In preparation for an upcoming multi-author book event, I’ve been reading novels outside my usual range of Can-lit and literary fiction. The atypical reading choices I’ve been making have been eye-opening – literally. So far, what’s struck me most in my venture into crowd-pleasing commercial fiction is the diligent reporting of characters’ eye-colours.
Maybe everything I know is wrong but for me, all on its own, the colour of a person’s eyes determines nothing about how they experience life. Okay, I admit my blue-eyed family may do more than the average amount of squinting in bright light. And if I ever produce a brown-eyed child while married to my fellow blue-eyed husband, it would add some horrible drama to our home-life. But most of the time, iris pigment is not the crucial narrative factor a random sample of Western pop-fiction might lead us to believe it must be.
Mentioning eye colour in literature can be a nice touch — like writing at length about a sunset or the ocean or whatever. (Writers can get away with a lot in the name of world-building.) And in the right context, eye colours can be important story elements. In Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, Judy Garland closes her eyes and tests Fred Astaire’s devotion by challenging him to remember her eye colour. Even as a kid watching the old movie on TV with my mum, I knew this was an important moment. It advances the plot, reveals something about each of the characters, and it’s hecka sweet. Well done, 1940s film-makers. Look at you, making eye color genuinely relevant and letting it arise organically from the narrative. That’s how it’s done.
The same could be said for any detailed description of characters’ looks. Descriptions can work to propel the story, motivate actions, explain character traits. But sometimes they’re dumped into a story apropos of nothing. It’s as if we’re driving along an icy street and someone yanks up the parking brake and we’re flying in a circle for a moment, calling out eye and hair colours, spinning out of the true direction we’d been traveling. Or it’s like the story has deteriorated into a junior high school Language Arts lesson and we’re now outside the narrative reading a “character sketch.” At their best, character sketches are just exercises meant for the writer’s purposes. They’re notebook scribbles, not even first drafts, and certainly not good reading.
I hope all of that sounds technical and reasonable. Here’s a personal reason why I write without bothering to explain the minutiae what everyone looks like: I don’t care. I honestly do not care what people look like. That’s not to say I’m any less shallow than anyone else – I care far too much about how people smell – but it is to say that when I’m choosing what to pay attention to, a person’s looks aren’t all that compelling.
When I’m acting as creator of a book-world, I let everyone look the way readers want to imagine them. That’s done by forgoing physical descriptions I don’t need for plot and thematic reasons. Giving up the creative control that comes with dictating everyone’s colour palette is worth the sacrifice if that’s what it takes to keep physical traits from interfering with everything else I’m trying to say.
Describing a human being’s looks – even a fictitious human being’s – is actually not like describing a sunset. It might feel idle and innocuous but it’s not. Sunsets don’t come with politics. People do. Spelling out physical descriptions can introduce prejudices and tropes that distance readers. If that’s what an author wants (and sometimes it is), carry on, I guess. Descriptions also run the risk of fueling male gazes and other sources of negative stereotypes. They can end up assuring readers certain appearance-based prejudices are right and fair. I have a revulsion to abetting that.
In the novel Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland deliberately withholds the information that the narrator, a woman, is overweight. He allows the reader to discover her through what she does and says and only later introduces what she looks like. The delayed fat-reveal is brilliant. I was surprised at how it affected me. I am not a fat-shamer. I’m not fat myself (she rushed to say) but during my most intensive baby-raising years I was a bit of a chubby-chick. It runs in my family. I love fat people. I understand on a deeply personal level that they are not lazy or greedy or bad. And it meant I was shocked at how my vision of Coupland’s character unwittingly changed for the worse after I read she was fat.
To add another layer of complexity, Coupland’s narrator challenges the reader, saying we must have been able to tell she was fat before the reveal, as if something so fundamental must have been visible all along. Of course, it wasn’t. Her looks don’t make her any less human or relatable as a character. But it’s only through withholding a physical description and showing us our own reactions to it that Coupland demonstrates the depths of our appearance-based prejudices and how easy it is for writers to be complicit in maintaining them.
By the way, Judy Garland’s eyes – they were brown.