I read a lot. I read all genres, and I mean, all genres. Science fiction, mystery, romance, biographies, self-help, historical fiction and history books, children’s books, you name it. And one thing that makes romance different from almost all these books is the detail applied to the hero and heroine’s names and description. In no other genre will a book start out like this:
“Rebecca Demorney stepped out of her house and tossed her blond hair out of her face.”
I just picked up a romance book I had lying around and opened it to the first page – the first two words are the heroine’s name. Maybe it was a fluke. But it seems that in romance books, the heroine is described right down to her toenail polish by the end of the first page. And throughtout the book, her hair will be described as golden, silken, flying in the breeze…well, you get what I mean.
I’m going to pick on a book I love, so no one can say I’m being biased here. “Outlander”. (I LOVED this book, it’s one of my all time favorites.)
For all the author’s protests that it’s not a romance, the number of times the hero and heroine go boink throughout the series is mind-boggling. In the last book, I think they were ducking under hedges and darting into closets every three pages, but that might just be my imagination. Anyhow, take my word for this – the book is a romance. Another thing that’s sure – everyone knows that the hero, Jamie, has blue eyes and red hair. How do we know? Because in every chapter we get a re-cap of his looks. Every time he changed expression, his looks are described. His blue eyes flashed. His blue eyes grew steely. His blue eyes crinkled with laughter.
Question: Do authors think that the reader will forget what the characters look like if they don’t describe them at least once a chapter? Does it really add to the book to see the heroine’s blond hair cited so often?
In the Martha Grimes mystery books I read, some of the characters have physical attributes that get repeated often. Melrose Plant has green eyes, I believe. And Inspector Jury is tall, dark, and handsome – though I can’t vouch for the color of his eyes. Carrie-Ann is drop-dead gorgeous – but her whole character is nothing but a gorgeous physical description, so I can forgive Martha Grimes for foisting her upon us.
In the science fiction books I read, the hero usually gets described once or twice, (usually how he looked in his space-suit) and if there is a heroine, she’s usually got some sort of physical description, but it fades into the background of the story unless it’s a romance science fiction, in which case we’ll have the hero and heorine described ad-nauseum in their space-suits, out of their space-suits, and how her blond hair looks floating in weightlessness.
Historical fiction (I was reading a fiction book based on the princes of Wales the other day) describes the people, but doesn’t go on and on, (as in a historical romance) about broad shoulders beneath various colored capes, dresses of endless hues that bare creamy bosoms, and more about the eyes.
Why is it that romance harps endlessly on the physical description of the hero and heroine? For once, I’d love to read a romance novel that didn’t mention the character’s physical appearance every chapter. I can remember what they look like. You only have to describe them once, and maybe throw in a couple ‘his blue eyes looked sorrowfully at her’ or ‘there was a ray of hope in her brown eyes…’ and even then, it’s not indispensible.
I like to use my imagination to fill in the blanks. Having someone described right down to the mole on their left calf is fine – as long as it’s done only once. But if the author just mentions a “smokey gaze beneath a flame-colored mane of hair”, I will be able to imagine something completely different (and far more fascinating) than if the author said; “Jilly Monet had dark gray eyes and bright red hair that hung well past her shoulders.”
Sometimes, less is more. And in romance, description should be used more sparingly and with more respect for the reader’s memory. Honest, I can remember that the hero has blue eyes. You don’t have to hit me over the head with it every chapter. And even if you never mention their last names or eye color, if the romance is strong and the characters interesting…I won’t even notice. My imagination will fill in the blanks.