Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Too Much Hair

I keep reading that I should limit—even severely—the descriptions of my characters. Yesterday, I read a 2001 article in The New York Times by the late author, Elmore Leonard, titled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” It was from their WRITERS ON WRITING series. Point 8 said, “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” It went on to say, “Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ what do the ‘American and the girl with him’ look like? ‘She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.’ That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.” I would guess, you might envision these characters as white Americans, as I did.

I understand this concept. It allows the reader to become part of the creation of the story—to become vested in the characters. I think it might be outdated. When we let readers create their own images of our characters, they will more than likely view them as white, and probably with light hair and blue eyes. In American media, we are completely conditioned to do so—even consumers who are not white.

My characters are predominantly brown. They come from mixed places and cultures—much like our own America. I feel it is important to make it clear that my protagonist would not be played by one of the Chris’s—Hemsworth, Evans, Pine, Pratt. I would choose someone like Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. I do not know how to do this without describing him in vivid detail.

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Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman – Photo: Paste Magazine

In the first scene of “Tishta the Crystal Orb,” Coltan arrives.

“He was a large, muscular man, about the same size as Malcan—but that is where the similarity stopped. His dark walnut hair was neatly cut to just above his shoulders. As he turned, one wavy lock fell over his brow, above expressionless brown eyes. His hand ran up over his head, integrating it into the rest of his hair. He wore a well-tailored black riding coat, and black boots that came halfway up his calves—he looked like a gentleman, out for an evening ride.”

I attempted to do a couple of things here—and maybe it is too descriptive. He is a big guy. Even though he is traveling, he keeps himself neat and clean. But, I also described his wavy, walnut-colored hair and brown eyes. Later, I describe his skin.

An issue one of my early readers had was that I described everyone’s hair in the first two chapters. But that is where I introduced the majority of my main characters, and there are a lot of them—eleven, at least. That was a lot of hair. I have since removed some of those descriptions and put them in later chapters—I still think it is important to note that it is not blond and straight. Well, actually, one of them is currently golden-haired, but I need to make her darker to fit in with the place she is from, as well as make her physically more similar to her cousin, who is another one of travelers.

Even Malcan and Brant, the two fairest among the group—with blue eyes—have dark hair. Brant’s is black. Malcan’s is dark auburn.

My lead warrior, Gillan, and her side-kick lover, Toran, are from a place where everyone is what we would call black. Their skin is very dark, their eyes are nearly black, and Gillan’s black hair is softly curled. How can I not describe at least some of that the first couple of times they are introduced?

“Shortly after the sun passed its zenith, Gillan slowed her horse while she removed the cord that bound her black hair. She shook out the curls before retying it.”

In the same scene, I described the boy, Kano. While he is not black, he is… well, I’ll let you read it.

“She was surprised to find a young boy, no more than eight or nine, sitting in a ray of sun.

His clothing, skin, and even his long, straight hair, so nearly matched the color of the russet and tan stones around him, he almost blended in with them. Laying beside him were a quiver of arrows, a bow and a small pack.”

Again, I think it is very important to describe him in this much detail when he is introduced, and not let the reader envision him as a white boy.

Ever since I first pictured my very large warrior, Toran, I have seen Isaiah Mustafa in my mind. If I was casting Tishta as a film, Mustafa would probably be my first choice, although, he is a little old to play my 30-year-old warrior. One night, a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of eating dinner with Mustafa. Toran embodies a lot of Isaiah—big, handsome, beautiful smile, polite, deep booming voice (not the Old Spice voice).

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Isaiah Mustafa with Michael Rosenbaum at 2015 Echoes of Hope Celebrity Shootout Hockey Game – Photo: Ramona Ridgewell

Interestingly, in all of the early descriptions of Toran, I just discovered I do not describe him beyond how large he is. Now, I wonder if my readers assume he is as dark as Gillan, since they are a couple. And, I wonder if my transposition of Mustafa onto my character made it so I found no need to describe him. Writing about things like this always seem to lead me to some new revelation. I shall undertake an investigation of all descriptions of Toran.

I am interested to know how other writers overcome the assumption of their readers that their characters are white. Let me know in the comments.

Copyright ©2014-17 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.

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