Feed Item

No Female Bodies?


I read what I thought was an extraordinary statement in yesterday’s Times: the respected and in my view excellent novelist, Sebastian Faulks, has decided that the appearance – figure or face – of female characters should not be described. ‘The idea that novelists have a clear physical picture of their characters is pretty old-fashioned… I’m inviting the reader to guess what she looks like.’

He has apparently been moved to this view by the recent fashionable claim of denying any writer the privilege of writing outside their own experience. ‘If you’re white, you can’t write about a black person,’ and so on.

Really? Firstly, I’m sure we all pay due deference to both the recent concerns over the safety of women from marauding men, and the writer’s dogma that we should ‘show, not tell.’

But the beauty of the female form is, and always has been, a fundamental aspect of human existence. Look at art, and its concentration on female nudes. And in everyday life, we have makeup ads and Style supplements everywhere, thriving on the concentration on female appearance. Aimed, presumably, at women’s wish to be more attractive. Note: ‘attractive,’ the adjective from the verb ‘to attract.’ To deny how or why a male character is attracted to a female would seem wholly artificial.

Secondly, taking the ‘own experience’ principle to its logical conclusion, how can you write about anyone not of the same race, socio-economic standing, or even sex? (Is that the right word? Maybe I mean gender, but you know what I mean.) That would mean stories with only women or men, a rather artificial situation, as neither would be qualified to write about the other.

And presumably, in these days of strict equality, the same should apply in reverse. No description of male characters’ build. Imagine not knowing that the world’s best-selling fictional character, Jack Reacher, is 6ft 5in and weights 250 lbs. His appearance is a fundamental building block of his character, on which the stories are based. (The nonsense of ignoring this characteristic was demonstrated by the ruining of the Reacher films by casting the diminutive Tom Cruise in the title role.)

I have two WIPs on the go at the moment. In one, the wife of the white PC is of a different race (Chinese), young and sexy. This is an essential aspect of the way he views her, in the early stages of marital passion yet fearful of her suspected infidelity.

In my second WIP, the woman is again of a different race (mixed Russian and Chinese). Her appearance, both her race and the fact the white PC mistakes her for a courtesan, when she is in fact virginal, again is fundamental to the plot development.

To have to write out these essential aspects of major characters would, in my view, undermine the whole stories. Surely better to do what I am attempting, which is to drip-feed the man’s view of the woman, as he sees her and gets to know her.

So where to go, for the budding novelist? Should Harry have to update his teachings regarding description?

    • Eric, is there a way you could send me the paragraph where the statement appears -- if you still have it? (I live in France and won't be able to see what Faulks wrote.) I too, think he's an excellent novelist and among what seem to be the sad and ironic aspects of this statement which I haven't seen for myself, is that, of the novels I know, Faulks created particularly convincing female characters in Human Traces. Indeed, I feel Sonia to be one of the more highly realised female characters in contemporary novels -- and that includes, but is hardly limited to, rendition of her unexpected miscarriage, later pregnancy and childbirth.

      0 0 0 0 0 0
      • Thanks a lot, Laure, I've found it.

        0 0 0 0 0 0
        • Hi Eric,

          Thanks for your reply. I always think it's good to see the entire context, and Laure suggested I look at The Daily Mail where the article is posted.

          0 0 0 0 0 0
          • Hi, Paul-Dominique

            Good for you for remaining 'unfashionable' and true to yourself. The rapidity with which each new vogue catches on is disturbing, and so is the way many people subscribe to it, seemingly without much questioning.

            0 0 0 0 0 0
          • Stepping aside from the perilous cultural debates referenced previously, I have come to believe it is best to be very careful and sparing with physical descriptions, and drop only a little piece at a time over the course of introducing a character. Being a portrait artist and cartoonist myself, I tend to analyze the hell out of everyone I see, and when I first started writing, I would vomit a lengthy and high-technical description of the geometric contours of their face, and every proportion of their body. You want to talk about "objectification?" Good Lord, but I objectified *everyone* -- like I was trying to describe an anatomy textbook to a blind person. Suffice to say, that was crap, and I stopped doing it. 

            I still think a character's appearance can be incredibly important, but no reader is going to fully process a paragraph-long head-to-toe discussion of a person's appearance and magically come up with a mental image that exactly matches the one you were holding in your head when you wrote it. Furthermore, pausing a scene as a new character enters the room to describe every facet of their appearance and garb is one of the best ways of killing pace and flow. It's a sure tell of a newbie writer--and I say that from experience, having done so abundantly myself in the past.   

            My current philosophy is to try to distill physical descriptions to two basic categories:

            1. Singular attributes that are in some way remarkable or at least differentiate them from other characters who may be present in the same scene. 

            2. Attributes that make a strong impression on the mind of the POV character, presented at the moment that the impression is made. This should be only one thing, maybe two, and be the sort of image that one might remember years later, long after every other detail of that person's appearance has faded from memory. 

            Aside from that, it's probably best to just skip the rest and let the readers cast whomever they want in the "roles" you create on the page. No matter how you try to guide their imagination, they are probably going to do that anyway, so why waste your words? 

            Just my two cents.  

            0 0 0 0 0 0
            • Sound advice, That is the approach I use. For example, I have a secondary character who is tall and large. I just mention that he had to bend when entering the door of a 1600  public house  and, on another, momentarily blocked the light when he walked in front of a window.

              0 0 0 0 0 0
              • Agreed. Re: "Attributes that make a strong impression on the mind of the POV character..." I have a scene where the MC's best friend has just become engaged and asks if the MC remembers meeting his fiancee once. The MC's unspoken thoughts are, "Yes, you know who she is. Pretty, real English rose, blonde hair, shapely. Big tits. Seemed very nice."  Relevant to this scene is that the two are 20s-something young men, far from home and fighting riots. I humbly submit that that is the sort of impression that would be made on the minds of such characters.

                0 0 0 0 0 0
                • That's an especially good example Roger. I think you get bonus points if you manage to communicate key attributes of a character's appearance without ever even using an adjective. Not always practical, but neat when it works out.  

                  0 0 0 0 0 0
                • Just come back from Milan seeing my daughter perform in the Italian premiere of Tennessee Williams  Vieux Carré. Really an example of how we have ‘moved on’’ from the period of his writings. 

                  P.S for Eric I spent the first 12 years of my working life in the construction industry mostly with the Irish. The macho sexists tended to be the English. But I suppose from our generation Eric there will be an appropriate “Irish joke” to explain Paddy’s behaviour. 

                  0 0 0 0 0 0
                  • Yep, no problem with this -- except your referring to "our generation." Judging by your photo, I'm old enough to be your dad, or even grandpa. Or perhaps it's just the Mediterranean diet and climate that keeps you looking so sprightly?

                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                    • Hardly so sprightly!! Twice breaking my neck and annual air miles of 400K plus and driving around Africa has taken its toll. But G&Ts help! 

                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                      • I'm more of a whisky soda man. I know the feeling, but finally retired from consulting out of a suitcase a few years ago. A working life spanning 60 years seemed long enough.

                        0 0 0 0 0 0
                      • Are you sure Sebastian Faulks doesn't want to describe his characters because of the fashionable claim that writers shouldn't write outside their experience?  He has a point, in that as a writer, you might impair your readers imagination by imposing your own interpretations of sexy, beautiful, dignified or whatever it is you want them to think.  I mean it's possible to write the beauty, for example, of a character in the reaction others have to her, or him, without the need for physical detail.  

                        The second point, that we shouldn't write what we know little about, is not a sinister and prohibitive social trend, it's sound advice.  If you do that it shows and put simply, you look a complete knob if you try it.  

                        0 0 0 0 0 0
                        • I mostly agree with this. I am a keen sailor and know about boats. It sticks out like a sore thumb when an author refers to some aspect of sailing in a way that reflects blatently on their ignorance.

                          However, taken to its logical extreme, we would only be able to write single-sex books. Mentioning the other sex (gender?) would be taboo, as the way they think and act is beyond our experience (and, often, understanding!). 

                          Re the over-description of characters, I think we've all agreed in other posts about that. But sometimes it's important to describe physical characteristics, when this description is part of the plot. My MC getting beaten up (reported earlier),his injuries and what happened to him form essential plot elements. Also a young man recalling his friend's fiancee (again described in an earlier post), would quite naturally refer to physical characteristics. A woman might recall differently, but a young man will recall hair colour, beauty and her breasts. It may not be the world we would like but it reflects reality.

                          0 0 0 0 0 0
                        • And you are a former cop too. Sigh. 

                          0 0 0 0 0 0
                          • Yes, I was, but I'm not sure of the relevance. A long time ago, I was a senior police officer in Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service, serving in Hong Kong. Nothing to do with the present regime there. Also, nothing to do with recent (or past events) in this country. I suggest your "Sigh" comment is a bit OTT.

                            I repeat the last sentence of my previous post, " It may not be the world we would like but it reflects reality." 

                            0 0 0 0 0 0
                          Not logged in users can't 'Comments Post'.