Over the last couple days I've seen some comments on Tumblr and elsewhere around the writing world regarding character descriptions. One comment that sticks out in my mind says something along the lines of, "Why do we have to be told if characters are hot or ugly?"
I don't remember the specific details of this person's comment (I've tried finding them again, but with no success), but they went on to say stuff like, "Authors feel the need to say nerdy girls aren't as attractive as popular girls," and "the bad boys are always hot, but the good guys are always geeky and gross." At the end of their comment, they said, "I wish we weren't told how attractive characters are, but just describe what they look like and we'll decide from there."
Let's be honest. Not all authors are guilty of this...but there's something to be said about popular books, particularly books that appeal to teen girls -- and women in general. This could also explain why there are nearly twice as many girls who read than boys.
Think about the last book you read? Chances are, if the main character was a female, there's plenty of description about how hot a guy she meets is, or how sexy Brad-the-football-captain is. You know, descriptions about his arms, chest, legs, and even face. If they hold hands or touch at any point, the FMC probably talks about how firm, yet gentle his grip is.
I'm right, aren't I?
Now let's think about male narrators. (Male narrators? That's an outrage! We need strong female main characters!) Moving on...in my experience reading books like An Abundance of Katherines, 13 Reasons Why, It's Kind of a Funny Story, and a few others, we're told how cute this one girl is, how hot this other girl is, how big this girl's breasts are, how plump this girls lips are...the list goes on and on.
Point is: both genders are guilty of sexualization.
|I bet you haven't seen WordArt since the 5th grade.|
Let's think about the comments I mentioned above. Why is there a tendency for describe what makes a character attractive? Simple: it should make the character appeal to readers. But think about it: unless you're writing 50 Shades of Gray, is it really necessary to know how hot or ugly a character is? Does it have to be explicitly said, "He's soooo hot, and his muscular biceps are soooo dreamy." (As you can tell, I don't write erotica). Going further, is it necessary to say, "She has the perkiest boobs I've ever seen."
You can argue that these kinds of descriptions are necessary to characterize the main character, that these kinds of thoughts go through people's heads all the time. You'd be right. These thoughts do go through people's heads.
Stay with me.
When it comes to YA fiction, there's a fine line between what's okay, and what's not okay. But in order to determine those, we have to draw a distinct line between contemporary YA fiction and genre YA fiction. I'm defining genre YA fiction as fantasy, science-fiction, paranormal, magical realism, etc etc.
Contemporary YA Fiction
Ex. The Fault in Our Stars, 13 Reasons Why, If I Stay, Fangirl, It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Looking for Alaska, Eleanor & Park
I think it's easy to say contemporary YA has the longest leash when it comes to sexually explicit material and descriptions. These are stories about realistic teenagers living teenager lives, doing teenager things and thinking teenager thoughts. Thus, we're going to see a lot of description about how hot girls are, how muscular guys are, how sensitive guys are, how soft a girl's breasts are...
You get my point.
This genre of YA...this style of writing can get away with that. It's gritty. It's realistic. The readers can immediately relate to the characters because they act like normal teenagers. Perhaps you've even been to the town the character lives in, like the same books, adore the same celebrities. That's the point of contemporary YA: to show you're not alone, and to explore issues revolving around what being a teenager is like.
In my opinion, the sexualization presented in contemporary YA books is okay and normal. Don't go overboard, but if a teenager can think it, it will show up.
Genre YA Fiction
Ex. Divergent, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Eragon, City of Bones, The Maze Runner, Twilight, Matched, Delirium
This is where the line gets drawn. We have to define what is and isn't appropriate for books in these genres. It's a dangerous line that authors must cross carefully.
When it comes to genre fiction, readers aren't coming into the book expecting to read a girl's love life in Small Town, USA. We want an adventure. We want action. We want run-down cities and exotic planets. We want cool guns and serums and magic and death and zombies and monsters and vampires (well, we're getting bored of that).
The point is, we want to escape into a world we can only imagine that will eventually look good on the big screen.
Inevitably, there's a romance brewing in these books. And inevitably, we get to see one character's intimate thoughts about another character. The author, however, has to be careful. Remember, most of us didn't come here for the gushy-gushy makeout session. Most of us are strictly focused on the plot, and we're analyzing how everything that affects the plot.
So when the girl meets the hot guy, we don't want to be bombarded with physical descriptions about the attractiveness of said guy -- usually. It's okay to toss them in there. But remember: in genre fiction, plot is essential.
I recently read a book where the main character -- a girl -- met a literal beast of a man, and all she talked about from there-on-out was how golden his skin was and how wavy his hair was and how warm his chest was, and how big...well...use your imagination.
Now, maybe it's just because I'm a guy and I don't care about how hot that dream-guy was. But when those physical descriptions started taking over, I started losing interest. Descriptions about how hot this dude was were on every. Other. Page. It took me out of the story, and I ended up glossing through the rest.
Let's return to the original comment at the top of this post: "I wish we weren't told how attractive characters are, but just describe what they look like and we'll decide from there."
I, for one, agree with this statement -- but really only for genre fiction. Contemporary can go do whatever it wants. But whether I'm reading a dystopian novel, a paranormal novel, or a speculative fiction novel, I don't care how hot that girl is or how muscular that guy is, and I think a lot of people feel the same way.
We want to read about the world and events and figure out how the characters will overcome the problems. So create that world, ignite those problems, and develop those characters. Don't give us cardboard cut-outs. Give us human beings (or whatever species your characters are).
Here's a tip: tell us what the characters look like. Hair color, height, if they wear glasses, if they stutter. But don't go to Build-a-Hunk™ and start explaining how hot and sexual this character is. We, as readers, don't want to see your late-night bedroom fantasies.
|Yes, even creepier than Bronies.|
So should authors keep it simple? Should genre YA fiction be limited more toward unique traits and features, rather than a fictional Hot-or-Not? Let me know what you think in the comments. Personally, it's okay to toss in a pinch of spice, but don't make it too hot.
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