When I’m in the process of outlining or writing my initial draft of a book, I often skip a lot of physical character descriptions in favor of completing my book. During this phase I focus on the action of the story and advancing the plot to my intended HEA. My second phase of writing involves building up character, location and emotional descriptions.
This method works well for me. It helps me actually get my but in a chair and write, without worrying about big details. However, once the “bones” of a book is complete I always go back and add the meat. Good (and hopefully great) books are built on the development of characters and the connections readers are able to make with either, the characters, subject and situations depicted.
When I flesh out my characters, I admit to not spending a lot of time repeating physical characteristics. I’m of a mind that if I describe a person once, I don’t need to keep reminding readers every other page or chapter what color their eyes are. Plus I’d rather spend my thesaurus time on emotions and sex scenes ;). Although, I don’t often repeat physical descriptions, I do include them– specifically skin tone, race or ethnicity. In a publishing world drowning in whitewashed characters this is very important to me.
Growing up and reading romance novels, I didn’t realize how removed color and diversity was from the books I read until one day someone lent me my first Brenda Jackson novel. On the cover was a woman that looked like me. Admittedly the woman was more toned and hair wind swept than me, but for the first time in my romance reading lifetime, a heroine was described as being brown. That blew me away. In that moment I felt a connection with the romance world I didn’t realize had been missing. My parents raised me to be confident, and I never doubted that my life could be filled with as much love and adventure as I dared. However, that day I felt as if the rest of the world finally knew that too.
It wasn’t till I was much older that I realized how sad that moment in my life was. At that point in time I had read hundreds of romance novels and only one of them featured a person of color as hero or heroine that wasn’t a stereotyped caricature. This is a horrible ratio.
The landscape is much different now. There are much more diverse writers and books featuring diverse characters available now. No doubt that there is plenty of room for more (much more). However, as more color and overall diversity is introduced to the books being published (by all kinds of authors and genres), I think it is important to remember what those first few lines of character description mean to a reader who has never had the opportunity to see themselves represented in a book before. That moment of recognition, that simple indelible link formed by a reader is priceless.
Abled, white heterosexual characters are so much the norm, that it can be almost jarring to read others described. That jarring moment for those readers not abled/heterosexual/white can be a strange mixture of euphoria, connection, and sadness. Because the truth is, it shouldn’t be such a surprise to see yourself positively reflected in fiction. It should be part of the normal experience, like white-noise, much like the alabaster skinned heroines or steel-eyed heroes that still make up the bulk of romance stories today.