Whenever you write a character into existence, there is an expectation that you must describe them. You’ve made them, so you have to tell other people what they’re like, elaborating on the height, weight, eye color, hair color, skin color, general features, behaviors, and facial features…or so some readers would have you believe.
Yet, if you look at literature through the years, there have been many memorable characters who weren’t described in much detail at all, and some authors, instead of giving all the physical information at once, relegated such details into tiny packets that are given out over chapters, not minding that the reader is left in the dark about things like hair color or eye color.
First, I wanted to look at a rather minimalistic approach as seen through Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.
Lizzy is introduced in Chapter One as having “something more of quickness than her sisters.” Then, in a few chapters, we’re told that she’s “very pretty,” but not handsome enough to tempt Mr. Darcy. Then, later, we get the following paragraph.
“Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.
“To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”
Her figure is “light and pleasing,” which is left to the reader to interpret, and we’re told she has dark eyes. But whether dark hazel or black or brown, we don’t know, and we still aren’t told what her hair color is, even by the end of the book, even though the author has a few splendid opportunities for sneaking it in–once, when two characters are discussing the sad state of Miss Bennet’s hair as a result of walking across country to see her sister, and another time when she’s in the middle of having her hair arranged.
It is almost as though the author deliberately avoids telling us too much about what her characters look like, yet this choice doesn’t seem to have alienated readers, for most have always had a strong sense of who and what Elizabeth Bennet is. Much like the appearance of rooms, which is left entirely to a reader’s imagination, a character’s appearance is hinted at but not “spelled out.” Readers build on the outline Jane Austen gave us, which can create just as strong (if not a stronger) sense of appearance as a laundry list of attributes, since the reader’s own imagination gets to fill in the blanks.
The minimalistic approach isn’t commonly adopted by writers, but it is certainly a choice that we can use. We don’t “have to” describe everything. Physical features can be eluded to rather than being the driving force behind a memorable character, though I imagine that readers generally craft a sense of “Lizzy-ness” more from her dialogue and behavior than from her looks. If there isn’t that much to set a character apart in terms of appearance, it might be best to skip it and move along with the story rather than belaboring minutiae that ultimately won’t be remembered anyways.
Tomorrow, we’ll examine a more detailed description of a literary character in Anna Karenina…a sort of “medium” option when it comes to character appearance, and on Sunday, we’ll look at the full and complete description, done well, in Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.
And it’s not too late to join us in the “Characters in Costume Blogfest.” Click here to see the list of participants and to join the fun this weekend. 🙂
Copyright Andrea Lundgren 2016
19 thoughts on “Describing Memorable Characters: Elizabeth Bennet”
You raise an interesting point! Do you think some writers feel unnecessary pressure to “describe” their characters, even when it is not necessary?
I’ve often wondered if the level of description an author provides is connected with how visual the author is – how much they “see” or visualize their character, or do you think some books or stories require more description because of the nature of the story?
It is amazing how vibrant Elizabeth is as a character, despite the lack of details!
I think there can be a pressure to describe things and characters, especially in certain genres. Fantasy almost always needs more description for us to see this world that is, and isn’t, like ours, but one can try to hard and do to much, bogging down a narrative with description that just doesn’t add anything to the story.
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I love Austen’s focus on dialogue and interaction in Pride and Prejudice – inner character is more the emphasis, than outward appearance. There are more paragraphs devoted to Elizabeth’s interactions with others and of her mind – the turmoil and the amusement she feels, the process of her coming to realizing truths about herself and the people around her. I think this is what makes for a timeless character – someone you remember for their depth and their vulnerability, for the things that don’t fade.
Absolutely! But there was enough description that I never felt that she was a disembodied character, just floating through scenes with no form or figure, like a ghost or a voice over a speaker or something like that.
What a fascinating observation about Austin’s lack of description of her heroine, Lizzy. I have not read Pride and Prejudice for years. Now I am curious and I want to re-read it. Thank you, your post made me think 😊 Did she not describe Darcey too?
I agree; this technique certainly worked for the reader. I wonder if Austen left these descriptions out about Lizzy because she might have perceived them somehow vain?
Back to Austin, loved your post x
She weaves in about the same amount of description for Darcy: “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” and even when Elizabeth is looking at his portrait, she merely notes that he smiles in a way that she’d seen him smile towards her, at times. Ultimately, she seems to prefer hints to detailed descriptions, and it’s not that her time period didn’t go heavy on details–reading Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth gives you a clear idea that most described the same, hair color, general posture, features, etc. You can see her make fun of this in Northanger Abbey, actually. 🙂
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Excellent…I just learned a very important aspect of one of my favorite writers…thank you, Andrea! This is great!
Very interesting! I hadn’t thought about it before, but I do know that in modern books I often get irritated by the minute descriptions of appearance and clothing – somehow it gets in the way of the storytelling. In fact, I must skim read descriptions, because I often still have no sense of what a character looks like at the end, and no feeling that I’ve lost anything as a result. Dickens is a major exception, but even he tends, I think, to describe his quirky or exaggerated characters much more than he does his heroes and heroines – or else I just take those descriptions in more. For instance, I know what Uriah Heep looks like but I’m not at all sure that I could physically describe David Copperfield. Thanks for the food for thought… and for hosting the blogathon! 🙂
You’re very welcome! Dickens is my example of “giving us all the details” for a good reason. 🙂
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This was a really interesting post that made me think a lot about the books I have read. When there isn’t a detailed description of a character’s look (sometimes even when there is) I tend to create them in my own mind. It becomes hard to separate how they look in my mind and often that image remains with my memories of the book. That’s why sometimes it can be hard when you see a movie about a book you’ve read and it disturbs the image that you’ve created in your mind. I look forward to reading your other posts!
You must be a very visual reader. It can be hard with movies, and sometimes, I think it works better if I pretend the movie isn’t “supposed to be” like the book–that it’s an entirely different story with shared similarities.
Does it help any if you watch the movie first, or does that create a movie version of the characters that clashes with the page?
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I have a big imagination so I am definitely a visual reader! Sometimes watching the movie first changes how I view the character when I read the book. But sometimes the two do clash. There are times when the actor is so right for the part that it is all I can picture no matter what.
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Interesting article, but I think that by telling us that Elizabeth had lovely dark eyes, Austen implies that Elizabeth’s was a blonde since in England the combination of fair hair and dark eyes was considered very stunning in the historical context because of how rare it was. It’s a bit like how people with natural blue eyes and blonde hair are rarer than they were in the past in places like the UK and USA so people in those areas find those traits appealing.
Several illustrations of Pride and Prejudice picture Elizabeth as a blonde (or light haired, though if she had been a red head, it would have been mentioned) specifically for this reason. I think that the primary thing anyone who is reading a book written in the past should do, is familiarise themselves with the history and society of the time and remember that the author is always writing for a contemporary audience, not one in an unknown future. It’s obvious that Elizabeth is blonde. A brunette with dark eyes would be very common or “plain” in the England at the time.
I think the only reason why Elizabeth Bennet is portrayed as a brunette in films is because it’s easier to get an attractive blonde to play Jane and an attractive brunette (or blonde with dyed hair) to play Elizabeth than to get a two blondes, one of whom is universally admitted to be less beautiful, but is still attractive enough to be visually appealing and sympathetic to the audience.
Also I think that the brunette heroine is basically a very common trope, used to sell media. Women want to imagine themselves as the heroine (whether they understand the historical context or not, and most do not understand P&P, since I’ve actually seen people claim that Elizabeth was lower class when in fact she was a member of the landed gentry!). Most women on the planet are brunettes with dark eyes, and that’s why Elizabeth is portrayed as a brunette.
I think that people tend to overthink Jane Austen’s work. Austen’s book are very enjoyable but they’re the supermarket fiction of their time. Jane Austen doesn’t describe Elizabeth’s hair because it was obvious to readers in that time. This is why the past is so hard to fathom, because there will always be parts of culture that don’t need to be explained to contemporaries that are completely mysterious to future people.
Thanks so much for your comment! I’ve read a lot of historical works about Jane Austen’s time period, but I never came across a discussion about the demographics of England and what they’d look like. Do you know a book that mentions this? That would be a fascinating read.
You’re absolutely right, it can be so easy to discuss “your time” in a contemporary novel that there’s a lot you won’t say, though many of her peers included descriptions of what their heroines looked like. In fact, I remember Jane Austen poking fun of such things at one point, so I always found it remarkable that she doesn’t say what her characters look like…but, as you said, she might have found other ways around this problem thanks to how her society looked at the time. 🙂