She Hath a Lovely Face: Characterization & Beauty

We’re reading The Picture of Dorian Gray in Novels this semester, and since we’ve been reading about how well Basil captures Dorian’s essence in his portrait, our first creative project is to annotate selfies (or photos of ourselves, for the student who says he refuses to ever take a selfie on moral grounds) to show what our appearances reveal about our true natures*.The Selfie Picture of Ms. Larkin

Portrait of the Artist as a Young (Wo)man – click to see larger!

One of the things that was mentioned in multiple MWW workshops this year was the idea that–to the dismay of Victorians–phrenology has been disproven; that is, there are much more important things about your character than details of appearance. At her MWW one-day intensive session, The Writer’s Survival Kit, Martha Brockenbrough begged us, “Please don’t start with your protagonist waking up in bed and catching sight of herself in the mirror. Isn’t there a whole lot of stuff that’s more important to know about your character than that she has green eyes?” 

This is an excellent point. Dorian is described as, for example, “this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves,” and as someone who “was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair,” but that’s always followed by things like the fact that “there was something in his face that made one trust him at once” (2, 11**).

Another famously captivating literary man, Jay Gatsby, is described thus:

He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.

And, despite having read Gatsby approximately one zillion times, I can’t for the life of me remember if we ever learn what he looked like–other than that wonderful pink suit, those colorful shirts, the silver shirt and gold tie, all the trappings of wealth that he dressed himself up in. Daisy, I know, is described as having dark hair, and Jordan’s a blonde, which I only remember because I honestly think that Fitzgerald’s a genius except for that little issue (Daisies are white and gold!! How is she not blonde?!?!).

At any rate, I think that this type of characterization–symbolic or lyrical description–is definitely more effective than

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I  must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi presentable.

(That’s the first paragraph of Fifty Shades of Grey, which I know is an easy target, but come on. THAT’S THE OPENING PARAGRAPH. And not to beat a dead horse too badly, but “He is not merely good looking – he is the epitome of male beauty, breathtaking,” is how Christian Grey is described. His original, Edward Cullen, is called “perfect” with great frequency.)

These vague descriptions leave a lot of room for readers to make up their own mental images (not that readers don’t anyway–see my Daisy Buchannan hair-color problem, or the disgusting outcry about The Hunger Games‘ Rue being cast as she was written, as a black girl).

How can you balance the desire to help a reader picture your characters the way you picture them with the knowledge that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? (See the 50 Shades fandom’s responses to various castings of Christian…)

Some writers use a pinterest board to collect images that relate to their stories or characters, or do “fan-cast” blog posts, or make collages, like Jennifer Crusie’s amazing 3-D pieces. I do think it’s really helpful to be consistent–the pictures might help ensure that a character’s eyes don’t change colors, for example, unless they’re supposed to (a la Edward Cullen’s copper-to-blood-red spectrum, letting you know how hungry the poor guy is at any given time).

At any rate, lately I’ve been paying attention to physical characterization, phrenological or no; do any of the spam-bots reading this (or the occasional humans… hi, humans!) have any favorite character descriptions? I’d love to hear about them.



*note that I left out the fact that I’d Photoshopped out my horns and cloven hooves. MWAHAHAHAHA.

**Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.





2 thoughts on “She Hath a Lovely Face: Characterization & Beauty

  1. Descriptions can be so difficult! I love your examples from literature. The description of Jay Gatsby is more interesting than a description of his hair/eye/skin color.

    I have a snippet of description in my novel that I’m fond of: “He was a tall man with black skin and broad shoulders, and Razem had always privately thought he had the most wistful smile in the world.” He’s talking about the Lord-General of the army, who isn’t the sort of guy you would expect to have a wistful smile. And then later, of course, readers find out why he has that smile. 🙂

    But I do still tend to the physical rather than the personality/character description. I’m going to have to work on that!

    1. I like how you set up that juxtaposition in your description, though, so that we get something not too surprising (an army guy who’s broad-shouldered) along with something incongruous (the wistful smile). It’s a lot more interesting than listing off hair/eye/skin colors or whatever. 🙂

      I used to joke that a friend of mine had “Fanfic eyes” because they’re a hazel that really does look brown or green or gray depending on the light, his shirt, and sometimes his mood… that’s one of those facts that’s too strange for fiction!

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