Physical Descriptions and the Atmosphere of the Mind

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

I was sitting here writing a short story when it occurred to me that most characters in classic fiction seldom have detailed descriptions of their physical characteristics.  In fact, many have none at all.   If they are described, it is usually in a broad, general way, unless there is some detail the author wants to bring out that reveals something about the character.   While this is a good technique for lean, muscular writing, it also has the benefit of not limiting how the character appears in the reader’s mind.   For example, here is the initial description of Victor Frankenstein when the narrator’s ship rescues him in the arctic in letter 4 (which functions in essence as part of a preface):

“Upon hearing this he appeared satisfied and consented to come on board. Good God! Margaret, if you had seen the man who thus capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. We attempted to carry him into the cabin, but as soon as he had quitted the fresh air he fainted. We accordingly brought him back to the deck and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he showed signs of life we wrapped him up in blankets and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen stove. By slow degrees he recovered and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully.

“Two days passed in this manner before he was able to speak, and I often feared that his sufferings had deprived him of understanding. When he had in some measure recovered, I removed him to my own cabin and attended on him as much as my duty would permit. I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness, but there are moments when, if anyone performs an act of kindness towards him or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing, and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him.”

Very little is said about Frankenstein’s physical state except where it reveals something about his state of mind or gives an idea of the hardships he has suffered in pursuit of his creation.    Because the physical description is so minimal,  the reader may envision Frankenstein in any physical form that he wants or whatever is easiest for him to envision (there is a difference between what we may want to envision and what is easiest or most natural for us to envision).  Frankenstein could be short and dark-haired and dark-complected or tall and blonde and sunburned.  Later on, we learn his family is from Geneva, therefore the reader could envision him as whatever his stereotype of a Swiss man from Geneva happens to be.

Using minimal physical description is therefore an advantage to the author, because it allows the reader to more easily visualize and thus more easily experience the story vicariously, i.e., it allows the reader to more easily immerse himself in the story.  We have all experienced the feeling of being completely immersed in the world of a novel, what Henry James called “the atmosphere of the mind” (see the definition in the Lexicon of Horror) and that is a feeling I want my readers to experience.

Thoughts?  Comments?


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