“As young readers like to know ‘how people look,’ we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters…” — Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
When I was in law school many years ago, I met periodically with a group of other female students to discuss the impact of race on our lives. One of those discussions was about our childhood experiences as readers. We all loved to read, and books had been important to us for as long as we could remember.
The other women of color in the group shared that, as children, they were disheartened by the fact that there were so few books, if any, where the protagonist physically resembled them. To be able to immerse yourself in a book and step into the heroine’s shoes would be marvelous. But these women were not able to do that. I, on the other hand, did that all the time.
How did I manage it? Simple (sort of). I ignored most of the physical descriptions of the characters. And I focused on my similarities with them. Laura Ingalls had dark hair; well, so did I. Jo March had three sisters; me too! And Pippi Longstocking’s bright red hair? Irrelevant. I just skipped over the unimportant information about a protagonist’s blonde hair or blue eyes. After all, anyone can have a little sister who is a pest or have a rough day at school. So, did it matter what the character looked like? Of course not. This could very well be me.
My classmates were shocked to hear this. They could never get past the fact that these books were about kids who looked different from them. As a result, they felt ignored and unrepresented. As a reader, I totally get that. After all, I had to put a lot of effort into including myself in the stories I read. As a writer, I wonder how we can embrace as many readers as possible. Do we really need to include detailed physical descriptions of all our characters all the time? Was Louisa May Alcott correct in saying that young readers want these descriptions? After all, a character’s physical traits are often unimportant to the story.
My first middle grade novel is scheduled for release next year. My main character is, like me, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. The things I say about her physical appearance are that she wears glasses and has frizzy hair. Oh, and I mention that her hair is in two braids in one scene. That’s it. Is this enough? In my opinion, it might be too much.
Of course there are books where a character’s physical appearance is an essential part of the story. In my book, the protagonist’s ethnic background is important, so she must be Dominican. While I picture my main character as looking like me, there is no reason why she has to. She could have fair or dark skin, brown or green eyes, blonde or black hair. None of these details would change this particular story. So, what benefit is there to including a detailed description of her physical appearance?
To this day, when I read I skip over a lot of descriptive information about how the characters look. Because most of the time a brown-eyed girl could have had the exact same adventure as the blue-eyed one in the book. One rule of thumb in writing is that every word should be absolutely necessary. Are detailed physical descriptions absolutely necessary? Sometimes. But not always. And when they’re not, I leave them out. Will my young readers be disappointed? I hope not.