I get sick of reading physical descriptions of characters again and again. Authors should describe them once when they are introduced, and trust that readers can remember that description for the rest of the book. I don’t need to be constantly reminded of the color of a character’s eyes. (And while we’re talking about eye color, am I the only one who notices how vastly overrepresented gray and green and even violet eyes are in fiction?) I get particularly peeved when the point of the repeated descriptions is to emphasize the physical attractiveness of the characters.
What kinds of passages am I talking about, specifically? Twilight was a big offender. Stephenie Meyer is incapable of mentioning Edward Cullen without going on about his “velvet voice” or his “messy copper hair,” whatever those descriptions even mean. It seemed like every time the character was mentioned, at least one of his physical traits had to be described, as if readers could possibly forget how sexy he is when sexiness is his most important characteristic. Now, Twilight is a pretty blatant and obvious example, but I get really picky about this stuff. I’m even annoyed by a few superfluous adjectives inserted into a scene of sex or kissing. Not just, “She stroked his bicep” (which is bad enough, right?), but “she stroked his strong, firm bicep.” Those adjectives are only there to emphasize the character’s hotness. All the information and emotion you need to understand the scene was already there before those two words got added in. Attention to language means that every unnecessary word is cut out. This overabundance of sexy adjectives usually just feels like wordiness, or sloppy editing.
Some recent books that bothered me with hotness reminders were the Halo series, the Morganville Vampires series, the Blue Bloods series, the Fallen series–and these are only the major offenders that jump out at me in memory. In Fallen the constant descriptions of Daniel’s hotness only served to make his girlfriend Luce seem desperate and unhealthy. In Blue Bloods, the emphasis on characters’ appearances was just a part of a larger problem with materialism and class snobbery. In the Morganville Vampires series, the purpose seemed to be providing a fantasy for readers, painting appealing mental pictures. The biggest problem about that is that this canned human scenery distracts from the more intriguing plot. Halo and Hades were a weird case because they were told from the point of view of an angel, and she constantly harped on the attractiveness not only of her human boyfriend, but of her fellow angels, who she treated as brother and sister, as well as her female human friends. It was like the author was insisting that when this book is made into a movie (God forbid!) all the actors absolutely must be super hot (as if there were any other kinds of actors anyway). All of these books are considered YA.
The only purpose I can see for these recurring descriptions is that it’s fanservice. The authors seem to be assuming that readers want to be sexually titillated. It’s no different from when Alexander Skarsgard and Joe Manganiello take off their shirts in True Blood. Sure, it’s fun to look at, but is it always necessary for the story? No. In this example, and in much of the fiction I’m discussing, the point of view is female, so men are objectified. But how pissed off would I be if it were ladies in skimpy bikinis held up to be ogled instead of men with ripped abs? Very. So really, there’s no difference. Fanservice is fanservice, whether it’s directed toward a male or female audience.
The problem with fanservice is that it makes a bad assumption about what the audience wants. It assumes that the reason we read or watch shows is to be turned on by the characters. It treats the characters like scenery to be gawked at. It objectifies. That’s reason enough not to like it.
When you think about fanservice, you think about gratuitous sexualized images. So it’s probably kind of weird to think about fanservice in a nonvisual media like a novel. But novels are always painting scenes and drawing pictures in the minds of readers. Novels can be very visual indeed; the only difference between a novel and a painting is that in a novel the reader imagines the picture based on a writer’s cues, instead of just looking at something a painter imagined. What’s more, every word in a novel represents a choice to emphasize or deemphasize something about a character or scene. Adding unnecessary physical description words emphasizes a character’s body and sexuality. Those extra words have the same effect as supersizing Catwoman’s boobs or posing her provocatively, just in a verbal medium instead of a visual one.
Now, I know, these scenes are usually told from the point of view of a character who’s falling in love/lust, and so it’s kind of natural they’re preoccupied with the body that’s turning them on so much. But the bodies are not the most interesting thing about a sex scene for an experienced, discerning reader. (In my imagination, all attractive bodies look pretty much the same anyway, but maybe my imagination is bland or underdeveloped in this area.) What’s interesting in a sex scene are the ways emotion is expressed, power dynamics shift, and the relationship grows or is revealed. Even in erotica, this deeper information is more stimulating than generic descriptions of bodies. Diana Gabaldon, a favorite author and a true master of great sex scenes, would agree. Superfluous, generic adjectives about hotness only distract from the scene’s potential to do much more important work.
I read recently that Henry James said there are three questions to ask of a book: 1) What is it doing? 2) Is it doing it well? and 3) Is that thing worth doing? (Don’t take that attribution as gospel: I can’t find the quote again to save my life.) I’ve established that what these novels are doing with these repeated sexualized physical descriptions is fanservice, and some of these novels do it very well. They make the readers fall in love with the characters and get turned on by the scenes and descriptions. But the problem is that this is not really worth doing. Sexualizing and fetishizing characters like this doesn’t reach any worthwhile goals. It doesn’t teach readers anything new about relationships and their possibilities. It doesn’t question gender roles or teach healthy body image. One could even make the argument that fanservice is dangerous and bad for readers, especially young ones. Do you think that all of the twelve-year-old girls who read Twilight and fell in love with Edward and/or Jacob are better off for investing so much emotion into a fantasy? Can any human male live up to a masturbatory fiction of supernatural hotness and pitch-perfect angst? Girls joke about how Edward has spoiled them for all guys, but there is an element of truth to it, and that’s sad.
How can writers avoid fanservice and overemphasizing characters’ physical attractiveness? First of all, they can have realistic characters: people in the real world are not always hot. Second, instead of focusing on bodies, they can zero in on emotions and relationships, because these are not always solely determined by physical attraction. Third, they can write a story substantial enough to hold an audience’s interest without resorting to fanservice. Fourth, they can discuss and even emphasize characters’ physical flaws. Perhaps that person’s lover finds his scars, gray hairs, acne, or spare tire endearing. Fifth, they can edit ruthlessly, questioning every descriptive phrase and weighing its worth to the narrative. These steps are totally doable for any narrative, even erotica, and even YA.