Unedited has a very interesting Blogfest coming up next Thursday and Friday. It's called the "Guess that Character Blogfest." I confess I skipped over this one without reading it carefully. I'm glad Jen reminded me of it so that I could take a closer look. I thought it just involved posting a physical description of a famous celebrity or fictional character and having people guess who is being described. But it's more complicated than that: You are to post a character description (not a physical description) on the 19th and have people guess what that character looks like, then on the 20th, post the actual physical description you have in mind.
Why is this important? Because it is a practical exercise demonstrating the disconnect between authors' and readers' notions of how characters look. But that disconnect is not necessarily a bad thing. Personally, I don't like to get hung up on what color a character's eyes and hair are, how tall they are, the shape of their mouth, shoulders, legs, etc. I would rather focus on who they are and what motivates them. In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll never gives any physical description of Alice. We all think of her as resembling the Disney version, but in fact, Carroll could have imagined her being entirely different. Or perhaps he didn't imagine her appearance in detail at all. I tend to think that the latter case is the more likely.
Modern readers are trained by popular fiction, movies and television shows to think of characters in terms of detailed physcial descriptions. Many times, however, these descriptions can detract from a story. I know that I find it incredibly annoying to find out in Chapter Four that the hero has brown hair and eyes, when I had intuitively assumed that he looked more like my Cousin Joe, who has blond hair and blue eyes, because he acts like Cousin Joe.
The key to characterization is words and actions.
I admit that there are times when physical descriptions are important to make characters more colorful. The gimpy sea captain or fluffy-haired old lady create clear, immediate mental images. But even those, I would argue, are stereotypes and often over-used. In general, I think that the very minimum of physical description should be given, just enough to give the reader something to start with in their own imaginings.
Do you agree or disagree?