Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Downward dog never looked so good

As I hit the home stretch in this manuscript and my brain loses the ability to tell time, I keep missing my regular yoga class and ending up in a more intense one.

It’s one of those classes – the kind where the instructor has to stop frequently to mop sweat off the floor, and I have to stop frequently to see if she’s kidding when she suggests I stand on one leg and put an ankle behind my head.

But there’s a key advantage to this class – it draws a lot of men.

A lot of shirtless men.

A lot of shirtless men with toned bodies who – if I’m very lucky – might park their yoga mat in front of mine and provide enough visual stimulation to distract me from the fact that I’m contorting myself into positions a Barbie doll couldn’t manage without removing a limb.

I was pleased to have one of these shirtless specimens in front of me yesterday, and I’ve gotta say – I’d never miss another class if someone could assure me he’d always be there.

Since he showed up late when we were all face down contemplating our spleen chakras, I didn’t see his face. All I could see for the entire hour of class was that dark, rumpled hair, those muscular legs, that broad expanse of naked back.

I silently thanked the instructor every time she ordered us into crescent lunge because I got to watch those shoulders flex.

I said some additional silent thank yous I couldn’t see his face.

I know that might seem odd, but it’s something I consider each time I write a love interest in one of my novels.

One reason I love reading so much more than movies or television is that I get to use my imagination to decide what people look like. I usually get a starting point like hair and eye color, but it’s up to me to fill in the blanks.

And I do love filling in those blanks.

It’s something I’m aware of in my own writing as well. How much physical description should I provide about my characters? How much should I leave to the imagination?

I’ll admit I’ve straddled the fence on this. The hero in LET IT BREATHE – the third book in my contract – has brown hair and eyes, with broad shoulders, great hands, and a mysterious tattoo.

Beyond that, I’m not providing a ton of detail.

This differs from the second book in my contract – BELIEVE IT OR NOT – in which the hero bears a strong resemblance to John Cusack.

Which do you prefer as a reader? As a writer? Do you like knowing exactly what a character looks like, or do you prefer having it left to the imagination?

Please share in the comments.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, I did see hot yoga guy’s face at the end of class. I was disappointed. Not that he was unattractive – that wasn’t the case at all – but just because he looked nothing like what I’d imagined.

He’s still welcome to park his yoga mat in front of me anytime. I’ll even save the spot.

29 comments :

Penelope said...

Great post! I like a couple of definitive details--your description of the hero in LET IT BREATHE sounds perfect. Having a few great starting points and then letting my mind wander is best for me!

Julie Weathers said...

There was a discussion about descriptions in one of the twitter chats. One young lady insisted she hates descriptions, she doesn't write them, she only read 2 3/4 of G.R.R. Martin's books because she hates description so much. (How do you stop reading at 3/4?)

Therefore, since she hates it and doesn't read it, no one should write description because it will turn off people like her.

I reminded her millions of people do like Martin and one of the reasons I love him is because of his lush world-building.

I like descriptions. I realize some people don't, but I do.

Delia said...

I asked that same question a few posts ago on my own blog. However, I don't get nearly the traffic you get, so I'm curious to see the concensus.

Me? I prefer to have as much left to the imagination as possible. I like to let the characters' personalities dictate what I think they look like.

Oh, and I expect pictures next time. Downward dog by an attractive, toned man with no pictures? It's a scandal, I tell ya. You've got cleavage to spare, stash a camera.

Delia said...

I asked this same question a few posts ago on my own blog. However, I don't get nearly the traffic you do, so I'm curious to see the concensus.

Me? I like to leave as much to the imagination as possible. I like to let the characters' personalities dictate what I think they look like.

Oh, and downward dog by an attractive, toned man with no pictures attached? What's wrong with you, woman? You've got cleavage to spare; stash a camera next time.

Lucy Woodhull said...

I just imagine James McAvoy, no matter what the author says. Especially when the hero has long hair. Sorry, long hair dudes - I'm always picturing a scraggly mullet, and that's a bonerkiller.

Claire Dawn said...

I kinda posted about this on Monday. I'm not a visual person and I find a lot of visual details distracting. All I need is: Race, tall/short, fat/thin, hair colour.

Even for setting, I'm a minimalist. But only when it comes to visual detail. When an author takes the time to tell you that carpet smelled like dogs had lived in the house for a million years, or that the Ribs were so succulent you could eat the bones, that sort of detail makes it real to me.

That's one of the advantages/ disadvantages of movies for me too. Edward will never not be RPattz; Harry Potter will never not be Daniel Radcliffe and Yum-er- Legolas will never not be Orlando Bloom.

Danica Avet said...

This is why I enjoy my job. I get to see men in hard hats and safety glasses from a distance every day. And they all look hot. It makes me happy to think I'm surrounded by all of these delicious men...then they come closer and I'm disappointed.

Yes, I like having eye color and hair color...build, and even nose and/or lip shape (cause that's important), but I like to fill in the rest. I like to think it's so we all dream up our own hero, our own fantasy and put him in the book.

By the way, I think you should get one of those spy cameras so you can take a picture of us. Just so we know exactly what you mean.

Elizabeth Ryann said...

I definitely prefer the more vague physical descriptions, like hair/eye color, height, etc. Because then I'm not forced out of the story every time someone reminds me that the "hot" hero looks like someone I think is icky, or just not to my personal taste. And if the author insists on making sure I picture that person, I get more and more frustrated because it's harder and harder for me to ignore. For instance, take Twilight. S.M. goes on AT LENGTH about how ridiculously beautiful Edward is, with his scintillating arms, cold marble-hard lips, and violet circles around his butterscotch topaz eyes. It seriously hurt my brain trying to make the details she provided fit the "beautiful" description. All I could picture was a marble statue that desperately needed a nap/and or an intervention. And then I sat there, completely out of the book, trying to figure out some way that dark violet undereye circles were sexy. And I couldn't.

But really, I only prefer the vague descriptions for people. AND THEIR OUTFITS (oh God, some of the outfits that get described as gorgeous or sexy sound utterly bizarre, and I'm left wondering if I'm supposed to think the main character was accidentally slipped some acid). I almost always enjoy extensive description elsewhere, though.

Izzy G. said...

I like the kind of small details Claire Dawn was talking about, but I'm not really a fan of description. When I write, I just put a few details about the setting and barely describe my characters, unless I'm writing first person and the narrator is meeting someone for the first time. I like being able to picture characters when I read exactly the way I want to. So basically all male heroes are that really cute guy I keep seeing at the park.

Karla Nellenbach said...

As a reader, I prefer to have only a vague description given to me so that I am free to conjure anything I so choose. However, if you told me the hero looked very much like Mr. Cusack, I'd be a VERY happy lady, indeed....and more than a little jealous of the heroine;)

As a writer, I know exactly what my guy looks like right down that cute little birthmark on his inner thigh...er, ahem...anyway, that said, I don't necessarily share all those details with the reader. It's kind of like the backstory. You as the writer know your characters so well, you even know the name of the boy who pushed her off the monkey bars in kindergarten, and you also know exactly what she did to get revenge on said boy, but do you let the reader in on that? Well, only if that boy grew up to be a serial killer and is now stalking women who closely resemble your MC, who happens to be this killer's ultimate target...hmmm, interesting. I'm going to have to write that down :)

Michelle Wolfson said...

Ha. I forgot you said Drew looks like John Cusack. I overruled you in my head. I tend to prefer fewer physical specifics so I can imagine them in my head. but clearly I feel free to just ignore whatever an author writes.

Jeannie said...

I like character descriptions in books I read and write. The reason for this is it gives me something to work with. Unless there's a picture, my dark-haired guy will look different than your dark-haired guy. Even with strong descriptions, I feel we bring our own experiences and tastes to the imaginary characters in books.

Tawna Fenske said...

Penelope, don't tell my husband, but I'm rather smitten with the hero in LET IT BREATHE myself :)

Julie, doesn't that annoy the crap out of you when people insist that THEIR WAY is the only way people read novels and therefore, all authors should mold their writing to please them? Gah!

Delia, know what's funny? I actually did have my iPhone tucked in my little cubbyhole in class just a couple feet away, and for a fraction of a second, I considered asking the guy if I could take a picture. But that would be creepy on many, many levels, so I politely refrained.

Lucy, I'm totally with you on the long-haired hero thing. If I read that, I just stick my fingers in my ears and say "la-la-la" and pretend he's someone else.

Claire Dawn, oh I totally know what you mean! I don't watch a lot of movies, but I do pay attention to who gets cast in the movie versions of books I've loved. When I saw that Daniel Craig might end up with the lead role in GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I'll admit that I swooned a little.

Danica, I do love admiring construction workers from afar, and am perfectly happy not to get too up close and personal. It would ruin the illusion if they smelled bad or had nasty teeth.

Elizabeth, I AGREE 100% on those crazy-ass descriptions of Edward in TWILIGHT. I'd read that stuff about his pale, cold skin and think "WTF? Who finds that sexy?" Probably why I count myself a member of Team Jacob, I suppose.

Izzy G, great point about the descriptions varying depending on POV. I write my romantic comedies from 3rd person POV (alternating between hero & heroine) but my mysteries are generally 1st person. It does make a difference, doesn't it?

Karla, LOL, very true about knowing a lot more about your characters than you actually share. I could post a couple photos that would show you exactly what Clay is supposed to look like, but that would ruin it completely, wouldn't it?

Michelle, nice to know I'm being ignored by my own agent! :) It's funny, my beta readers & critique partners who adore John Cusack were all over that particular description of Drew, but the ones who don't care for him or were ambivalent seemed to completely forget I'd said that. Clearly, I know which category you're in!

Jeannie, I hear you on needing details to work with. I try my best to slip at least a few clues into the first couple paragraphs of any book so the reader isn't sitting there picturing my heroine with brown hair until page 100 when I reveal that it's red.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Mother Hen said...

Sometimes it's not so much how he looks but what his attitude is that's sexy or not. Or how his body fills his clothes or how he smells. His actual features can be limiting if too much is given to us as readers.
I like giving my characters attitude and dress them to fit their look and leave the rest up to the reader.

Linda G. said...

Of all the posts not to include a picture! ;)

Re description: I prefer some general markers--tall or short, hair color, eye color, etc.--but with most of the details left vague enough that readers can fill in their own image of the characters. More fun that way, for me at least.

Leona said...

Lovely post, again :D

I have an unscientific observation. Maybe you all can bear in on this. Have you noticed that description choice has to do with reader type or genre?

I've noticed that fantasy and sci-fi people, in general like the MORE descriptive the better books and that people who like quick comedy, romantic or otherwise, like it short and sweet.

I'm somewhere in between, but I write/read all genres that I can get my hands on. Voracious reader is an understatement. The only reason I don't own everybook that catches my fancy is money. I'd make the time LOL

But I find that I like a lot of GOOD descriptive words. IE nice, is not one. "Oh, that's a nice blouse." Is not a good description. In fact, I'd read it as "You're mom still dressing you?" Okay, I'd also write it meaning that. "That colour is gorgeous on you." while still trite, is more descriptive to me, and still quick.

IDK anyone else notice that their friends who read fantasy (I include paranormal in that realm) and sci-fi have higher tolerance to description lengths? I think it has something to do with the world building. My two cents that took up a dollars worth of space LOL

Sierra Godfrey said...

I prefer to give very slight description. I always picture my leading men a certain way and then am horrified when beta readers say they pictured him a different way, so it's best to leave it to imagination.

Your yoga class sounds much better than ones I've taken....the men in mine tended to pass gas (loudly; this has happened twice from different people) when they were in complicated poses that clearly stimulated the intestines. Totally gross but the hard part was not laughing when I wanted to.

SM Schmidt said...

I really don't care about description so long as the name fits them. I read a book recently where the character had a name that just did not fit them (they were whiny and lazy but had an action hero sounding name) so every time I read the name it jarred me out of the story.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Oh, absolutely -- give us a few key details and leave the rest of it up to our imagination. I like to know the hair color (straight or curly, thick or thin, and if it's a man, I want it tousled). Give us eye color and a characteristic gesture or two. Does he shrug? Shove his hands into his pocket? Wipe his hand across his face and give us a lopsided grin?

Okay, I'm fanning myself now.

I've looked through photographs trying to find faces to match the characters in my stories. None of them ever really compare to the face in my mind.

Daisy Harrris said...

I like a happy medium. Some detail, but also much left to the imagination. And as with life, personality matters more than looks.

I'll take a guy with a little gut and a dirty mind over an irritating beefcake any day.

Daisy

Lily said...

Haha, I had a similar experience a few weeks ago when my cousin talked me into trying yoga with her. Although this wasn't regular yoga, this was yoga on steroids. It was like aerobics, yoga and weight lifting/sculpting. I almost died... I have never sweat so much in my entire life. But then again, the shirtless guy in front of me was sweating a lot too, which made me feel much better. And took my mind off the fact that I probably stood out like a sore thumb!

lora96 said...

Question: Are we talking yummy early john cusack or chubby john cusack?

Also, i like to fill in the blanks myself so some description is good but i don't need to be reminded regularly of someone's hair color, etc.

Indigo said...

I'm on the fence with this one. Simply because I'm a visual person (kind of comes with the territory when you're deaf). Description works if it's not overdone.

There are plenty of other ways to drop clues about someone's appearance. For example a small petite woman, may have to get a stool to reach the shelves. You could easily leave out she's petite and get the point across. (Hugs)Indigo

Kathryn said...

Some descriptive details are good, but not too many. I want to imagine my own version of the characters in my mind!

Also, you have men at your yoga classes? That never happens for me.

muffintopmommy said...

I like some description and then I fill in the blanks in my mind...but I do have a thing for John Cusack....so.....hmm.

I'll look forward to your second book!!! :)

Tawna Fenske said...

Mother Hen, Amen to the attitude thing! Jennifer Crusie is the master of writing characters who are average looking on the surface, but who come off as unbelievably sexy based purely on attitude.

Linda G, OK, OK...if hot sweaty dude ends up in front of me next week, I'll consider asking if I can snap a pic. Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?

Leona, that's a really interesting theory about the sci-fi thing. I'm not a fan of sci-fi or of excessive description, so maybe you're onto something?

Sierra, I've taken plenty of yoga classes where the few men there are the flatulent sort, but this class is pretty bad-ass and seems to attract a lot of men. Lucky me :)

SM Schmidt, now I'm really curious about the book/name! Would love to know what it was so I can avoid naming characters like that.

Dianne, every now and then one of my critique partners or beta readers will suggest an actor/actress that one of my characters reminds them of. That's always interesting, particularly when it's nothing like what I'd intended.

Daisy, a gut and a dirty mind, LOL! Could a girl ask for anything more?

Lily, I've been doing yoga for awhile, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I got daring enough to try this one (pretty much yoga on steroids). I've actually been impressed with myself for keeping up, but the shirtless men might have something to do with it.

lora96, I will take any John Cusack at all, but I probably loved him best in Grosse Point Blank.

Indigo, great point about "showing" instead of "telling." That's always a good reminder for ALL writers!

Kathryn, every yoga class I've attended has at least a few men, but it seems like the ones that are a bit more "hardcore" attract as many men as women (sometimes more). Can't say I mind the eye candy!

muffintopmommy, this will be interesting to see how many people love the John Cusack thing and how many skim over it. One of my critique partners skimmed over it (I forget which actor SHE thought he reminded her of, but it wasn't Cusack). One of my beta readers was crazynuts about the Cusack idea, and loved the character more because of it. The rest didn't really comment. Go figure.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

lunarmom said...

I was one of Delia's (few) comments when she asked this question recently. Went with the "less is more" idea when it comes to characters. If a writer is giving me too much information I tend to skim. I am very topically challenged and can never figure out what the writer is talking about when s/he is describing a room or house or building. But, that's just me. Yoga on steroids, nice image there! We never have those guys come to our old lady water exercise class. Wonder why?
Julie

lunarmom said...

I was one of Delia's (few) comments when she asked this question recently. Went with the "less is more" idea when it comes to characters. If a writer is giving me too much information I tend to skim. I am very topically challenged and can never figure out what the writer is talking about when s/he is describing a room or house or building. But, that's just me. Yoga on steroids, nice image there! We never have those guys come to our old lady water exercise class. Wonder why?
Julie

Neurotic Workaholic said...

It is interesting how often guys look more attractive from the back than the front. Not that I, um, spend a lot of time checking out guy's backs or anything.

I do like some description so that I can get a good idea of what the characters look like. I don't like it, though, when the author describes what each character is wearing in every scene.