How do you know she’s a witch?
Posted March 30, 2011on:
The answer, as everyone sane and sensible knows, is ‘because she looks like one!’ Which just goes to show you how silly and surface-oriented peasants can be. The more accurate answer is ‘because she weighs the same as a duck’, but I digress.
It came as a bit of a shock to me to find out recently that not only do some people actually read character descriptions (which I tend to skip over in favor of the next set of quotation marks), but that these same people actually find their experience of a book significantly enhanced (or degraded) based on that description. Since I have stated before that ‘stories are characters in motion’ it follows that the mere appearance of the character has no place in a story unless it affects the ways in which my characters are able to move. Because the Mikado’s will is law, and I am the Mikado.
This is not to say that such things are irrelevant, but that they are only relevant in a certain set of contexts. The smaller the set, the less relevant they are. Normally eye color isn’t a very important detail, but in some cases, like Roald Dahl’s The Witches, where they have purple eyes, it can matter a great deal. In Dave Duncan’s Seventh Sword trilogy the hair color of the two brothers is quite significant. But these are in fantasy novels. I have heard the occasional complaint about the overuse of certain eye colors to indicate some degree of exotic-ness about a character, usually in the context of a romance novel. I imagine red hair would also fall into that category. I described Candace, the romantic lead of St. Martin’s Moon, as having red hair, but only because I had dreamcast her with Alyson Hannigan and she has red hair. The other female romantic lead of the story (which, by the way, is not a romantic triangle) eventually turned out to have been blonde but that was just a throwaway line, mainly to distinguish her character from another.
Skin color and gender are much more relevant elements of a description, although gender is much more so. Skin color would depend heavily on context, for example in the movie Live and Let Die, as James Bond was traveling into Harlem his pursuers said it was as easy as following a cue ball, him being the only white-skinned person around. There is of course a subtext to this scene. Since the movie was set in this world at that time, it would hardly be realistic or plausible for there not to have been one. The importance of the description can depend as much or more on the subtext as the operational context directly. Probably more so, since the subtext is part of the backstory of the character and will also affect the way way he thinks and reacts.
I suppose the real question is how the character is created, or viewed. One of the reasons I dislike the ‘characterization’ school of character creation is that it puts the emphasis on the external visual and behavioral aspects of the character. I create mine from the inside, and I spend the book discovering their foibles, dislikes, and preferences. I don’t imagine that most people, unless they’re in front of a mirror and specifically inventorying their appearance, are going to think twice about their hair color. So I don’t think it makes too much sense to have a character go on at any length about his own appearance. Similarly, when they are interacting with others the descriptive prose I employ is based on what they perceive rather than what they see, and only occasionally will they pay any notice to the way someone looks. Tarkas has often gone on about blue eyes, white skin, and yellow hair, but always because these are unusual to the point of miraculous. When the miraculous becomes commonplace he ceases to notice these things. Backstory is much the same, almost by definition it forms the background webwork of assumptions that we make about the way the world works. Those assumptions are not likely to be explicitly examined unless we encounter a scenario where they don’t work, or they’re brand new. One of my favorite Vorkosigan moments when he discovers that he’s fallen in love with someone, another is the soldier Bothari, when he’s forced to choose and decides not to be a monster.
How do you know if someone is a witch? or a Hero? Because they act like one.