The importance of character description

When I started reading Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire, something about the novel did not sit right with me, impairing my perception of events and characters. It took me a while to realize that all three instalments of Scalzi’s space opera lacked character descriptions. By the time I opened the third book I knew everything about flow stream physics and the structure of the Interdependency. And I still had no idea, how any of the characters looked like.

Returning to the first two novels, I methodically searched for sentences mentioning physical traits. All I found was Kiva Lagos’s description of both Claremont twins as ‘attractive’. Also, Nadashe Nohamapetan, my personal reason for reading the trilogy, is supposedly good-looking. Whatever that may mean in the futuristic setting we are given.

The Collapsing Empire is one of the few genre novels that avoids physical descriptions entirely, although few reviewers seem to notice this detail. While appearances of characters do not define any novel, I still find physical descriptions necessary, especially in genre fiction. Provocative ideas inspire art, but descriptions make it shine. Architecture and technology are all integral parts of worldbuilding. And so are the looks and styles of people. Appearances matter, and their lack creates a gap in perception that is hard to ignore.  

Visual perception is a part of worldbuilding. Societal conventions and biases exist everywhere, even in Flatland (because some geometric figures are more ‘popular or aesthetically pleasing’ than others). It is not eye colour per se that matters, but society’s reaction to it. This connection between beauty and societal norms is something that Umberto Eco addressed in his works on beauty and ugliness throughout history. Trends pass and change, but certain attitudes remain. We tend to like expressive, proportionate and healthy-looking faces and bodies. After all, even thousands of years later, the bust of Nefertiti is considered a depiction of a beautiful woman.

Nefertiti. Three thousand years of hotness.

Fashion dictates tastes, and subjectivity remains a decisive factor. However, it is often the very discourse about beauty that warrants attention in fiction. Unknowingly, everyone participates in it, not only historians and sociologists. We would like our looks not to matter, but we are all painfully aware that they do.

Artists are obsessed with description as much as historians are. We visualize our ideas and we hope to transmit them to others. Thus, I desperately wished to know how my favourite character in the Collapsing Empire Trilogy (Nadashe) looks like. Her goals and personality are well described. Her appearance is not. In a futuristic world, where rituals matter and promoters runs the show, looks should be a big deal.

Without physical descriptions of characters, societal biases, structures and values all remain unexplored. In certain high-concept novels you can ignore all descriptions in favour of grand ideas. Sometimes, this approach works. The lack of physical descriptions in Scalzi’s Redshirts did not rub me the wrong way because the very idea of the novel stressed the seeming insignificance of the main cast. They were Redshirts. Nobody cared how they looked like. They were considered expandable. Until they weren’t. In the case of most genre novels (especially space operas and political fantasies), however, looks matter.

Appearance reflects a character’s journey. Unlike the Collapsing Empire, Nevenight goes out of its way to hammer every little detail of the characters’ appearances into your head. By the middle of the book you not only know everything about the main character’s hollow cheeks and black hair, but also remember all the outfits she ever wore. In any other context, those descriptions could be considered excessive. However, in the case of Nevernight, they are appropriate. Beauty is compared to ‘fresh suicide’, paleness compared to ‘death’ and a whole collection of visceral metaphors only stresses the dark and edgy nature of the world and characters. These descriptions work for most part.

A character’s view of the world is shaped by their appearance, chronic illnesses, or disabilities. If a description does not mention their missing leg or their unhealthy complexion, part of their struggle or their privilege is lost. Nevernight is an example of a world, where style meets personality.

Description is a point of reference. The inner value of character is not diminished by his beauty or his supposed ugliness. However, descriptions anchor readers, adding stunning visuals to words. For example, Miles Vorkosigan would not have been half the mastermind he was, had it not been for his disability and unconventional appearance. Had he been the most handsome man in the galaxy, his struggle would not have been half that believable and dramatic. The same can be said about extreme beauties. Would any elf characters across media gain such popularity without their idealized beauty? (from the Elder Scrolls to Dragonlance) Similarly, we all know that many readers will fall for the Dark Lord (in whatever setting) if the Dark Lord is hot. Thus, without their iconic appearance, many characters would not have the exact same impact.

Description is a form of both representation and self-expression. Does the character have multi-coloured hair and a sword in a world, where everyone carries a blaster and has black ponytails? It says a lot about a character without telling. Does someone hide his scars because they are considered ugly in his culture? That is important information. Also, the very idea of people of all shapes, colours and abilities represented normalizes the perception of marginalized groups in our world. Representation in fantasy offers an outlet for those, who face discrimination. All kinds of it.

Physical description is not a replacement for emotional depth. Neither is it important exclusively for representation. The great thing about art is its ability to develop interest in a conventionally unattractive or freaky character (Darth Plagues…, my childhood crush. I admit he may be someone’s nightmare, but his impossible intellect and his strategic abilities make him attractive to me). In literature such feats are achievable easier than in real life. And, perhaps, we can make them achievable here and now. Why not use this opportunity to its’ fullest?

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