Back when I begged you all to throw me some blog topics, the ever-hilarious Lorraine Valestuk said: “Why does practically every lead in a fantasy novel have to have green eyes?”
The query was a bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously, and since the question originated on Facebook, it generated chatter in a similar vein. Some laid the blame at Marion Zimmer Bradley’s doormat; I assume that means Mists of Avalon is overrun with green-eyed girls, boys and dragons, but I’m not about to reread it to confirm this guess.
This is the kind of question that showcases how completely I am not a doctor of literature, fantastic or otherwise. But the conversation did spark some thoughts.
First, and perhaps uncharitably: at least it’s not frickin’ violet. As a teacher who works with a lot of new writers, I’m here to tell you that it hasn’t been that long since every quarter brought me a manuscript whose heroine had violet eyes and, sometimes, sparkly diamond eyelashes. Maybe a memo went out, though, because this particular means of making the hero tres exotique seems to have died down.
Second: Describing your characters in an interesting and vivid fashion can be deceptively tough. A lot of writers look for that quick shot, the combo of words that will sketch body size, hair/eye color, and skin tone onto the reader’s imagination. Looks aren’t important, right, as long as we know she’s not only a super-amazing nuclear physicist (slash ninja) but also hot? And so we figure we’re done.
A problem with giving a mug shot is that it can get repetitive in a novel with a dozen or more characters.
We have eyes everywhere! Compounding this challenge is the fact that we want to drag the eyes into the narrative a lot… especially during character interaction.
Tears clustered at the ends of Mary’s diamond lashes, framing her violet irises magnificently. “How can you say that?”
“Try me!” Joey’s emerald eyes flashed a challenge.
Burt gave them both a sidewise glance, rolled his eyes, and then looked skyward, beseeching the author to stop with the cheesy examples already.
Pro tip: try using a metaphor. Even “Harry was a rhinocerous of a man,” will give us something specific to imagine, far more easily than, “Harry was tan, burly, blue-eyed and had a truly epic nose.”
Thought four: our default assumptions about beauty are, among other things, racist.
One of those leaps of logic we make without thinking about it, when writing, tends to be that our main characters are physically attractive, especially if they’re women. If you’ve already already decided that your good guys are pretty–even though there is, perhaps, no good reason to drag a person’s looks into the story–it’s easy, so terribly easy, to not even question whether they might be a person of pallor.
Green and blue eyes, unless you specify otherwise, are going to default in a reader’s mind to white-skinned and possibly blonde, just as surely as the phrase ‘my moustache’ is going to lead us to think ‘dude’ or ‘itchy fangs’ is gonna take us to ‘creepy, diseased vampire in need of a dentist’.
Do an image search for green-eyed actresses and you get people like Drew Barrymore. They’re white, their yellow hair is straight, they tend to be tall and–lest we forget–they’re also thin.
This isn’t a new insight, I know. And I’m not saying every writer who pops a pair of sparkling emerald orbs in their protagonist’s skull, rounding out the chiseled cheekbones and flawless complexion–no, make that a light dusting of freckles!–is being racist. But writers should at least examine where these impulses are coming from. Why is your resourceful, brilliant and downright saintly hero also naturally gorgeous? Is that necessary?
If it is, how narrowly are you defining gorgeous?
When you cast your mind ahead to the blockbuster film that will be made from your book–when you imagine casting the cinematic extravaganza that will win you an Oscar and make you richer than… well, richer than at least twelve other people… how diverse is the actor palette you’re imagining? This may be a question worth examining.
If the answer makes you uneasy, maybe you should take a breath, go read James Alan Gardner’s Expendable, and rethink those green eyes.
My default is grey eyes. if I’m not careful every single character, regardless of gender, race or species will have grey eyes. I put it down to wanting to have grey eyes myself, like my favourite deity, Athena.
Makes perfect sense. You have to love Athena, right?
I always thought it was personally because I’m blue eyed. I’m also blonde, though most of my characters have dark hair. For some reason I think there’s nothing more attractive than dark hair and blue or green eyes.
So you default to blue eyes and dark hair because you have green eyes and blonde hair?
It’s a fascinating subject you have here. If I may throw in a perspective from someone who came to actually writing her stuff down much later in life – I deliberately made a point of making my characters all shapes and sizes, and I think that’s possibly easier a) because of just having kicked around the planet longer and seen ar*****es in every shape possible(!) ; and b) because my friends are now very varied too (in age and physique). I’m 5′ 3″ on a good day with the wind behind me, and with grey eyes and mousy hair, but I have a good friend who stands 6′ in her socks and is a brunette with brown eyes. She had already complained bitterly to me about the surfeit of skinny, vapid, blue-eyed blonde heroines, and so I made sure I had a very feisty dark-haired heroine and a red-head in the mix.
Having said this, it was easier in one way for me because in my Islands Quartet I had a big cast which allowed for several variations. My heroes too, were a very mixed bunch quite deliberately, and included gay characters because I’d wondered why my gay friends hardly ever read fantasy, and realised that it was because there were almost no characters they could relate to. Also, some of my *bad guys* turned good, and some of my *good guys* had some very dark moments – which I think is part and parcel of the same thought process. Are you writing about people you might meet in the street, or just someone from a Hollywood casting agency? If the latter, you’re going to have a very limited palette to play with!
I wonder, Alyx, if this limitation of characters has anything to do with the world they inhabit? Buffy, after all, was set very much in California, and so was subject to current precepts of beauty. But if you’re writing about another world, surely part of the world building is to give it some variety in its inhabitants? And that includes concepts of beauty. One of my leading ladies was bald and still thought beautiful – so no hair at all to decribe there! So if we’re writing fantasy/SF, I think you’re absolutely right that we have to avoid at all cost simply dumping modern mindsets on our characters wholesale.
And just to throw you a last thought – the wife of Harold Godwinson (he who was the English king killed by William the Conqueror in 1066) was called Edith Swan-neck, and it was thought very much a beauty of her age because one of the most desirable traits in a noble woman in those days was to have almost white skin and a long neck. And this was still the case four hundred years later in Chaucer’s day! (see the Book of the Duchess!) When was the last time you heard any woman complimented on her neck? The past is also another country.
It’s Lin, right?
If you’re writing about another world, making the inhabitants varied does seem like an obvious choice. I suppose what Lorraine is asking is: why don’t we?
Yes it is Lin.
I wonder if the answer lies in a writer’s personal experience? By that I mean the actual people you walk into on the street, who you might have a passing conversation with, quite aside from immediate friends and family. Obviously your nearest and dearest will have a deep impact on your own perceptions of the world, but so too does your home location. (I probably ought to add that I come from a family so small it’s almost non-existent, so it was never going to have that dominating effect on me!)
I fully support what Steve is saying below that very settled areas will have a unifying effect on how people look over the generations. And also that people tend to comment more on appearance when they experience meeting others from far away.
But to take that back to Lorraine’s question, when we are writing it’s one thing to see that physical diversity through the media, or read about it, and another thing to experience it in person. I’m not by any means implying racism or bigotry on anyone’s behalf here, I hastily add! I’m simply thinking of folks I’ve known who have spent their lives in (often) rural areas where there’s been very little change in a long time, who then experience life somewhere where there’s a huge variety and who are quite overwhelmed by it. Lovely people without any prejudice, but who simply haven’t had that kind of life experience and who have their preconceptions quite firmly rooted. Someone like that is going to have a very different starting point when it comes to world building than someone (like me) who was brought up in an urban, very compacted, and hugely diverse area.
Where my in-laws lived, the district would change dominant ethnicity virtually decade by decade – so an influx of Indian sub-continent people were overtaken by another influx from Iraq/the Yemen/Kuwait; who in turn have been overtaken by Sudanese, and they in turn have begun to be displaced as a dominant group in this area by Kurds and Syrians. Whatever the greater rights or wrongs of having this clustering because of affordable housing and near-refugee status, as a writer it’s a wonderful resource! You see with your own eyes the variations on what is thought to be beautiful, take in the smells from very varied cuisines coming out of cafes and takeaways, and all the other stuff which goes with cultural variety. However, not everyone has that basic starting point (and it would be a boring world if we did!), but what I guess I’m saying is, if you don’t, does that make it harder to break with conformity at that initial planning stage when you are creating your characters?
And does that work the other way for writers who might default to diversity, if they then want to include in their world somewhere like the Russian Steppe, with hundreds of miles of same-ness? I can’t immediately think of a writer I’ve personally come across who’s created a vast landscape with an unchanging culture, but if any of you have, do they do it successfully? In other words, can you take your awareness of your own preconceptions, and then twist that creatively, to have a whole green-eyed population (!) who suddenly get confronted with someone brown-eyes who is so stunning as to confound their own expectations?
Just a thought!
A vast landscape with an unchanging culture… hmmm. I’ll have to think about whether I’ve read any books like that.
“because I’d wondered why my gay friends hardly ever read fantasy, and realized that it was because there were almost no characters they could relate to.”
— that’s odd, because I hadn’t noticed that gay people were less likely to read SF and fantasy, or to write them, than straights.
Quite the contrary; I’ve been involved with the writing scene and with fandom since the early 1980’s and I’d swear that gay people are, if anything, rather more common in both than they are in the general population.
In fact, SF conventions were the first place I met openly gay people in any numbers (if you don’t count high school, and since it was a single-sex boarding school for me that was a rather special situation).
I know about twenty-five SF/Fantasy writers well enough to know something of their personal histories, and offhand I’d say that about a fifth of that number are gay or bi.
Nor are gay characters particularly rare in the genre, as compared to other kinds of popular literature not specifically targeted at gay audiences.
Again, quite the contrary.
Say what you like about MZB, there were always plenty of gay characters in -her- fiction, and there are innumerable other examples from the 70’s on. My very first book, written lo these 26 years ago, had a bi protagonist.
The trajectory seems to have been about the same for SF/F as for pop culture in general, or possibly we were a bit ahead of the curve.
That’s my experience too, Steve. I’ve never had trouble finding fellow SF nerds among my fellow queers. That said, I can remember when I was one of a handful of out lesbian writers, or at least unusual enough that lesbian fans would remark on it.
(Of course, if I’d been going to Wiscon instead of cons in Alberta and Texas, that might not have been a thing either.)
My first cons were in the 80’s in Toronto and at WorldCons and WFC towards the end of that decade. The first other authors I knew well were in my writer’s group in Toronto, including Fiona Patton and Tanya Huff (in fact I introduced them, IIRC). Possibly a different demographic.
Of course, there are different values of “out”. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, there were a couple of cases of writers who I knew were gay because everyone who met them more than casually did, and they never said “don’t mention this”, but I got “what, s/he’s gay?” reactions when talking with people who only knew them through their work.
Point taken. In my defence can I just say that I’m on the other side of the Atlantic, where conventions are virtually unknown (I’ve only come across 1 outside of London, and that only in the last few years), and our bookshops stock an incredibly limited fantasy selection – you’d almost think they’d been censored! Even MZB is hard to find! It’s really only been with the rise in e-book shopping that we’ve had access to the huge range of fantasy in the US. So if you consider a field dominated by Robert Jordan and the like, with no middle-rank authors getting so much as a sniff in, the picture then looks very different.
‘twould be odd if everyone had the same experiences!
My father had very bright blue eyes and, as a young man, raven-black hair — classic Highland Celt coloring.
I’ve always associated the two. Default, if I imagine a person with bright blue eyes, I assume very black hair — I have to deliberately correct to disassociate ’em.
My mother had light brown hair and hazel eyes. One of my brothers is a green-eyed redhead, and I and the other two have varying shades of brown hair and hazel-brown eyes.
So when I think “green eyes”, then “redhead” comes with it — also “freckles” and “embarrassingly, hilariously unable to tan”.
Standards of beauty differ from culture to culture(*) and time to time(**), but whatever they are by definition most people don’t have them. “Beauty” means “having much better than average looks”, after all.
When I was doing the later books in the Emberverse series, I deliberately made Princess Mathilda sort of ordinary-looking, with slightly irregular features, a sort of stocky (tho’ athletic) build and coloring that’s average for her time/place. Her eventual SO is much, much better looking, strikingly so, but why should -everyone- be gorgeous?
(*) though there tend to be common elements. You get occasional outliers where gross obesity or emaciation or some other radical feature is much admired, but the default is ‘medium height but on the taller side of average, medium build, strong but not grossly exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics, and very regular features with slightly larger eyes than average.”
(**) Marilyn Monroe was sorta chubby by early 21st century Hollywood standards. And her body is much less toned than contemporary female actors. As a good rule of thumb, if you want to know whether a movie’s genuinely old or a period piece, take a look at the women’s shoulders and backs. If there’s lots of muscle definition, it was made since the 1980’s.
The contemporary female ideal combines fairly large breasts with a slim muscular physique, which is contradictory.
Yes, we usually define beauty as being somewhere upstream of the average. We don’t want it to be freakishly out of reach, in general. Like us, but only more so, perhaps?
Note for fantasy/SF worldbuilding: “racial diversity” of the sort you get in a contemporary Western city is a fairly rare phenomenon in world history, and on a large scale it’s a product of the post-Columbian intercontinental migrations, like the concept of “race” itself.
Default, average physical appearance changes very gradually as you travel; it’s a cline. If you walk from village to village from the Gudbrandsdal to Korea or the Sudan, and avoid areas of recent migration, you’ll never find a place where there’s a divide between “white people” and “Asians” or “black people”. Finns look a lot like Norwegians, but they look very slightly more like Koreans than Norwegians do, and so on.
Europeans developed the concept that there were such a thing as “races” when they began voyaging very long distances to the other end of the clines and suddenly meeting lots of people who did look rather different. Nobody in 1492 would have suggested that Sicilians and Tunisians were of different “races”. They’d have noted if asked that 100 people from Normandy would, on average, look a bit different from 100 people from Sicily or Tunis in terms of skin tone, hair and eye color, etc., and that a similar comparison between 100 Sicilians and Tunisians would show similar but smaller differences, but it wouldn’t have been a significant datum to them.
So if you’re worldbuilding, the default state for a human world based on historical conditions is for nearly everyone in any given place to look pretty much alike, with the odd wandering stranger of really different appearance often attracting jaw-dropping astonishment(*). Exceptions would be big trading cities, or areas with recent large-scale migrations over considerable distances. Which were rare, but not completely unknown, often involving long-distance slave trading and/or imperial conquests. The first revolt of black plantation slaves was in southern Iraq in the 800’s AD, and the Rom wandered all the way from India to Ireland during the Middle Ages.
Also, over the long/very long term, migrants tend to blend in and the population reaches a new homogeneity — you’d be very hard put to find definitive traces of Visigothic or Arab migration in Spain without doing sophisticated DNA analysis. Even the most severe social barriers can’t stop this, they just slow it down; eg., white Afrikaners are about 10% African and Asian by descent, and President Obama’s mother has ancestors who were slaves in Georgia.
(*) just after the fall of the Mengitsu dictatorship, a French expedition went to a very remote part of southern Ethiopia where nobody read much and nobody had seen a European for many decades, if ever. A local woman took one look at them and burst into tears. It turned out to be tears of compassion — she thought they must have leprosy, or some other loathsome skin disease.
DNA analysis has also revealed that a worker on an Imperial estate in Italy in the 1st century CE probably came from China — or his father did. People did get around now and then.
Standards for looks can be very odd. When I was in Bangalore for a friend’s wedding a few years ago (Jan and I were standing in for her parents) I noticed something strange. Bangalore is in southern India; the locals are Kannada (Dravidian) speaking, though there are plenty of people there from all over India — booming IT economy. But virtually -none- of the advertising models, media stars and so forth on posters and in newspapers and ads looked like the average local. They looked like Punjabis or Kashmiris, people from NW India.