Monday, March 06, 2006

Baby's got blue eyes...

I read a lot. I read all genres, and I mean, all genres. Science fiction, mystery, romance, biographies, self-help, historical fiction and history books, children's books, you name it. And one thing that makes romance different from almost all these books is the detail applied to the hero and heroine's names and description. In no other genre will a book start out like this:
"Rebecca Demorney stepped out of her house and tossed her blond hair out of her face."
I just picked up a romance book I had lying around and opened it to the first page - the first two words are the heroine's name. Maybe it was a fluke. But it seems that in romance books, the heroine is described right down to her toenail polish by the end of the first page. And throughtout the book, her hair will be described as golden, silken, flying in the breeze...well, you get what I mean.
I'm going to pick on a book I love, so no one can say I'm being biased here. "Outlander". (I LOVED this book, it's one of my all time favorites.)
For all the author's protests that it's not a romance, the number of times the hero and heroine go boink throughout the series is mind-boggling. In the last book, I think they were ducking under hedges and darting into closets every three pages, but that might just be my imagination. Anyhow, take my word for this - the book is a romance. Another thing that's sure - everyone knows that the hero, Jamie, has blue eyes and red hair. How do we know? Because in every chapter we get a re-cap of his looks. Every time he changed expression, his looks are described. His blue eyes flashed. His blue eyes grew steely. His blue eyes crinkled with laughter.
Question: Do authors think that the reader will forget what the characters look like if they don't describe them at least once a chapter? Does it really add to the book to see the heroine's blond hair cited so often?
In the Martha Grimes mystery books I read, some of the characters have physical attributes that get repeated often. Melrose Plant has green eyes, I believe. And Inspector Jury is tall, dark, and handsome - though I can't vouch for the color of his eyes. Carrie-Ann is drop-dead gorgeous - but her whole character is nothing but a gorgeous physical description, so I can forgive Martha Grimes for foisting her upon us.
In the science fiction books I read, the hero usually gets described once or twice, (usually how he looked in his space-suit) and if there is a heroine, she's usually got some sort of physical description, but it fades into the background of the story unless it's a romance science fiction, in which case we'll have the hero and heorine described ad-nauseum in their space-suits, out of their space-suits, and how her blond hair looks floating in weightlessness.
Historical fiction (I was reading a fiction book based on the princes of Wales the other day) describes the people, but doesn't go on and on, (as in a historical romance) about broad shoulders beneath various colored capes, dresses of endless hues that bare creamy bosoms, and more about the eyes.
Why is it that romance harps endlessly on the physical description of the hero and heroine? For once, I'd love to read a romance novel that didn't mention the character's physical appearance every chapter. I can remember what they look like. You only have to describe them once, and maybe throw in a couple 'his blue eyes looked sorrowfully at her' or 'there was a ray of hope in her brown eyes...' and even then, it's not indispensible.
I like to use my imagination to fill in the blanks. Having someone described right down to the mole on their left calf is fine - as long as it's done only once. But if the author just mentions a "smokey gaze beneath a flame-colored mane of hair", I will be able to imagine something completely different (and far more fascinating) than if the author said; "Jilly Monet had dark gray eyes and bright red hair that hung well past her shoulders."
Sometimes, less is more. And in romance, description should be used more sparingly and with more respect for the reader's memory. Honest, I can remember that the hero has blue eyes. You don't have to hit me over the head with it every chapter. And even if you never mention their last names or eye color, if the romance is strong and the characters interesting...I won't even notice. My imagination will fill in the blanks.


Gabriele C. said...

I'm so with you here. I hate it when an authors hammers something into my obviously too weak brain, and it's not only looks. Remember Ayla and her forbidden sling hunting?

Also, if I don't like a physical detail, it can spoil the fun for me if I'm reminded of it all the time. In case of Jamie it's his large hands. I'm a sucker for beautiful hands, but I don't like big ones. If Gabaldon had mentioned that detail only once, I could have chosen to ignore it, but no chance ....

I usually don't describe my characters in detail, and what I mention comes up in parts over several chapters. The only exception is Talorcan who gets a somewhat detailed description in chapter 1; I don't know how that happened.

Sam said...

LOL - I forgot about that sling!!
Too funny.
I think I started to skip when Gabaldon started to describe the hero / heroine for the umpteenth time...Skipped a lot of the book that way, lol.
I like descriptions that come in slowly too - not everything dumped at you at once, and then hammered over and over, lol.

Nienke said...

Great post, Sam. I find that after the first few pages of a book, I've developed a 'sense' of the character - call it my own version of what they may look like. Sometimes this differs from what the author intended. However, once I have the image in mind, if I read yet ANOTHER description of the character that differs from MY image, it throws off my connection with the character. This is another reason why it's good to use less specific descriptions.

Virenda said...

I'm just tired of "nipples like pebbles" description. I mean pebbles, really?! ~sigh~

I like to know what the character looks like, just NOT over and over again and I HATE her hair blew in the wind. I mean it makes me want to carry a fan with me every where just so my hair can blow with the wind. ~wink~

Also on a side note, I'm IN LOVE with the Outlander series. ~sigh~ I'm a huge fan, even if they do get it on a lot. A Breathe of Snow and Ashes is her new one and I loved it as well.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Years ago, I read a book review where the reviewer noted that the author used the phrase "nipples like puppies." Ugh! Needless to say, I didn't spring for that one.

The endless descriptions of the hero and heroine are one of the reasons I can't read most romances--if I wanted to read over and over again about beautiful people, I'd just buy myself an issue of Vogue and be done with it. It'd be bearable if at least there was a romance that read like this:

"Get your sweet cheeks over here," purred Jane, taking off her thick, horn-rimmed glasses and flicking them in the direction of the bed.

Lena said...

You're so right! And what is so interesting is that I already have an idea in my head of what I WANT them to look like. So, I will just ignore the description if its not doing it for me. ;)

Sam said...

LOL - Susan, get over to Ellora's Cave - you'll love their books!
Nienke - I know exactly what you mean. I had this image in my mind of one character, and then the author suddenly added a cleft chin!
Virenda - I think I used that, and my editor told me to get rid of it! LOL. My editor rocks!

Wynn Bexton said...

I have to admit something. I tried several times to read Outlander and simply couldn't get past page 50. Then my room-mate was reading it one time and reading stuff out loud for a laugh. I also could never finish Clan of the Cave Bear. Although I admired Auel's research it just tended to go on and on...I mean how long should it take to describe basket weaving?

Now although I did not read those author's books, I did have the honour of introducing them for their workshop lectures at the Surrey Writer's Fest. last Oct. Gabaldon is a favorite there and well liked and I was impressed with her. But I still can't get into her books. Just not my cup of tea. I'm a Mary Renault and Steve Pressfield fan, being a historical writer myself. I once tried to write a romance but as I find it difficult to read them I gave up.

Cheyenne McCray said...

I don't know if I overdo descriptions. Well, I think for some characters I do. Yeah, I'm guilty. I'll have to watch out for that. LOL.

Sam said...

Wynn, I liked the first couple Clan of the Cave Bear books (maybe the first two) But then I agree - too much detail about stuff she said over and over again.

And Chey - You do Not!!!!

Gabriele C. said...

I gave up on both Gabaldon (somewhere during book 4) and Auel (after book) 3 - they suffer from the too many sequels syndrome.

And puleeze, even sex scenes should add to the characterisation, plot development etc and not just Be In The Book A Lot.

Jona said...

Loved Outlander (Cross Stitch here), but as the series goes on my interest has waned, same with Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear series. It's not so much the repetative descriptions which bother me, but know-it-all/get-it-right-every-time women (nothing to relate to ;o))

Sam said...

Hi Gabriele - what? No gratiuous sex? LOL. (I Know I spelled that wrong)
Jona - know what you mean. Can't compete. The lady has too many talents. That's one reason I hated the vampire series by KIim Harris - the heroine was Mizz Perfect (even had ESP) and All the men loved her. I just couldn't like someone like that. LOL.

December Quinn said...

Sharon Kay Penman, or Edith Pargeter?
(Or is there historical fiction about medieval Wales I'm not aware of yet?)