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Who do you see?

newme
So the hubs and I were discussing my blog post for the day, which was going to be about "street teams" and the writer/reader relationship. It's still a topic I want to blog about, but frankly, our discussion veered off and gave me the giggles, and I'm in the mood to have some fun today rather than be serious, so this is what you get instead. (You'll eat it...you'll eat it and like it!)

How it got started was talking about reshelving books, which led into a bit about how AA authors are relegated to the AA section. Hubs pointed out that AA crime/noir writer Walter Mosley is shelved in Crime. Hmm.

"Well, crime isn't like romance," I said. "Maybe AA romances are shelved in AA because there's a feeling that white readers won't be attracted to an AA hero?" (Okay, disclaimer time: This is simply conjecture on my part. I'm not accusing anyone of anything, I'm not saying I feel this way, I don't approve of this shelving practice, and this is only a lead-in to today's topic. I know you guys know that but I wanted to make it clear anyway.)

"So, what," said the hubs. "People won't read a book if the hero isn't their type?"

"Well, I'm not generally attracted to blond men, so I look for books with dark-haired heroes and I'll buy one of those before I'll buy a book with a blond hero. And if the book looks really good and I can't resist it but the hero is blond, I picture him in my head as dark anyway."

Hubs shook his head. "That's weird. You wouldn't be interested in the story if the hero wasn't attractive to you? You wouldn't enjoy it anyway?"

"Well, if you look at naked lady pictures, don't you have a particular type that you like to look at more than another type?"

The conversation degenerated a bit from there, with hubs suggesting outlandish social studies wherein the hair color of naked ladies is disguised and men are asked to grade the photos's attractiveness level, etc. etc. From there it went to whether or not I picture certain actors and/or actresses in my head when writing characters (I don't) and that there's no way to be certain the face you describe is the face the reader sees, etc. etc. etc.

But it made me start thinking. When reading a books, of any genre, do you try to picture the character as described, or do you tend to put your own "face" on the characters? Do you like or dislike lines like "He looked like Brad Pitt"?

I dislike them. I think it's lazy. But more than that, I think it limits the reader's imagination. I want to give them room to play; I want them to have some freedom of interpretation. Not that I want things to be totally ambiguous; at this point hubs was suggesting I write character description like, "He was dark, or maybe pale, or short or tall." Ha ha. So my description tends to be sketchy, just enough to give the reader an idea.

But even then, does my propensity for tall, dark heroes turn off those who like short, stocky blonds? Or does it bother you when you get only an outline? Does it bother you when you don't get a description right up front (This is another issue; there are people who get upset when a character isn't described right away while at the same time condemning every writer's trick for describing. No looking in mirrors allowed, no thinking about the color of your hair as you push it out of your face, no "pale tresses", no nothing. I agree with all of those--well, except for "She pushed her dark/pale hair out of her face," because I think complaining about that is a little pedantic, although I don't do it myself and don't think it's a huge deal either way. I mean, I may not think "I'm pushing my blonde hair out of my eyes" but if it's in my eyes I'm seeing the color and I do know what color it is anyway)?

In other words, what do these people look like to you? Does that change as you get to "know" them better? Does their appearance have any effect on your enjoyment of the book?


A Couple of Endnotes:

The Book Roast blog is up and running! So please pop by and hang out for a while, there's lots of cool stuff going on!

Thanks to all those who emailed or commented about my MIL. She is fine, doing very well.

Comments

( 21 people said — Say something )
tmthomas
Jun. 23rd, 2008 01:40 pm (UTC)
I have one character who looks like Jimmy Stewart. He's a human who was around during WW2 and is still looking young in the modern day, so I chose an actor from the period as a quick way for him to relate that things have changed.

Generally, though, I don't model my characters off the appearance of any known person. But really, I don't know why...they just sort of appear to me in my head, more or less complete.

That said, sometimes they do change over time. Usually via an expansion of backstory as I get to know them, which can have a physical impact. In my supernatural crime family novel, eg, Whittier Wade has always been a slight blond with crazy eyes. As I've built backstory for him, I've made him increasingly preppy and well-kept, which was a level of detail that was lacking in my initial takes on the character.

Then again, I'm an utter hack, so take that with a shaker of salt.
tom_gallier
Jun. 23rd, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
I prefer the characters be described upon introduction. If no description is given, my mind creates an image for them. And if ticks me off when the writer mentions some trait that conficts with my image 5 chapters in. I don't have to have a lot of discription: hair color/length, eyes, height/weight. I like to know how they are dressed, too. That give major clues to what kind of person the character is. I detest stories where no description is given.

Even in first person, it doesn't bother me if characters give descriptive phrases about themselves or describe themselves. I want that description.
david_bridger
Jun. 23rd, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC)
I don't mind if a writer gives a description, but I don't need one. And I don't like giving them for my characters.
psynde
Jun. 24th, 2008 03:47 am (UTC)
I like a simple discription but if they say something like "looked like brad pitt" I won't continue. I want my imagination to fill in the blanks. I also don't get into blond hero's with one exception. Kim Harrison's Kisten Felps.. his look changed as I read more of him.But so did his written eye color from book 1 to 2 so I figured changing his looks in my head was all good.
otherwise Dark hair dark eyes..uh yep..
(Anonymous)
Jun. 24th, 2008 03:17 pm (UTC)
I hate too much description as well. The basics are fine, tall or short, fat or slim, dark-haired or blonde, blue-eyed or brown. That's fine. But when it gets all detail-y and overwrought, I spend way too much mental energy trying to get the right picture in my head.

This is why I don't like faces on my covers. Body parts work best for me.

As for the AA stuff, I have an African-American friend who reads this type of romance and doesn't have any problem with it being shelved separately. In fact, she prefers it, because then you can find exactly the kind of book you are looking for. So, I say, ask those who are likely to be offended before you decide it's dumb or strange or off-putting. If those who read it like it that way or find it useful, then who cares?
stacia_kane
Jun. 24th, 2008 03:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it is a problem with faces on covers, isn't it? Personally I can "block" the faces as I read, but only sometimes.

I know some AA readers like it, but I also know quite a few AA writers who are vocally and vehemently opposed to the practice, feeling they're being shut out from a large portion of the romance-reading audience. Seressia Glass came to do a guest blog for the League on this very topic back in February:

http://www.leagueofreluctantadults.com/2008/02/guest-blogger-seressia-glass.html

So I'm of two minds about it, because I see your friend's point, but I also see hers. :-)
(Anonymous)
Jun. 24th, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)
I definitely could see why a writer might not like the AA categorizing...but then again, she must think about her audience. If they aren't offended that it is shelved in the AA section and LIKE that they find her there...what is the problem?

I guess it could be the same issue as me being annoyed that some romantic suspense authors are shelved under "mystery" and others under "thriller" and others under "romance."

I can see both sides of the argument, but since I am not African-American myself, I guess I don't feel that I should have a say in it. Some think it sucks, others don't. So it becomes a moot issue and everything stays the same.

stacia_kane
Jun. 25th, 2008 09:58 am (UTC)
Oh, I do see the point in the shelving. But for a writer trying to expand her audience, the problem is that the majority of romance readers browse the Romance section, not the AA section, if they're even aware it exists. A large portion of those readers would probably be just as happy to read a good romance with AA characters, but they're never exposed to them so they don't.

The final effect is that AA writers make a lot less money simply because of the color of their skin. And those readers who specifically want romance written by AA writers or featuring AA characters should be able to find those writers and characters in the regular romance section just as easily as they do in the AA section. (It's not just AA characters either; once the writer has been identified as AA their books go in that section whether or not they're written AA characters. There was a big lawsuit about just this issue not long ago; check this link for some interesting reading:

http://bestsellingauthor.blogspot.com/2007/01/millenia-blacks-complaint.html

It's a very complex issue, and it does have two legitimate sides. Certainly the logic that AA readers shouldn't have to hunt through hundreds of titles to find the book with AA characters is a legit argument, as is the simple marketing concept that you want to shelve books where they're most likely to be noticed by their target audience. It's only where it affects the bottom line of writers that it can be a problem, and I just find it surprising that no one has been able to come up with a better solution.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 25th, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC)
You are assuming that shelving is what is causing AA romance to have less sales. I don't think that is the case. I hate to say it, but I think AA romance is niche reading. Seems ridiculous, but it's true.

Just like in the erotic romance world M/M is hot, F/F is not. F/F just does not sell as well. Who the hell knows why, but it's true. Some epubs are now turning down F/F romance.

I know that AA romance is out there, but I just don't have an interest. It's too far outside my cultural comfort zone. I'm a white person, so in my head I visualize hot white guy. So why would I go purchase an AA romance? I wouldn't.

Now, I have read books with AA characters, to include the fabulous Octavia Butler (!) and Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan--and really enjoyed them (esp. Kindred by Butler...GREAT book!). But for some reason I just have no interest in AA romance.

Markets are so tricky. And I don't think publishers are just paying authors less b/c they are thinking of it as a 'lesser' book...they just know the sales history, and the sales aren't as strong.
stacia_kane
Jun. 25th, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
I'm not assuming anything, actually. All I'm saying is if you write a romance, maybe it should go in romance with the other romances, rather than being relegated to a separate section, mixed in with all sorts of other genres, simply because of the color of your skin. Not the characters's skin necessarily; Suzanne Brockman has been writing interracial couple/AA heroes and heroines for years and her sales haven't suffered. But because of the color of the writers's skin.

I do get what you're saying about cultural differences. But I also know that I never actually lived in medieval Wales but I wrote a romance set there and had no trouble relating to those characters, nor did my readers. I've read Regencies and related to those characters; I've read books with all sorts of characters the like of whom I've never actually met, and still related. Hell, I write about demons and vampires. I don't know any of them but I don't have a hard time understanding them. If you enjoy other books by AA writers, with AA characters, why do you think you wouldn't be able to relate to an AA romance?

Obviously you're free to buy or not buy books based on any arbitrary preference you have; I do it all the time. Scottish historicals tend to drive me batty with the historical innacuracy and badly rendered accents, so I don't read them. Nor do I enjoy contemporaries. Hell, as I just said, if I'm choosing between a book with a blond hero and a book with a dark one I'll usually take dark, and it doesn't get more arbitrary than that.

I just think there are a lot of romance readers out there who would be willing, even happy, to give a romance with AA characters a read, but they don't even know those books are out there. An AA romance is still a man and a woman overcoming the odds to fall in love; it's not two men or two women or two guys and a girl. The only difference between a mainstream AA romance and a mainstream romance is the color of the characters's (or writers's) skin, and I just don't think it's fair to refuse to give them the same exposure as other (read: white) writers get, especially when those white writers are writing AA or interracial couples.

Like I said, it's a complex situation, and I see the benefits on both sides. I just wish there was a better solution than segregation based on skin color.
sandbagger
Jun. 25th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
As long as nothing gets in the way of me imagining any female character I read as looking like Maria Conchita Alonso...

...then I'm happy.

stacia_kane
Jun. 25th, 2008 11:06 pm (UTC)
*sigh* Yes. I know. And I'm tired of wearing the mask and talking with a fake accent, seriously.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 26th, 2008 03:53 am (UTC)
Seressia Glass here. I understand that there are readers who "can't relate" to AA characters. Those aren't the ones I desire to reach. There are plenty more who say they just want to read a good story and they don't care what the ethnicity of the characters or the authors. Those are the readers that I want, and those readers frequent the romance section because that's where they believe all the romance books are.

I would hope no one here thinks it's okay for books that feature AA characters written by white authors to be shelved in regular romance while the same stories by black authors are segregated under the excuse of "niche marketing."
(Anonymous)
Jun. 26th, 2008 03:59 am (UTC)
Monica Jackson actually wrote a nice thought provoking article on this subject on Blogging in Black (http://blogginginblack.com/?p=885). I think it's worth taking a read through.
stacia_kane
Jun. 26th, 2008 08:42 am (UTC)
Wow, that is a great article, thanks!
(Anonymous)
Jun. 26th, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)
"Maybe AA romances are shelved in AA because there's a feeling that white readers won't be attracted to an AA hero?"

I understand, and ohmygosh this is a sensitive issue, but I don't disagree with separate shelvings. To me it's simply just a way to make it easier to tell what's in the book. I will not avoid a book because it has AA characters or written by an AA writer.

*Do you like or dislike lines like "He looked like Brad Pitt"? *

I dislike it. I never thought of it as lazy, but.. yea it kinda is. I agree that it limits the imagination of the reader. It's not only because how they look might not jive with my preference. Say, Pierce Brosnan. I associate him strongly with his James Bond character (interpretation?). So if a writer uses him to describe a character, and the character does not behave as how Pierce behaves as Bond, it jars me out of the book because i constantly have to adjust the character in my mind to fit the face.

S.Brockmann does this sometimes, but some of the times she gets it right. One of her character in her Troubleshooters series is balding. IIRC, she describes him as "the sexiest balding man in the world, like Bruce Willis". I didn't mind that. That made me understand the sexiness of the balding situation, without me having to attach the face to the character.

I believe a good book is a good book, (and handsome men are handsome men), but when I read a good book with lines likening/describing a character with men I don't find particularly attractive i.e. Pierce Brosnan or Mel Gibson (and I've read those names in a book many, many times), I would almost prefer not to read the book. Don't get me wrong, they are attractive men, but not the type I'd get in bed with. Oy, I'm rambling, but I think you'll get my point.

I have a set of faces to attach to black haired heroes, blonds, brunettes, so on so on. I like it when the hero is described almost generally, like dark and tall, but with a distinguishing feature say flat eyebrows, gravelly voice. What I do is put that distinguishing feature to my template face. It's like playing The Sims :) Come to think of it, I think Lisa Kleypas' description of heroes hits the right spot with me.

I have a friend who will not read a book if the hero is not blond. And I mean, WILL NOT READ THE BOOK. I guess I do the same with Asian heroes even though I *am* an Asian, but lucky me, Asian heroes are rarer than blond heroes, so I still have mountains of choice. I am prejudiced against my own race. Go figure.

Sorry to ramble. Sore spot. Thank you for the space.
stacia_kane
Jun. 26th, 2008 01:32 pm (UTC)
See, that's the thing, though. With all due respect, if it's a romance, romance is in the book regardless of what color the characters are. I really genuinely do understand the feeling that the shelving makes it easier to find what you're looking for, because I've always wished the romance shelves were divided by subgenre (historical pre-regency, regency, contemporary, etc. etc.) But it bothers me that just because a writer is black their books are shelved out of genre.
I think a lot of readers feel the way you do, and wouldn't avoid a book because the characters are AA; so why shouldn't they be given a chance to see those books? To be perfectly honest, while bookstores in the UK (at least the ones I've been to) don't have AA sections (well, of course not, because they're not American, but they don't have Black sections), I never looked in the AA section in bookstores in the US because I assumed it was non-fiction, like Black History Studies and that sort of thing. So I inadvertently cut myself off from even seeing an AA romance, because those books weren't where I was looking.

I just don't get why Romance is segregated when Crime isn't. Frankly as a white woman I'm a little insulted that the bookstores think they need to hide the AA stuff from me or won't give me a chance to decide for myself.

It is a sensitive issue and I really appreciate your comment.

As far as the "sexy bald Bruce Willis" thing, I guess what gets me about that specific example is...the character should be sexy anyway, despite the bald (although I don't have a problem with bald myself so that wouldn't turn me off anyway.) A character should be able to be seen as sexy by the reader regardless of looks, because of the way he's written. That's no disrespect meant to Ms. Brockmann, it's just my opinion.

And I think Asian men are really sexy. :-) I'm sorry you won't read them (again, you have every right to be as arbitrary as you like, I'm not judging in any way) because I have a sexy Asian guy (though not the hero) in the next Demons book and my agent is shopping a book with an Asian love interest now (fingers crossed.)

Thanks so much for the comment(s)!
(Anonymous)
Jun. 26th, 2008 12:51 pm (UTC)
Ah, anon 12:48 was I, Anita R. Good day.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 28th, 2008 06:25 pm (UTC)
It's so simple
Stacia, I ordered your book! I did this even though I assume the characters aren't black. Race has nothing to do with my enjoyment of a good story. If it did, if I decided I couldn't relate or didn't want to by that book because it was by a white person, I'd be a racist. Simple, huh?

Treating books by black authors differently isn't any more complex than sending black kids to a school far away because somebody decided all black kids should be together and away from the white kids. Rationalizations are just complicating and clouding the issue for white comfort and black toleration--just as was done to justify why blacks had to sit at the black of the bus back in the day. I'm sure it was said it was for our own good back then too.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 28th, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
Re: It's so simple
Dang, the previous comment was by me, Monica Jackson. Did you guess that already :-)
stacia_kane
Jun. 28th, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC)
Re: It's so simple
OMG seriously? You're really Monica Jackson?! *little squee* I can't believe you visited my blog!

And thanks for ordering the book! No, no AA characters, although I've been wondering lately why and have felt a little weird about that. But no, it doesn't matter to enjoyment of a good story. At least I hope it doesn't as regards mine. :-)

I loved the post Seressia linked me to, and I totally admire your outspokenness and your work. Thanks for the comment!
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