The Fluidity of Physical Descriptions in Book Characters

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about the dissolution of the physical descriptions of characters in books if the narrative does not periodically draw attention to their descriptions, and particularly if the character’s physical description is not a crucial part to the story (e.g. Harry Potter’s tousled hair, scar, and "eyes like his mother’s," etc.). Instead, we posited, readers start to develop their own visions of the characters in their mind based on the people in their life with similar personalities. What are the psychological factors at play here and what are the ramifications of this? Is this valid?

Alternatively, how critical are physical descriptions in casting adaptations of novels? Are they more or less critical than establishing the same personalities/motivations of the character in the novel? Why?

  • This is super relevant topic especially considering race, a common statement made today when a PoC is casted in a book adaptation, for example "The Darkest Minds" people say that the main characters race was never specified so people could interpret her in anyway they like. Seeing how physical descriptions affects a readers perception on a characters would be a fascinating topic – tmtonji 6 years ago
  • These are two interesting topics that may serve better as a two-part series than one combined piece, unless you could have one naturally flow into the other. That being said, the first component here is relevant to aspiring writers and those who want to consume writing content in a more informed way. I for one would love to read that piece and learn more about how we construct fictional worlds (characters, but this could also extend to things like objects, sensory experiences, and settings) from our own collections of experiences, and how writers best help us recall those experiences in their own work. The second component, as tmtonji discussed earlier, is very relevant politically. To reference your example of Harry Potter, the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the London performance of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" made headlines and (I would posit) introduced the public to changing the way we imagine characters or link their identities to race. Another example is the Marvel company's changing of race and gender of some of their classic characters (perhaps, more accurately a transfer of a character's title to a different canonical character, but still) and how different audiences have reacted. It's definitely something you could delve deeply into. – Shaboostein 6 years ago
  • I am highly interested in this topic and how readers (psychologically) make their characters look like in their minds. For instance, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series was never described in terms of skin color, and this goes for many other characters in other books as well. An important note to make when writing this article is how many book adaptations to film tend to have light-skinned actors/actresses, and figure out whether it is intentional or not, and WHY this occurs so often. – Yvonne T. 6 years ago
  • This is a great topic. Personally, when Im reading I prefer character descriptions to be vivid and frequent. I can't pot a random face to a character when I read. I don't know if this is due to my own inability of imagination or what. But I also feel that since reading is a form of escapism for a lot of people, making a characters face in the image of someone they know might be counter intuitive. – vmainella 5 years ago

Want to write about Literature or other art forms?

Create writer account