What Not to Do with Character Descriptions

I got my library card almost immediately when we moved to Plainsboro, and anyone who doesn't get one is a fool. All those free books, all of that potential, just waiting for you. I also recently used a book gift card to buy Donna Tartt's newest book, Goldfinch. I started it last week, after finishing one called Fallen Woman (synopsis: a young socialite turned prostitute is murdered in a brothel and her sister comes from NY to Colorado try to figure out who killed her. It's set in the 1800 somethings--I'm not good with the historical details, and it was entertaining, even though I guess who the killer was about half way in, so that was disappointing.The aunt did, okay? Too many clues early on).  I've been trying to get through Goldfinch, but is it shallow to say that the book is just too heavy to read? I read mostly in bed, before falling asleep, and it's difficult to balance a 771 page hardcover book in your hands and still maintain any kind of focus. I guess this is why people love their Nooks and Kindles, but I'm not ready to give up the feel of a book or the smell of printed paper. Also, the plot is a little slow and pretentious--ponderous, one might say if one were given to such vocabulary words. You can read Stephen King's NYTimes book review of it here. He liked it, but then, he also wrote The Stand, which is about 5,000 pages long. If I can get through Goldfinch without breaking my wrist, I'll let you know what I think.

On Sunday, I returned Fallen Woman and picked up another one by a popular writer--I won't name her because I'm also going to dis her; but she's a respected writer (meaning, it's not Danielle Steele or Norah Roberts) who writes thriller type novels. In the first twenty pages, she had two sloppy descriptions which turned me off right away; the kind that when I'm teaching beginning writers, I tell them to avoid because it's a form of cheating. First, she described a lead character by saying that he looked like a more haggard version of Harrison Ford. Why is this cheating? Because it's a pop culture short cut--it lets the writer (and the reader) off the hook of having to actual construct a specific character. Second, she described another character by having her look in the mirror and notice things about herself, that no one ever really notices when looking at her reflection. Like, I don't look in the mirror each morning and note my chestnut colored mane (I would also never use the word "mane" to describe any hair not on a horse) and French sloped nose and hazel eyes.  I might notice if I'm tired or if I have a reddish stye on the inner lid or if my hair is suddenly all white from a frightful dream. I might notice that I need to color my hairline yet again for the 400th time, but I'm not going to take inventory of my basic physical characteristics, ones I've seen since I could reach the mirror. That's the writer being lazy--not wanting to find a way weave the character's appearance into the story or to show it in more startling ways.

But I may soldier on through the book, because it's also very easy to read and doesn't weigh five pounds.

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