Monday, January 16, 2012

How to Write the Ultimate Man

While people-watching by the seaside one summer, I bantered with a good friend over what we thought made up the ultimate man. To my surprise, the physical attribute that attracted her most wasn't a man's eyes, his butt, or his muscles. Instead she confessed she adored his hair: hair on his chest, face, arms, back, and shoulders. The more hair the better. I shuddered at the thought and when I told her so our conversation degenerated into amusing name-calling. (I never said I was mature).

My point is that hair does not make the man and neither does his height, the colour of his eyes, nor his bulging muscles. It's not the physical appearance of someone that attracts for longer than a few seconds, it's his or her thoughts and actions that give the lasting impression. This is also true in books.

If I used description to define my characters then I run a powerful risk of not only alienating my readers--what one person likes, another may not--but I also risk underestimating my readers and turning my characters into shallow nothings.

I'm not saying don't describe your characters at all--if you try to please everyone you'll end up pleasing no one. I'm saying be careful not to put too much emphasis on their appearances. The ultimate man can only be defined by the decisions he makes and the actions he takes.

In books you've read what physical attributes in the characters attract you? Have you been turned off a book because the character descriptions have been too much?

59 comments:

  1. Great post. I like a male character with smooth abs and strong arms, but most of all, his personality--honest! :) Not put a book down for being overly descriptive, although it does make me skim-read.

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  2. In fiction or in life, I think it's inherently problematic to try to define gender by any single arbitrary characteristic, whether it's physical appearance or behavior or thought patterns, etc. The way gender is represented in fiction can be as variable as the ways it's represented in real life. If all I see is fictional men who subscribe to the traditional mantra of "be a MAN, son" or "man up!" by which people mean be macho/tough/unemotional/etc. I get disinterested and frankly offended.

    That said, I think I understand what you mean, which is that characters, like people, should not be defined by any particular physical traits.

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  3. While we men do tend to look at the physical first, that's not what ultimately matters. And I've read books where just a character's attire was described for pages. Boring! Give me just a little and my imagination can take over from that point. Trust me!

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  4. I like some good description in the beginning so I can get the character fixed in my mind. I hate when an author does vague things like "short hair, angular face and tall" and then gives no further details. What is that? Sorry, but I need some concrete imagery. I don't need paragraphs or pages, but just some good detail right when the character is introduced.

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  5. Grizzled. I always like that expression and description of a man. Grizzled!

    Take care
    x

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  6. Hair? Really? Wow.

    I think you're right, if you try to please everyone you'll end up pleasing no one, so a little precise detail is necessary to describe the person the way you see them. But there has to be room for the reader to fill in some of the white space with their own imagination too. So true.

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  7. I think when I read too many descriptions of the female MC being overly beautiful gets under my skin. But the same goes if the author has created a really unattractive woman that the men adore. There has to be a least some middle ground, some redeeming physical quality to keep in the readers' minds. Otherwise, why would a man be attracted to the woman if he never pinpoints one physical feature that gets him every time he looks at her?

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  8. Once I get past physical attraction, you know what I look for in a man? The way he treats others, especially strangers. I find it's a great show of character, even in literature. :)

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  9. I don't care for a lot of description, like you said, I like to see what he does and how he does it. If he's kind and shows some sensitivity, I fall for him!

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  10. yep, in that horrid TRUE BLOOD saga, the equally horrid author describes the main character's hair at every five pages. even in the most inadequate of situations.

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  11. I can't really think of any descriptions in books that stand out to me, but I think you make a good point. It would be fun to create a really grotesquely hairy character that's otherwise fantastic.

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  12. Nothing is really coming to me at the moment, but I agree, and I think it really takes away from the overall quality of a book if you think of the love story and all it's based on is how "gorgeous" the characters are.

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  13. I just like a well rounded character,who some how sneaks his way into your psyche,manages to endure himself to you...then wants to live there for a time...What can I say,I just like good writing,and that means interesting characters too! I don't really care what they look like.
    Blessings Jane

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  14. I enjoy a good physical description, but it definitely can't be the be all and end all. A man's personality is definitely what attracts me!

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  15. I do get turned off by too much physical description. I like to know the hair color and feel, the eyes and the smile. Yet it's the personality that attracts me. I've read some scary descriptions of characters, but if they have an extraordinarily attractive personality, I like them just as much as the ones that get beautiful physical descriptions.

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  16. Personality is the most important. I can love guys with all kinds of physical attributes but he better be a good guy.

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  17. I'd rather have more description of the place than the person. Just give me a bit to go on like the color of his eyes and the way he smiles and I can fill in the rest.

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  18. I think you're right about less is more in this situation. Great post!

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  19. It's interesting a few have said they like to know the colour of a character's eyes. In real life I hardly notice the colour of someone's eyes unless the colour is somehow extraordinory in some way. Maybe that's just me ;)

    Vivien, totally agree with you about the antiquated way of thinking re being a 'man'.

    Melissa, absolutely. Some detail is good to spark the reader's imagination, as long as that description doesn't become the defining factor of the character.

    Luanne, yeah, I know, ha ;) Well summarised, btw.

    Mary, yes, it's about finding that balance.

    Carrie, fantastic point.

    Dezzy, I've not read that series, and from your description I probably won't ;)

    mshatch, yes, I too love descriptions of places more because they carry me away to the story world.

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  20. Oh I agree - I like minimal description too, so I can fill in the blanks. Otherwise, I spend way too much time trying to work out what the character looks like from the author's overly-detailed lists of features!

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  21. Yup, a good guy is the most sexy.
    But I'm also a sucker for broad shoulders and a great smile.

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  22. How fun! Yes, it irks me when there is too much physical description of what a guy looks like in any book, especially if the action comes to a screeching halt while his abs, hair color, and eye color are oozed over. ;o) I like hints of personality behind the looks, instead.

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  23. I notice the more modern the book the more description of characters is just done in passing, bits here and there. I like that. The standing in the front of the mirror thing, which I've done, isn't the way to go any more I don't think.

    Denise

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  24. Appearance might work for an opener (and I agree, don't be too specific, or you'll lose people!), but if you want your reader to love your man as much as you do, he'd better have something more about him than nice teeth :-)

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  25. Just a little description is good enough to me (ie: tanned and tall with a row of veneers), because I want to imagine the rest. After that his actions and what he does fill in the "muscles", agility, suave. Great post!

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  26. Graet post! Not only do I love my boyfriend's smile, I also love his personality, so I guess I shouldn't put too much description in my writing after all!
    Teachers at school always told me description was very important for a character.

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  27. Great post, Lynda (as always). As of late, I've been reading every Kristan Higgins book I can get my hands on. One of the major aspects I love about her novels is the hero, because he's always flawed. Yes, some have been very good-looking men, but they have pasts, quirks, and foibles...just like a real human being! Haha...and that's the thing: we writers, especially the romance lot, like me, tend to go for the perfect guy. But he doesn't exist! And what a good thing, because when I think of my husband's cutsie quirks and flaws, those are among the things I love most about him. Who knew? :)

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  28. That's a good question and I realize that the physical description isn't what has stayed with me. It's the character and what they've done in the novel that I remember. Tolstoy went a bit overboard with the descriptions and it got in the way.

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  29. I usually skip over the appearance in the description because already in my mind's eye I have a picture of them anyways. Besides, usually what is hot in one guy, I don't find hot.

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  30. LOL! Your friend likes the apes, yes? :D But this is a great post, and you're so right. When I'm reading, I often find I don't focus so much on what the characters look like as how their presence comes across--through voice and behavior. It goes so much farther not only in creating memorable characters, but in moving the story along. Thanks, girl! :o)

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  31. You hit the nail on the head, Linda. To me (and to many men), Clint Eastwood is an icon of masculinity.

    Not the biggest guy, not the best looking or with the best hair, but the way he behaves is the epitome of a man.

    Doesn't waste words. Doesn't spare action. Feels when he's needed and where he's needed. Lets what he does talk for him.

    Even off-screen, just look at his filmmaking career. He blundered with HEREAFTER, but all the other movies he directed were hard sells, but with passion and craftsmanship he made quite a few modern classics. Here's a real man that knows himself and how he wants to be remembered.

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  32. As long as they aren't a Mary Sue I generally don't mind.

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  33. My MC grew up thinking she was ugly, but she grew up amongst people basically bread for looks. When she goes into the real world she finds out that she is actually normal.

    The only description she has is that she is small for her age, and she has brown hair and brown eyes, and tans easily...or at least those are the descriptions I remember I'm sure there are more in the manuscript.

    But I do agree with you. I think thats also why people have such a shock when books are translated into movies. They let their own imagination dictate what they thought the character would look like and the Hollywood interpretation is almost always different.

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  34. This is a totally good reminder. I think I focused to much on the physical at first...good time for revisions.

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  35. Deniz, listed descriptions are a whole other matter as well. It's better to pepper the descriptions through the story rather than filling in a long shopping list all at once. Hmm...maybe I'll write a post about that. lol.

    Carol, hahaha, yes, exactly. When the description stops the action, it needs to be cut.

    Denise, you are right. The mirror descriptions have become cliched.

    Aimee, it is important, but to a point. The trick is finding the right balance.

    Alyssia, exactly right! (and I love that word: foibles).

    Anne, you'll find that in most of the classics. Times have changed and we no longer have time to indulge on descriptions.

    Leigh, yes! Their presence goes beyond their physical appearance.

    Ben, yes, great example.

    Sara, exactly right about books being translated into movies. It's never what we imagine.

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  36. Thanks so much for the follow,I appreciate that so much! Blessings Jane

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  37. Fun post! I'm with you on the shuddering over too much body hair. True, a guy with silky locks just long enough to put my fingers in sounds great, but chest and back hair - aggh!

    I agree that we need to give our readers space for imagination on descriptions. In fact, I think descriptions need to have meaning . . .does a man's hair stand out somehow? or does a woman who is really tall and wear spiky heels mean something to the story?

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  38. I've no problem with long flowing hair and the like but its almost become a stereotype in fantasy.

    Long Flowing Hair + living in forest = Elf (bonus points if dying race)

    Sometimes you just want to say "Get a haircut hippie!"

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  39. It seems to me that a detailed description can sometimes, give insight into the person who is attracted to him or her.

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  40. In some novels, the main male character never has much of a description. This is much harder to carry off for a main female character. Although, I recently read the first several pages of a young adult novel from a New York Times bestselling author, and there was no description of the female protagonist -- not even hair color.

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  41. I'm not sure about what the ultimate man possesses in fiction.

    I would appreciate you letting your friend know that I've been growing my beard for the past month.

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  42. I don't like too much description, but I like it when a male character has nice eyes and strong arms. I also will care more about him if he's kind and determined.

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  43. I have often read books where I had a clear image of the character even though there was little or no physical description. Maybe it's because they reminded me of someone in real life. It's nice when it's left to the reader's imagination, based on the character's actions and attitudes. I don't see the point in excessive description of clothing - presumably they would wear something else the next day, so is this going to happen every time?

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  44. I absolutely love a strong male character who takes charge, and also one who treats women well. I can't say there's a physical characteristic I most go for, though I've always been partial to long-ish hair. :)

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  45. Great post. For me too much hair is a major turn-off. I do rely on character descriptions, but its the bare minimum. I am not too much into descriptions, I prefer leaving them to the reader's imagination.

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  46. I think you're onto something here. I read a SciFi book once where one character was supposed to be stunningly gorgeous, but the author almost never described her physically. Instead it was the way every character reacted to her that let you know she was pretty, and in turn allowed the reader to fill in the blanks themselves.

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  47. At this point, I'm pretty tired of eyes in YA. It seems no character on the planet--male or female--is allowed to have plain old brown eyes. Amber, blue, green, or even black. I roll my own light brown eyes at those books, put them down, and gaze into my husband's sable eyes.

    As for lots of hair anywhere than the head? EWW!

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  48. Sometimes the hero is being described on every other page by the heroine, heroine's friend and even the heroine's brother as gorgeous...ok we get the point! He is gorgeous...but so many people have the exact same opinion?

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  49. Tyrean, Yes, descriptions have to have meaning.

    Gyran, I had a chuckle at your comment. So true.

    Pat, that is absolutely true too, but if you stop there, and leave all the emphasis on the description alone, then I personally think something is lacking.

    Mark, yeah, I prefer at least SOME description so I can picture them in my head.

    Roger, she'll love it ;)

    Nick, excessive detailing of the clothing is a great example of over doing the description.

    Mark, see, now that's a brilliant way of describing a character--through the reactions of other characters.

    Theresa, you forgot grey eyes... ;)

    Nas, great point!

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  50. I'm careful, too. I make the character appealing to another character, usually a woman, and she describes him in vague ways, explaining why he appeals to her. That way, everyone can fill in their own blanks!

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  51. I love this post. I've always thought that you take away a little something from the reader when you over describe your characters.

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  52. Great post. I recently heard an agent suggest that she'd rather there was little or no physical description of characters. This agent believes that each reader will see a character in his or her own way. Since I think that too much description can be boring, I found this intriguing

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  53. I like to know a little about the character's appearance -- hair and eye color, whether he's tall or short -- but beyond that, I'd rather have some room for my own interpretation. And it's the character's personality that makes me keep reading; that personality doesn't necessarily have to be good or bad, just interesting enough to keep me going.

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  54. I don't like when the author provides too many or too much detail because I like to form my own image of the character as I get to know him through his actions, reactions and dialogue. When the author gives too much or if her description conflicts with the image I have conjured in in my brain it tends to take the fun out of it . I also do not like when an author goes overboard when creating super stud sexy (soap opera) characters. I need for the characters to be realistic.

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  55. Cynthia, I think no description at all might be going too far. There are subtle ways of inserting it into the text without it feeling like description.

    Melissa, but those stud sexy characters are so real! ;)

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  56. That's something that actually bugged me in Twilight. In my current WIP, my character does NOTICE her romantic interest's looks (though she doesn't comment on them every time she looks at him), but she also notices the other pieces of him too-- both his strengths and his weaknesses. It definitely makes for a more in-depth relationship.

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  57. Shallee, exactly, I tend to switch off when the characters are only interested in each other's physical appearance.

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  58. So very true! A riveting character is all about who they are and why they are special. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. :)

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  59. Susan, so true. Thanks for leaving a comment.

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I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.