Beautiful characters

Have you ever noticed how often the characters of our novels and stories are beautiful?

What I find fascinating is, sometimes, they aren’t or at least aren’t explicitly described as such – we merely assume they are.

I think this has to do with escapism and romantic notions.

Too, I think it’s down to perceptions.

Now, it’s no good talking about the ruggedly handsome specimen of masculine archtypicality John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom.  I suppose there are reasons we could, he’s described in pretty fair detail so we could make and reject all manner of philosophical debates about it; especially since it’s never explicitly stated he’s supposed to be remarkably handsome, only the kind of handsome that comes from being a healthy and fit human with self-confidence.

I’m going to use my own writing for this, though, because they’re my characters so I know them intimately.

Sally, Lauren, their friends:  are they beautiful?

Oh sure, Sally describes Lauren as quite gorgeous repeatedly.  Thing is … is she a reliable narrator?  Most descriptions wherein Lauren is any remarkable beauty are (… wait for it …) from Salencia’s point of view!  Sally’s biased.  For one, Sally loves redheads.  Why?  Dunno, she just does.  My high school girlfriend was a redhead, and I’ll admit she had a certain charm, and my wife certainly loves my red hair, and for that matter a lot of women I know (men too, come to think of it) … I suppose it’s something about redheads.  Still, no one else describes her as beautiful beyond circumstantial points or when talking about her spirit and personality.

Lauren is not ugly, I would imagine, no.  Simply put it is hard not to be attractive when you are healthy, fit, and take a certain measure of care in your choice of hair and clothes not in regards to societal expectations, but rather in regard to what suit both your body and your personality.  Suffice to say, I do not have either the face shape nor personality to pull off a Pat Benatar or Joan Jett look, on me it’d be unattractive whereas on them it’s bloody stunning.  She is what she is, a petite redhead with freckles, and a demure hippie fashion sense, and the musculature of a dancer; she’s healthy, she’s trim … and it’s important to note that healthy is specific.  You can work out to the point of unhealthy, all muscle is not actually any better than all fat with regards to your overall health.  If coppertopped pygmies are attractive to you, then yes, Lauren is quite beautiful, but if you’re not into that then she generally falls into the realm of “cute”.

Sally, on the flip side, does trend toward more universally beautiful.  To each her own, not everyone digs the exotic skin tone, dark hair, etc.  But on general terms, while Lauren probably wouldn’t have much of a modelling career, Sally could.  She’s something between 5′ 6″ and 5′ 8″ (167 – 173 cm), proportioned like Shakira, with lots of leg, and features reminiscent of Aishwarya Rai (especially with regards to her hair); Sally could model pretty successfully (well, if she had the personality for it).

The rest actually aren’t described.  They’re as pretty or ugly as you’re comfortable picturing.  Though from my point of view the characters are all fairly attractive in that generic way that comes from good health.

I mention this because it’s an odd criticism that comes up about fiction, that the characters shouldn’t always be so spectacularly stunning to look at.  On principle, I agree.  I mean, Bilbo Baggins isn’t supposed to be some playboy with all the lady hobbits fawning over him, and maybe that puts an important detail into his character.  I also agree that some fiction goes too far and … just peruse some of the not-so-good fanfiction some time for easy access to an example (though the gods know there’s plenty of it on store shelves too).  Romances … okay, they’re given some leeway, for one thing they’re probably narrated from a POV that, like with Lauren, tends toward a bias, the rest is just tradition … for whatever reason, we’re happier with Westley and Buttercup than we are Miracle Max and his wife (whose name utterly escapes me now, even though she has one in the novel).  Still, I think, if we look strictly at the text as given, we find more cases where the characters aren’t especially pretty nor especially ugly; generally the heroes are going to need to be healthy and fit, so a measure of attraction comes with that, but beyond it … I think a lot of character beauty is perceived, not narrated.

Verity Price, for example?  Is she a Sally or is she a Lauren?  She’s in really good shape, and depending how you like the look she cultivates, you could probably go either way; but the real point is … nothing explicitly says one way or the other.  My vote is more of a Lauren.  Dominic, however, is more of a Sally.  He’s got the muscular Fabio-esque euro-hottie vibe turned up to 11 … well, until he talks, anyway.  (see: Discount Armageddon and Midnight Blue Light Special.)

Now, to prove that it’s not always just the men who get to be the supreme hotties.  Let’s look at Barsoom.  Dejah Thoris is, admittedly, not explicitly described possibly to keep her look more timeless, since within Burroughs’ lifetime the epitome of feminine beauty had shifted a few times before he wrote that book.  Still we’re given enough to agree with his assessment, and little enough to fill in the blanks with our own opinion – in short, Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful woman on Mars both because you’re told she is, and because she’s put together in the right way to somewhat ensure this.  Our good gentleman, John Carter, on the other hand is described in detail.  Yeah, he’s got a lot of dashing hero tropes, so he’s going to be handsome in that fit fighting man kind of way; but he’s also described in rather generic terms.  He could be any of our brothers, fathers, sons, etc. if they only had spent so much of a lifetime relying on the strength of both their wit and arms to keep them alive.

What’s the point?  Why does it matter?

I’ve wondered that too, somewhat.  Why should it matter if there’re characters with crooked teeth, or characters with perfect teeth?  Both sides, in other words, confuse me.  Why are describing teeth unless it’s important?  At that point, they’re perfect or crooked based on the dictates of the character.  And, I’m sorry, but some people’s teeth grow in quite neatly without orthodontia (which, I might add has existed since the mummies were still being entombed in Egypt) so a pre-modern character can still have perfect teeth (just now you’ve a reason to mention it).

I don’t understand this idea of forcing “unattractiveness” on characters as some kind of Thing.  This idea that making all the characters flawless beautifies as some kind of Thing is equally strange.  Why can’t we just make characters people?  More importantly, why do we need to describe the characters in such tedious detail that the only explanation of why would have to be that we’re jumping up and down going “look! not conforming to unattainable standards of beauty!” or “lookit how pretty (s)he is!!”.  Oh, yeah, sometimes you gotta if the bloody point is how (un)attractive the character is.  But must you do so for everyone?

I’m starting to sidetrack myself with rambling.  Simply put:  who cares?!  Why should we care?  Lauren an Sally only need to be pretty to each other everything else is just decoration; Sally being so remarkably pretty was because that’s what she looked like when she popped into my head as a character … maybe I’d been looking at a lot of Bollywood and Tamil actresses at the time or something.  I mean, I don’t think it’s good writing to have every character be this flawless thing nor the opposite.  I also just don’t agree with everyone thinking someone is oh-so-gorgeous/ugly.  Even people who are considered “classic beauties”, in other words they fit the biological mould of healthy, good genes, fertility/virility, etc. like Marilyn Monroe, Aishwarya Rai, Chris Hemsworth, and Clark Gable aren’t universally adored as beautiful.  Some people really just have a thing for this hair colour or that, for darker or ligher skin, etc.  Also, Rodney Dangerfield was nothing much to look at, but as I recall the man was married and had children … clearly someone dug something about him, probably even found him attractive.

“Darling, did it ever occur to you that, if Salencia had a six foot nose covered in warts and no teeth and a squint and a great big hairy mole in the middle of her forehead, if you loved her then you’d still see her as beautiful? You’d see past the … mess to the person and heart inside and suddenly … well, very few happy and loving couples don’t think one another beautiful, quirky old songs notwithstanding.”

Excerpt From: Jaye Em Edgecliff. “Love or Lust.” iBooks.

Extremism.  It’s rarely good; not never or that’d be a paradox and therefore nonsense.  We should stop criticising works for having characters who are beautiful or not, and start looking at criticising the works that put big flashing neon signs over it needlessly.  Not even for the act itself, but rather for the sloppiness and laziness that it embodies.  Believe me, I’ve rarely met a story that was explicitly trying to make people stunning or hideous that wasn’t just all ’round badly written.  When telling a story it’s down to that balance thing.  Like Show vs Tell – sometimes you should have one, sometimes the other, generally a bit of an ambiguous blending of the two.

What’s so great about Hemmingway?

Ed Greenwood

Ed Greenwood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not just Hemmingway, but Jane Austin, Steinbeck, Stephen King

I’m not saying they’re awful, though I can’t stand three sentences in a row by a single one of them. I simply ask why are they sainted in the annals of recent fiction and literature? Certainly why do so many blogs and forums dispensing cheap writing advice swear by them as such deities of the written word?

Why is not the advice to first ask who the person likes to read the best and say, “Read that carefully and think about the things the author does that you do and don’t like. After, try to borrow and unashamedly steal those techniques you love and consider how you might do differently those which you loathed.”

How boring would the world be if all writers were determined to be the next of only a small pool of very similar writers?! (Rather dry ones, in my opinion) Would the world read even less than already it tends to do?

I do believe some works do deserve their deification. The Discworld series by Pratchett is undeniably brilliant and holds the attentions and imaginations of scholars and huddled masses alike; The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and Wizard of Oz too are inarguably timeless classics, along with the adventures of our good bear who “lives under the name ‘Sanders’.”

Still I would not presume to tell anyone they ought to write more like Tolkien, Milne, or Carroll. For one they’re ill suited to a suspense-horror.

I suppose it’s the idea that King is a famous best selling author so must know something … please note, so is Seanan McGuire, J K Rowling, and Stephanie Meyer. Rowling, outsold and outsells the others in that list combined, yet you’re supposed to not write like her … so I’ve no idea how King is a god.

The others are all classified Literary Fiction, which is somehow superior to all other sorts (Literature majors who try to write the stuff say so, and they’re experts and should know, right?) despite being that dry boring stuff we’re made to read in Literature classes which probably turned rather a lot of people off reading altogether.

To each her own personal gods of the pen, be it Mercedes Lackey or Lawrence Block, Ed Greenwood or Danielle Steel, Dean Koontz or Louisa Mae Alcott … when you write study the master who you so loved you wanted to write, carry on that writer’s legacy. The acclaimed saints of writing need no undue worship unless you happen to favour their styles.

P.S. Is it me, or is the list of people you’re supposed to strive to write like nearly always Americans, primarily from around the Depression?  Never minding the rather selective era, but … why are we excluding other English speaking authors … or non-English (they don’t say English or American lit, just lit — I’m fair certain a Frenchman would have something to say about the superiority of, say, Voltaire to any six Americans you care to pick.

“The door irised open”

Today I’m going to talk, more as a reader than a writer — though I’ll probably be unable to resist putting my author voice in here somewhere.

I love to read speculative fiction.  Fantastic genre.  I’ve said this again and again.  Princess of MarsTriplanetaryStranger in a Strange LandTime Enough for Love2001: A Space Odyssey, Callahan’s Crosstime SaloonThe Hobbit, Dragondoom, A Song of Ice and Fire, Black TrilliumForgotten Realms, and so very many more!  To stretch things further:  the adventures of young Ms Alice in the strange world of Wonderland, or of Dorothy and her friends in the great fairy land of Oz.

Lately, though, I’ve been rather disappointed in new SF.  Once the genre(s) came to life in vivid and exciting worlds and adventures, not I feel as though I’m reading a textbook.

I think it harkens back to some of that discussion about show and tell in writing — you want to show things, and sometimes you tell things, and there ought to be a careful balance.

Today it gets far too carried away trying to show the world-building.  Today it is not enough to, as the immortal Robert Heinlein so eloquently penned “the door irised open”.  Today … I’m going to stick with the door, though it had something to do with how the ship’s engines worked or something to that effect in the book I’m drawing from here; today it would be something on this line:

The door irised open as they approached, then irised closed shortly after they’d passed through.  Hank stared at it thoughtfully as they walked through and finally said, “You know … I’ve always wondered, why do our doors open like that?  Didn’t they used to swing open and closed on the old wet navy ships?”

Ginny stared at him, “Well, if you’d ever paid attention in History class …”

I believe the exact quote was something to the effect of “well, as you learned in school” or similar, and as I said, they were discussing something esoteric about the ship.  But regardless there then ensued a multipage explanation in dialogue.  I’ve found others that spend, I wish I were lying, giving you a 100+ page history lesson on the setting before you necessarily meet the characters, and even if you’ve met the characters, it’s after the dissertation when you get to meet our good friend The Plot.

Sure, as Sturgeon said:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.[1]

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

Sadly, however, this is no longer an isolated eccentricity of some authors.  This is becoming the expectation of … well, I will admit, among science fiction readership it seems to be the desire of the fans to read something that is rather more like a textbook than a novel; but it’s leaking terribly badly into the writing advice.  Of course, as always with writing advice, in remarkably contradictory fashion:  “Don’t info dump” and … I really can’t recall the short and snappy way of saying it, but “explain everything“.

Personally?  I find Heinlein’s approach great, or Sir Terry Pratchett best.  In the former you are given a quick adjective to give flavour to the setting and the scene; it’s as taken for granted by these people that a door should iris as we take for granted it should swing (or, for those in more east Asian countries, perhaps I ought to say ‘slide’?).  In the latter we might, or might not, depending how funny he can make it, a quick little footnote (or not so quick … but always funny) explaining it — Bloody Stupid Johnson was likely involved, I’d suspect.

Betimes we do need to explain things in our stories that, possibly, the characters know and take for granted that we in our world and time do not.  The opening of The Hobbit is a glorious example of this (I hope Tolkien estates will pardon my excerpt):

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill – The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it – and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The mother of our particular hobbit… what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit – of Bilbo Baggins, that is – was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, – and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo’s father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

Now, it is worth noting that this seems to contradict what I said.  But it’s this:  in Tolkien’s case the narrator is speaking to you and I, the character telling the tale needs you to understand a creature that has become scarce and little known to the likes of us — could he have explained hobbits through the course of the narrative?  Of course he could — he could have described Mr Baggins of Bag End as short and plump with his curly hair and jolly clothes, and gone on from there throughout the book.  Or could he?  Maybe by getting it out of the way upfront he does something in the tone of the story; now the meeting with Gandalf the Grey could go on in a manner a bit less puzzling to the audience.

It’s not wrong for your narrative to explain that which is normal in the time and place of the setting — but the explanation shouldn’t interrupt the story!  Pratchett achieves this with footnotes; Heinlein and Tolkien achieve this by keeping it quite important, relevant to the bit of narrative at hand, and — above all — relatively short and sweet.

Now, to return to our door … okay, this one’s stretching it a little since it’s a door, how important is that?!  Still, work with me.

The door irised open as they approached, and irised closed again after they’d gone through.  Henry looked back to be sure it’d closed.  In his youth, he’d been on a very ancient ship which still had swinging doors and a hull breach had yanked a hatch open killing several of his friends.  These modern doors would have to be severely damaged — or fail to close — for that to ever happen again; the sight of his friends being blown into the abyss of space, though, left him a little paranoid.

See?  I’m stretching.  Still, if it really was important why a door would iris instead of swing, we’ve just told you; it’s safer (I am not interested in a physics argument, I was making that up as I went along).

It’s this idea that you need to clearly establish your setting.  Yes, you do, but as a reader, you can give it to me in bites, pieces, and you can keep it relevant.  I don’t really care how the war between the Klothorian Empire and the Numbanji Consortium started, not if the story isn’t about that.  It’s enough to know that this band of shipwrecked Klothorians who washed up on a Numbanji shore are none too welcome.

Context.  Always always context.  An explanation is okay here, but terrible there.  And, as always, keep it short or keep it … interesting.  Heinlein’s old juvies would sometimes insert brief science lessons into things.  It was done in a mix of the adult explaining things to the kids who were joining in the adventure on a rocket ship, and a bit of narrative explaining esoteric bits of what they were doing and why; but he kept it fairly succinct, and the most science lessony bits were to make the young reader feel a bit of a part of the preparations for this trip into space so that it seems less dull.

If it’s important, or really neat, how the engines work — couldn’t you have just made it part of, say, a paragraph description when the drive activated?  It’s a time honoured SF trope to do so.

I don’t mind irrelevant and unimportant detail tossed in.  It helps set the scene and to characterise the people involved.  It serves nothing to tell me the door iris instead of swing — except now I’m further immersed in the realisation “this place is wholly unlike here and now”.  I don’t want to read textbooks, I want to read a novel.

This is why this isn’t in my author mode, just my reader.  If you want to write a novel length work by inserting several short textbooks interspersed inside a short story or novella, fine, do so.  Clearly some readers will love that, and if you and they are happy, I’m happy.  I’m just sad that it’s so terribly hard to find anything that isn’t that, and rather sick of writing advice everywhere that tries to turn the new, burgeoning writers into such authors; or the discussions that seem to be turning readers into such people.  The classics are fine, and nice, and there’s ample supply of them I can still discover … but they are finite.  I’m sad that even the 10% allowed for by Sturgeon’s Law feels like I’ve then got to dig to find MY 10% from within that.  I’m not sure, but I think 10% of 10% is 1% — slim pickings.