Seeing What You Read: An Author’s Perspective – Guest Post from Kristy Kiernan, author of “Between Friends”

Earlier this week, I told you a little bit about how I read, and asked how you read – specifically about whether or not you visualize characters as you read and, if so, if you use the author’s descriptions to do so – in my post entitled: “Seeing What You Read.” This post emerged from divergent opinions held by Natalie and I about the book “Between Friends” by Kristy Kiernan. Well, the topic elicited a fair amount of discussion, with people coming down on both sides of the issue. A few hours after I posted, I received an email from Kristy Kiernan, who had been following the discussion. She had written out a response, since this is clearly something she has a vested interest in, but hesitated to post it because it got quite long she didn’t want to kill the discussion (as an author posting occasionally is want to do). After a couple of emails back and forth, we decided that I would post her comments as a guest post. I think this is a worthwhile post both because it is interesting to see why she does not choose to describe her characters in detail and also because she raises some bigger questions about publishing and an author’s responsibility to be responsive to her readers. So, without further ado, I give you Kristy’s take on this topic:

It’s difficult to decide if I should pipe up here or not, as it was my book that sparked this discussion, but at the risk of being misread as defensive, I’d love to talk about this, too!

First a disclaimer: A writer is always (or at least by his/her sixth or seventh book!) aware that everyone has their own reading quirks and that s/he won’t always please everyone. The best we can do is to please ourselves first and hope we’re somewhere near the target for a large percentage of other people. I am a reader, first and foremost. I have opinions like any other reader, and that will naturally spill over into what I write. I have great respect for others’ opinions, and offer my own only to add to the discussion of a topic that interests me, a topic that I’ve given a good amount of thought to over the years, not as a defense of my choices as an author.

As a reader I completely skip over character description unless it’s integral to the plot for some reason. Like, say, it’s important to know some physical characteristics of Owen Meany. But other than that, it has been my reader experience that character description is often substituted for character development, and lack of character development is the main reason I will put a book down. I actively dislike it, and it is a deliberate choice to leave it out of my own books.

This is such a point with me, in fact, that I’ve even named it: auburn curls tumbling over the back of her green sweater syndrome. And it loses me as a reader every time. Tumbling auburn curls tell me nothing about a character. How she speaks to her family, how she goes about doing her job, how she feels about the choices she’s made in life, how she deals with the obstacles the author has deviously placed in her way–those are the things that give me a fully-rounded idea of who a character is.

And that takes time. Which, is, of course, why it’s called “development.” Characters are like friends to me, and I don’t care about what my friends look like (though all of mine are shockingly gorgeous, of course!). It has nothing to do with who they are, and who they are won’t be fully revealed to me until we’ve been friends for a while.

However, and this is a big however, this is certainly not the first time this particular criticism has been leveled at one of my books, and I do feel myself beginning to break. Unless you’re in a rarefied position in your publishing career, you’d be a fool to not take note of the things that seem to consistently crop up as issues for readers. And since criticism is nearly always more specific than praise (I frequently hear: “I didn’t like that I didn’t know what the characters looked like.” I rarely hear: “I loved that she left it up to me to visualize what the characters looked like.”), writers do tend to hear specific criticisms whispering in their ear when they start a new book.

So the question turns to: how much do you adjust your own writing style in order to please the largest number of readers? Is it selling out, or being smart? Is it capitulating, or is it learning? It’s a fine line, and it’s something that almost every writer I know struggles with.

Believe it or not, most of us do read nearly everything out there about our books. We read the reviews on Amazon and GoodReads and blogs, we read the responses, we read it all. And we want to please readers – heck, we want to please a lot of readers…or we simply won’t be in this business for long.

So, with my third novel published, and still hearing this criticism from readers (interestingly, I’ve never heard it from anyone within the industry itself, which brings up a whole other issue–are those in the industry in touch with what readers want?), there’s no question that it’s one of those choices I struggle with when writing my new book.

Do I actively change my writing style to suit more readers, despite the fact that I don’t personally like whatever it is? Or is that just stubborn? Am I saying I have nothing left to learn about how to write a book? That seems a little arrogant. Do I, instead, try to learn from it, and then look for a way to include it, but in a way that fits my style? After all, surely I don’t have to use tumbling auburn curls? If I’m talented, shouldn’t I be able to figure out how to balance the cheesiness factor of that kind of construction (my opinion) with my own, more subtle sensibilities?

And that’s where I’m at now. It’s been mentioned too many times for me to ignore it. I am not yet in that rarefied position in which I can. Few are, really, and even if I were, would I want to ignore readers? Another fine line. You can’t please everyone, and trying to is a mighty short trip to insanity.

I’m more than halfway through my new novel, and I have made an effort to include more character description, while trying to not use it as a crutch for character development. We’ll see how it goes.

I know I’ll be reading about it when it comes out though.

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17 comments to Seeing What You Read: An Author’s Perspective – Guest Post from Kristy Kiernan, author of “Between Friends”

  • Great guest post, Kristy! (I happened to have come across, coincidentally, a Red Room post of yours yesterday about 1-star reviews that also thought was very cool.)

    I really don’t notice when authors don’t describe characters. And I *do,* usually, when they do. And neither of these seems better or worse to me, if it is in keeping with the essence of a book. That is, if “looks” are, to some extent, intrinsic to the subject or theme of a book, it would seem wrong to me to not have the characters described. (My novel, for instance, takes place in a very appearance-conscious place, where everything from haircuts to designer-brand-names are important. Or, in Westerfeld’s UGLIES series, not knowing what people looked like would seem, well, odd.)

    But most of the time, in most books, I don’t take notice of character description (or whether it indeed exists at all), and tend to just imagine folks whose “looks” (in my head) fit the way they feel/seem to me. Because yeah, appearance plays into my mental composite of a character–and of real people. That doesn’t mean I judge folks by appearance or that I tend, even, to think better (or worse) of conventional prettiness or handsomeness. It just means that their “look” is part of what makes up “character” in my head.

  • Kay

    I’m just going to comment on this post and not go back to the original one to chime in.

    I have never considered this issue specifically I don’t think. I had to sit and think a minute what my opinion actually is. I loved BETWEEN FRIENDS and I don’t think I noticed the lack of description. I must have been picking up on the personality traits in some other manner or it just didn’t strike me as important. I was so drawn in to the story itself.

    I know there have been books that were made into movies where I didn’t feel a character had been accurately represented, at least in my opinion. I’ve had that problem a bit with the Harry Potter characters. Maybe that is the problem with excessive description. How could a character that is so meticulously described be duplicated and what about series characters? What if the author forgot something?

    Kristy, thanks for the post here. Something to definitely ponder. Of course, you must do as you see fit in your writing, but for me, no adjustment is necessary. Jen, great issue to ponder. Thanks for sharing!

    • Funny you said that about the Harry Potter characters. I mentioned in the original post that when I saw the movie I was SHOCKED to see Malfoy as a blond, although going back that IS how Rowling wrote him.

    • Funny you said that about the Harry Potter characters. I mentioned in the original post that when I saw the movie I was SHOCKED to see Malfoy as a blond, although going back that IS how Rowling wrote him.

  • Kirsten

    I’m also catching up on my google reader (that damned mocking 1000+!!!) and went back to read the original post after seeing this response. I’m with the author on excessive description, and this response is enough to put Between Friends on my wish list. Bravo for balance and listening to the readers without pandering.

  • Hi Jen and Kristy!

    This is an interesting topic… I’m somewhere in the middle but probably closer to wanting minimal description. I prefer just an idea of what the person looks like, but like Kristy said, prefer to know more about the person’s characteristics, etc. I’ve read books before where after reading for a while, I realize there was never a description of the character and, yet, I had managed to conjure up the character in my mind.

    Kristy, I totally admire your ability to take someone else’s criticism and sincerely consider it, but don’t change your style too much, lol!!

  • I prefer less physical description unless it is integral to knowing and understanding a character. I think I prefer it because it allows me to imagine what a character looks like and that is part of the thrill of reading for me – I am sure this is also related to why I am generally disappointed in the movie versions of a favorite book.

    Great topic and post!

  • I’m with you 100% on not liking “the curls tumbling over the back of her green sweater syndrome”! Too much description just gets in the way. Like Tanya, I don’t notice when a writer leaves it out, but it annoys me when they’re overly descriptive. So maybe Kristy has more fans who love the way she writes and don’t want her to change, but they’re not very vocal? Adding Between Friends to my wishlist, as I can’t wait to read the book that inspired such a great discussion!

  • Robbie

    I think changing your writing style to suit certain demographics is entirely a monetary consideration. If you’re a good writer before you make said changes, you can probably make them while remaining a good writer. Thus, the question becomes–how much money do you want to make?

  • Well, now I can actually come comment (I’ll keep it short!). Thanks all for your thoughtful comments. Again, I’m a reader first, always. So it’s a real delight simply to be having the conversation. I’ll always remain open to reader feedback, while trying to stay true to my own sensibilities, and I just love the fact that that seems to be understood and appreciated. Writers can often be left out of that particular loop, and it’s very uplifting and encouraging, so, thank you.

  • A book is a work of art that flows from the writer, and should reflect the author’s own sensibilities. Can you imagine saying to an impressionist artist, “hey, nice painting, but next time could you use a little more detail? And add some auburn curls – I love how they look against a green sweater.”

  • Speaking as both a writer and an editor, how a person looks–or rather, chooses to look can be a very important element of character development. As an example, consider the very traditional young woman with long, long hair who, in the course of self-discover, has it cut and styled so that it reflects her internal changes. Or who opts to keep it but begins wearing it in a different way, perhaps because she wishes to keep those parts of her tradition that she sees as a benefit. Or just because she thinks it’s easier to manage.

    Do you react the same way to a pair of large dark-brown eyes as you do to a pair of sky-blue ones? Do short eyelashes affect you the same way as long, thick ones?

    The thing is, getting those details right is hard, because normally we are going to use descriptive details as we would react to them ourselves. It requires not just an understanding of why people do what they do in response to physical characteristics but to know our characters so well we can step beyond our own reactions and take on theirs.

    So, while I understand what everyone else is saying, I’m still not convinced leaving the description up to readers isn’t something of a cop-out, a way of avoiding the hard work actually making that description count requires.

  • Ali

    Fascinating topic. As a reader, I tend to fill in the details mentally as I “meet” a character and so it only annoys me if the description comes too late. Also, I notice that there are far more people with green eyes in books than in real life. As a writer, I’ve been told to add more character description and so I try to slip it in as the plot moves along.

  • Now I’m interested in this book, but it’s not any any of the 3 libraries I have cards to. :-(

  • I loved Catching Genius and didn’t notice the lack of physical description of the characters. I would rather know a character, than have them physically described to me. That being said, I’m not opposed to the physical description, I just don’t want that to be all there is.

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