I remember the moment in college when one of my professors pointed out the difficulty inherent in having a book’s narrator describe their physical appearance. It was something I’d never thought much about before he mentioned it, but since that time, I can’t help but notice it in most of the books I read with first-person narration. And since I started reading One for the Money, I haven’t been able to get the idea out of my head.
Not too long ago, my fiancÃ© suggested I read Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and because he knows me pretty well at this point, I downloaded One for the Money–said series’ first book–to my Kindle, and got to reading. I’m now about halfway through, and I still have no idea what Stephanie Plum looks like.
I do, however, know how much she weighs. Oh, and how tall she is.
What color is her hair? Her eyes? I don’t know. And not knowing those things wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t for the fact that her weight and height are very specifically mentioned. Stephanie Plum even makes a point of emphasizing that these stats do not make her overweight; she’s 130 pounds at 5’7″. I’m not sure who was suggesting she was overweight to begin with.
I’m very happy to picture a narrator (or any character, really) looking however I want them to look when no details are supplied. In fact, I sort of like the freedom that gives me as a reader. When I can make a character my own, my experience with the story becomes that much more personal. If, on the other hand, details about the character’s appearance are given, I’m perfectly happy to work those into the portrait taking shape in my head as I read. Really, when it comes to descriptions I can go either way. But what I can’t abide are details that are unnecessary or that really conflict with the rest of the way a character is presented.
In the case of Stephanie Plum, we’re supposedly dealing with a nondescript young woman (29? 30?) who’s been married once, isn’t overly concerned about her clothing choices at any given time, and (judging by the narrative style and what’s said/isn’t said) isn’t overly fussy about her appearance. But, you guys, she is not fat. She does admit, though, that she recognizes she doesn’t have a perfect body. She even implies that she might be on the curvier side. But at 130 lbs. and 5’7″, she’s pretty much tall and slender by any objective measure.
I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why these details are important. Are we, as readers, supposed to infer that she’s self-conscious about her figure? Or that a real woman with the same weight and height should feel that she’s overweight? I find it bizarre that this information would be given at all, and especially confusing in light of how aggressively brash and self-assured Stephanie is supposed to be in every other manner.
More than anything else, though, I can’t help but think about how these two figures wouldn’t even come up in a book with a male narrator/main character. Even though One for the Money was published in 1999, the 18th book in the series is set to publish in late November of this year–clearly we haven’t come so far in the past 12 years that this character (or this style of writing) has worn out her welcome. I guess that ultimately the world of literature isn’t unlike Hollywood; the difference is that in books, the actually-super-beautiful nerdy girl isn’t hiding behind a pair of glasses and frumpy hair, she’s loudly proclaiming how thin she is lest we make the mistake of thinking her fat.