i.e. me). Her opposite was a Martin Shaw lookalike! I based his character on Mr Shaw!!

    In Nightingale Woods, Rachel (in her 20's) is attractive, slim, long brown hair; in her 40's, rounded and obviously 20 years older (me again, lol). Her opposite is grey haired - the classic silver fox.

    I think I might go for a change with my next book!

    CJ x
    Kathryn Brown

  10. Kathryn - it's interesting that you've based your heroines on yourself. I think my heroines are more like I wish I had been in my 20s!

  11. My characters often have interesting points about them -- little things I can bend and twist with blushes, sunlight, moonlight, and shadow. I see them as pleasant enough but generally ordinary to everyone except to the one person who finds them extraordinary. More times than not, I'll add my own preferences of beauty -- artistic bone structure, lean strength, shiny silky hair, a nice light furring down the hero's belly, and expressive eyes. To me what makes my characters lovely is her witty intelligence and his effortless confidence and kind charm.

  12. Rose - I love this: 'ordinary to everyone except to the one person who finds them extraordinary' - that's a wonderful description. I agree with you that their personalities are more important than their looks.

  13. Paula, I tend to avoid very much physical description and let their personalities describe them. I once had a reader ask me after reading one short story, "What did Billy Ray look like?"First I realized I hadn't said, as he was so vivid to me! I have a lot of ash blonde heroines and dark haired heroes. The image? Come hither eyes, abundant dark hair, prominent chin, and sensitive mouth. A little like Matthew as stated already except for hair color.

  14. Covers are the most important thing to make me look or pick it up. And the ebook covers, now, tend to have real photos of people, so that the author must be very careful with any kind of description, lest is clash with the image on the cover. That makes choosing a photo very difficult, too, if I, the author has a clear picture of my heroine or hero, but canno't find a photo that fits?
    My first books did not feature people, because I had a fear it would make the cover look "cheesy." But now I've changed my mind--I firmly believe the people on the cover attracts readers--hopefully.
    I try not to overly describe in the book. In a recent WIP, the hero is confronted with two women in his life. One is sultry and buxom--how do I tell my readers? That she stands close to the guy, her prominent breasts pressing into his chest.
    The other one is straight and tall, with few curves--but it's her personality and facial expressions that catch his eye.

    Some book, I think by Ernest Hemmingway, did not describe the heroine at all--the only clue was that "she removed her hat and placed it on a table."
    Neat, huhg? And look how many books he sold!

    Good discussion, Paula--as always. I enjoyed reading the other comments, too--all wonderful.

  15. It's true that our characters are very vivid to us, Linda, but describing them isn't alwasy easy.
    Love your description of Matthew (or rather Dan Stevens!) - I actually had to look twice to convince myself it really was him, because of course his hair is so different from how he had it in Downton.

  16. I've liked most of the characters on my covers, except maybe for the hero on the cover of 'His Leading Lady' who didn't look like I imagined him. I loved the 'Dream of Paris' cover which had the two characters almost in silhouette.
    Maybe, though, we should take our cue from Hemingway! And the 'heroine' in Daphne du Maurier's 'Rebecca' is never even given a first name!

  17. Luckily, I commissioned the artwork of my cover myself for She Likes It Rough - I thought illustration was the way to go to get across the humorous aspect of the book. So the heroine 's image is spot on - the artist even made her eyes brown with greeney blue flecks, as she is described in one scene in the novel when the heroine and hero are disagreeing about the color of her eyes. And that is pretty much the only time I describe my characters - when it comes up in the story. Part of my heroine's journey is that she stops dying her hair and cuts it, for example. Or when my heroine stands next to the hero for the first time, she realizes he isn't as all as she thought. When I read books, I prefer the ones without too much description(that whole "Uncle Fred moment") So that is how I write my characters.

  18. Hi Paula, being a playwright first, voice is important to me and I find physical description very difficult. i also need to write down the colour I've attributed to hair and eyes otherwise it morphs into something else by the end of chap one. Anne

  19. Geralyn - that's a great idea, to incorporate the description in some part of the story.

  20. Anne - I think voice is important for the novelist too, but I sometimes wonder how playwrights feel if the actor chosen to play a role doesn't match their inner vision of the character.

  21. When I start the process for a new book I create a story board. My characters are chosen from magaziine clippings usually of famous people, but sometimes models, too. Once I chose Jon Bon Jovi, but I had to color his hair red with a magic marker since my hero had red hair. LOL Creating the story board with characters and important elements from the story really helps get me motivated and it also acts as a base I can refer to to keep my characters' features consistant. It also helps me think about how the cover should look.
    I like to change the way my characters look in each book.
    I really enjoyed this discussion and reading what other authors have to say.

  22. I work the other way round, Sarah. I can visualise my characters in my mind, and then may (or may not!) see a photo of someone that makes me think 'Yes, that's just how I imagine so-and-so." It happened to me once in Dublin after I'd finished writing 'Fragrance of Violets' and saw a big poster in a shop window, advertising Guinness sweaters and shirts. The two models were exactly as I imagined Jack and Abbey, and it seemed slightly weird to see them both on the same poster!
    PS I wonder what Jon Bon Jovi would think of his red hair, LOL!

  23. I often have trouble remembering just how I described my characters. I have to get into the habit of keeping a notebook, otherwise I say a character's eyes are blue when I earlier said green. I also have to be careful with recurring characters. Doing a series can be trying a far as description.

  24. Good point, Viola (Sue!) - I've never done a series, but I can see how you'd have to make sure your recurring characters look the same in each book. I'd have to make notes to remind me too!

  25. I tend to give a rather brief description of my hero and heroine. As a reader, I do like to imagine the characters in a book in my own way. So, unless one of my characters has an unusual trait...scar...two different colored eyes...etc...I think the basics are good.

    For your picture...first of all can I use one word?! YUMMY!...I agree with Jen and would call attention to the features that seem most striking. Something like: A rakish lock of hair fell over his forehead. 'The heroine' clasped her hands together to still the urge to weave her fingers through the curling strands and sweep it back into place. A touch of amusement flickered in his green (? I can't tell from the picture.) eyes. Had he read her mind?

  26. Agree about the basics, Debra - and I LOVE your description!!! In case you haven't read the other comments, the picture is Dan Stevens who played Matthew Crawley in Downton. He looks very different with long(ish) dark hair instead of the dyed blond and short hair he had in the series, but I think he's much yummier here, isn't he? As soon as I saw this photo of him, I knew he was how I imagine my current hero in my WIP!

  27. Hi all. Thanks for the question and great comments. I've been struggling with description of the heroine in my current WIP and all your input helped me a lot. I thought I wasn't describing my heroine enough. Now I'm not so sure I really need to go into as much detail as I was planning.

    I based the heroine in my book Battered Wings on a cross between Faith Hill (country singer) and Diane Lane (Secretariat). As I neared the finish line on the story, Diane Lane's looks became the perfect model. If someone wants to make a movie of my story I think I'll insist the Diane Lane play the lead. lol

    My heros tend to look like the late actor Robert Lansing (Twelve O'Clock High and The Equalizer). He was so sexy even in his sixties. As you can see, my characters wind up being older.

    I write descriptions based on my mind's eye so they do differ. In my ghostly WIP the heroine is tall and brown haired with a lot of grey in it. In the spy WIP one of the heroines is Navaho and the other on the young side of sixty. I think I'm all over the map when it comes to creating characters.

    Anyway, that's my two-cents worth. I would never have guessed that the picture above was Dan Stevens. That's amazing.

    Paula, thanks for the opportunity to share thoughts on the subject of character description.


  28. This has been a fun discussion to read. And maybe I should jump on the Downton Abbey bandwagon! :)

    I like to know the general description of a character, but don't necessarily need too many details.

    Here's something I find fascinating. I have read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE many, many times. But I have only recently noticed (and only did so because I read about it in an essay on the book) that Jane Austen does not describe the physical characteristics a single person. The closest she gets is when Mr. Darcy declares Elizabeth has "fine eyes." But we don't even know what colour they are! And yet the characters a still vivid decades and decades later.


  29. Kathy - I've been reassured too about less decription probably being better than more, and also adding relevant details at different points during the story, rather than a 'full' description when the character is first introduced.
    BTW if you come back to read this, please contact me direct via my website or on FB, as I can't find your blog!

  30. Brenda - that's interesting about P&P - maybe it proves the characters come alive through their personalities and not their appearances.

  31. Er... does 'phwoar' count, or were you looking for something a little more sophisticated? :D
    I too cannot believe he is Matthew Crawley, and yes - he looks far yummier, and far younger, here. Far too neat for my taste in Downton - I prefer the rougher look!

  32. 'Phwoar' will do very nicely Alison! Agree he looks MUCH better here than in Downton - and Guy, the hero in my WIP, looks just like him. Now isn't that strange? ;-)

  33. I quite like a story not to describe a character in too much detail. A few key pointers are enough for my imagination to fill in between the dots, so to speak. And I try to do this myself in my own tentative efforts at fiction. Some of my characters are based on family, friends and acquaintances, even if they wouldn't recognise themselves. We all walk around with a huge "database" of faces, hair-styles, body shapes etc in our unconscious minds, and our brains have evolved to identify people, animals, objects etc from relatively scrappy bits of information. The chances are we'll all have seen someone who looks roughly like a character we create, so I'll be lazy and leave it to the reader's brain to do the photo-fit and create the detailed image.

  34. You're right, 'ians2005'. A few well-chosen descriptive words, and, as you say, the reader can then fill in the rest and use their own imagination to picture the character.