Character description details…when they matter and when they don’t

Some might argue how characters look always matter, but I don’t think that’s the case. In many stories (particularly contemporary romance), it doesn’t make a whit of difference whether the heroine is brunette,blonde or auburn or whether the hero is brown-eyed or hazel-eyed. It’s often an arbitrary decision on the author’s part.

Character traits do tend to follow popular real-life trends, both actual and wish fulfillment.

So tattooed heroes and heroines are very common in romances these days (Is there anyone in real life under the page of 35 who does not have a tattoo?). The hero is almost always tall CaraBristol_RandCSociety_BodyPolitics_400x600and muscular and thinks the heroine is perfect as she is (wish), even though she’s carrying a few extra pounds (real life norm). As we have increased in size, so have the heroines authors have created.

Far more heroines have red-hair in romance novels than have red hair in real life. Only 1-2 percent of the world’s population has red hair (2-6% among people of Northern/Western European ancestry).

I suspect authors often use personal preferences in creating their characters. There’s one author I’ve read who must think “soul patches” are sexy because so many of her heroes have them. (Doesn’t do it for me, so I just mentally write it out). Others must love men with long hair because all their heroes have long hair.

CB_Terran_coverlgMost of the time, when I’m creating my hero and heroine, I  roll the dice or ask the Magic Eight Ball (figuratively speaking). What color hair shall I give him/her this time? What color shirt is he wearing? Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Let’s, see, it was blue last time…

(I have learned through unfortunate personal experience that if you want the models on the cover of your book to resemble your H/h it’s best to avoid certain traits. Note to the wary: stock photography offers limited photos of women with short red hair and men with blond hair.)

Three examples when it matters

But sometimes character descriptions matter a lot. Stephanie Gordon in Body Politics (Rod and Cane Society 3)  wears men’s shirts, motorcycle boots and sexy lingerie. She’s a feminist and a closeted submissive who fights an internal battle to express her true self. Her clothing is symbolic of the two sides of her personality.

In Terran, (Breeder 2) Tara Diehl has pink hair and a full sleeve tattoo. She’s feisty and flamboyant, the perfect woman to get under hero Marlix’s skin. He’s an Alpha Commander who is used to being obeyed.

Captured_600x900Illumina Smith of Captured by the Cyborg (Cy-Ops Sci-fi Romance 3), Release date: March 15, is another character whose appearance matters greatly to the story. She has long, flowing silvery blonde hair that has some very special properties (sorry, no spoilers from me today!) that play into the plot of the story in several key ways. And there’s a reason why she dresses like she does.

The woman’s head didn’t reach his shoulder. But what she lacked in stature, she compensated for with hair.

Shimmering silvery blonde waves of it tumbled to her hips. The platinum shade didn’t reflect light, it radiated it, almost as if the individual strands were composed of fibers of light itself. Although women could and did take chemical supplements to alter pigment at the cellular level, and platinum hair was not unusual, the combined effect of the color and shine was. Striking under the harsh artificial illumination—what would it look like in moonlight?

In a complete violation of propriety, he reached out to touch. He caught himself and snapped his hand to his side, calling upon his nanocytes to stamp out the kindling of desire. Turned-on by a job candidate’s hair. This is what happened when you didn’t get laid often enough. Not entirely his fault though. He’d planned to visit the Darius 4 pleasure resort, until Lamis-Odg terrorists had destroyed the place. Under reconstruction, re-opening hadn’t been scheduled yet.

He forced his attention away from her hair.

And noticed her clothing. What the hell was she wearing?  Masculine, almost military-style trousers in a fabric mottled in various shades of tan led to clunky coyote brown boots. A loose-fitting jacket in that same variegated pattern covered her top half. Fatigues—but from what century? The 21st maybe? Where had she come up with that get-up?

“Mr. Homme?” Gray eyes met his in a direct stare. “I’m Illumina Smith. Thank you for seeing me.” Her voice tinkled like chimes blowing in a gentle wind, but the hand that seized his gripped like a steel clamp.

Captured by the Cyborg will be released March 15. To be notified, sign up for my newsletter. Subscribing will enter you into a drawing for a silver heart pendant. Drawing rules & details here.

What do you think? Do character physical descriptions matter only sometimes? Or always? Share your thoughts.

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2 Responses to Character description details…when they matter and when they don’t

  1. J.B. Rogers says:

    What you said about realism reminds me of my “Why I Hate Alpha Billionaire Stories” post:

    Namely, there are less than fifty under-40 billionaires on the planet, and they don’t really get to have private lives. (Security guards, housekeeping staff, paparazzi…)

    Anyway, that tangent aside, I’m a big fan of minimalist character description. I generally write from first-person perspectives, and I always try to ask myself what the person telling the story would consider important to describe. (In one section, three characters attend the same Halloween party and focus on different costumes. There’s some overlap, but different people remember different details!) When I see someone I know, I don’t mentally catalog their features. I just think, “Oh, that’s Julie,” and that’s the end of it.

    On the other hand, if I’m seeing somebody sexy for the first time, I’m more likely to linger on their features… especially unusual or striking ones. Give me a smoking-hot woman with skin so dark it’s got blue tints and ash-gray eyes, and I’m not likely to make it to describing her chest! (Speaking of which, where else but in erotica or catalogs do people meet a woman and describe her boobs by their cup size? If *only* bra size was so easy to determine!)

    Finally, I like it when my readers fill in some of those gaps for themselves. Sure, I have a description in mind, and I’ll use it to make sure the details I give are consistent, but it’s a lot easier to picture yourself or your favorite lust object in a role when the author’s not bombarding you with details that contradict that. Maybe your Ana Steele’s more Emma Stone than Dakota Johnson – what’s wrong with that? If it’s not significant in some way, I couldn’t care less whether you imagine “cute guy” with short or long hair, a slim or beefy build, or if you want to picture him with a little pot belly. The Description Police won’t come after you! 😀

  2. Cara Bristol says:

    Thank you for commenting in such depth! I read your post. You are certainly right in everything you said about billionaires. There are certainly more romances about billionaires than their are billionaires!

    Billionaire is the new rich in fiction. I read a post the other day from an author who pointed out that rich guys have always played into the romance/fantasy/escapism. All those titled earls & dukes in Regency romances were essentially rich. The guy who’s the CEO of multi-national company — rich. But a million doesn’t buy what it used to and “anybody” can be a millionaire. So now we’re looking at billionaires.

    Right now, billionaire boyfriend, is a trope that’s selling.

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