How much attention do you pay to the physical descriptions of characters in novels? Interviewed on Five Live recently about her latest book NW, Zadie Smith said that she never really bothers with them, either as a reader or a writer. ‘Descriptions of how people look – how many of them have you read?’ she asked. ‘They go on and on. They never really add much, though. I usually pass over them.’ My initial reaction was: really? They never add much? I haven’t read NW yet, but my mind went back to The Autograph Man, Smith’s second novel. It only struck me halfway through that I didn’t know much, if anything, about the characters’ appearances, even whether they were black or white. Yet this hadn’t stopped them becoming real to me, or prevented me enjoying the novel. As I mused on Smith’s comments further I began to ask: do we really need to know what a character looks like?
Somerset Maugham once wrote that physical description was a real problem for novelists. ‘The most natural way is of course the formal catalogue, the height, the complexion, the shape of the face, the size of the nose and the colour of the eyes … [Yet] we seldom form any exact image in our minds as a result of all these words.’ Other writers, he said, adopt the ‘impressionistic method. They ignore the facts altogether … and expect you from a few epigrammatic phrases, from the way he strikes a vivacious onlooker, for instance, to construct in your mind a human being.’ Maugham suspected that often ‘the author has no very clear picture in his mind of the character he is inventing.’ Not that he thought physical appearances didn’t matter, highlighting ‘how great is their influence on character. The world is an entirely different place to the man of five foot seven from what it is to the man of six foot two.’
I suspect Maugham is right about there being ‘no very clear picture’, not just in the author’s mind but also in the reader’s. Of course most novels do describe at least some physical aspects of the main characters, but it’s a curious phenomenon that even where you know what someone looks like — a real-life person, I mean, someone you’ve met — it’s hard to construct them facially in your head. Try it, with someone you know well. You may know that they wear glasses, for instance, or have a moustache, or blue eyes — but somehow the face refuses to appear. It’s sort of there, but not completely, not as a photo in front of your mind’s eye. How much harder, then, to achieve this task for someone you’ve never seen, a fictional person you’ve only had described to you?
What normally happens instead, I think, is that we construct a character’s physicality from their speech, deeds, thoughts and general personality as described by the author. I’ve been struggling to think of really memorable physical descriptions, books where the words used to portray a character’s appearance stick in your head. Dickens was the obvious first stop. But even here, you soon realise, things aren’t always that simple. Yes, in Oliver Twist the Artful Dodger is ‘snub-nosed, flat-browed … short … with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes’ – and yet Oliver himself isn’t (as far as I can ascertain) described at all, beyond having an ‘innocent’ face. In A Christmas Carol the portrait of Scrooge, though vivid, is editorialised rather than straightforward. He is as ‘hard and sharp as flint … The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose … made his eyes red, his thin lips blue … He carried his own low temperature always about with him.’ Here Dickens is relying just as much on inner qualities as physical ones to paint his picture.
What about Jane Austen? Mr Darcy — he must be clearly described, right? Wrong. All we get is that he’s a ‘fine, tall person’ with ‘handsome features’ and a ‘noble mien’. Even that’s more than F Scott Fitzgerald gives us about Jay Gatsby, who isn’t described at all. Fitting, given that his unknowability is at the very heart of the novel. But still it shows that we can be fascinated by a character without knowing what they look like. Or rather that we conjure up our own idea of what they look like.
A major factor is that just about every famous novel is made into a film. So for many of us Gatsby is Robert Redford in a white suit; for a younger generation he might soon be Leonardo di Caprio. Anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice since 1995 — and even some of those who read it before that — will need no description of Mr Darcy simply because they’ve got Colin Firth in mind (in some cases very firmly).
The two ultimate ‘how you picture them in the book depends on when you first saw them on screen’ characters are Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. Basil Rathbone had only just lodged himself as Holmes in my teenage consciousness when Jeremy Brett emerged as a brilliant rival. Both are a pretty good fit for the description given by Dr Watson in A Study in Scarlet: ‘rather over six feet … excessively lean … His eyes were sharp and piercing … his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.’ We also learn that Holmes’s chin ‘had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’ Here Conan Doyle is doing what we probably all do in real-life: expect someone to be a particular sort of person because they look that sort of person. Or is that partly how personality develops? Does a square chin make you determined simply because people treat you as though you will be, and you then mirror that treatment? (Holmes’s famous deerstalker, incidentally, isn’t mentioned by Conan Doyle at all – it was an invention of Sidney Paget, who illustrated the original stories for the Strand Magazine.)
With 007, none of the cinematic incarnations ever really convinced me. Certainly not after I read the books and realised how much better they were than the films. All those ‘Connery/Moore’ debates faded into irrelevance. Which is just as well, as in both Casino Royale and Moonraker other characters reflect that Bond looks like Hoagy Carmichael. There are also references to his ‘cruel’ mouth, ‘cold’ eyes and black hair, a comma of which falls over his forehead. In From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming fleshes out his hero further by revealing the contents of the SMERSH file on him. Bond is 183cm (6ft) tall, has a slim build and blue eyes, and bears scars on his right cheek and left shoulder. Talking of injuries — the fact that authors don’t always have a precise picture in mind is shown by the fact that in different Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson’s war wound migrates around his body.
At the other end of the scale are literary characters whose image gets hijacked by a single actor. Hannibal Lecter, for example. Surely even those who liked Brian Cox’s excellent portrayal in the 1986 movie Manhunter can now only see Anthony Hopkins as the monster. (Sadly the story that Thomas Harris refused to see The Silence of the Lambs, lest Hopkins’s performance ‘corrupt’ his mental image of his own character, is untrue.)
The greatest surprise in reading about this subject has been George Smiley. Alec Guinness’s performance cemented Smiley in the national psyche as a quiet, anonymous, almost bland character, a depiction echoed (wonderfully) by Gary Oldman when he had his go last year. (No surprise that Guinness should play it this way; it was once said that he was so ‘everyman’ that if a wanted poster went up showing his face, 10,000 men would be arrested.) Yet in Call for the Dead, the first Smiley novel, John le Carré describes him as ‘short, fat … he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad’. As far from the Guinness/Oldman interpretation as you could get. How many of the people who bought the book because of those two performances simply skipped over that sentence and kept their preferred actor in mind? Most, I’d wager. And who’s to say they enjoyed the book any the less?Tags: Cinema, Fiction, George Smiley, James Bond, Literature, writing