So, I’ve been reading Len Deighton novels lately, most notably his “Game, Set, Match” and “Hook, Line, Sinker” trilogies concerning the character Bernard Samson. I read through the first five books with a particular sort of impression of various characters. In book six, the author described the characters through other eyes, rendering my previous images completely null and void. What, Bernard is a huge bearlike man? Dicky has curly locks? Tessa was a wispy blonde? That totally didn’t come through in the first five books, which puzzles me.
Barring the possibility that Deighton simply changed the character descriptions, the blame seems to come down hard on the fact that the first books are told in first person from Samson’s point of view. Maybe he’s just a bad describer of people’s looks. That could be true, at least regarding the others he describes. I can’t quite let it go, however, that a tall person would necessarily think of their own height at times. Especially if someone were a spy . . . your height and possible conspicuousness due to height would be something to consider.
I say that as a tall person, of course. You see things differently from different angles. As a tall woman, I quite frequently must look down to speak to other women (and many men), and I have a better view in crowds than most. The length of my legs is an inconvenience on public transport and in cars. I can easily reach higher on shelves than other people.
All of those things are something any tall person would live with, so I would expect at least a hint of it to filter through Bernard Samson’s consciousness at times. Even if you’re a self-effacing person, reality is reality and those sports cars are still hell to get out of if you have to hoist yourself out on long legs.
It’s difficult to describe what someone looks like, it’s true. Too much description numbs the mind, too little leaves us without an impression at all. The best compromise, perhaps, is a few telling details that stick in the mind. But that’s hard to do, even for one character. For a series with dozens to hundreds, it’s probably going to have to be reduced to one vivid image carried over between books. In Deighton’s case, some of his descriptions were rather lengthy and mostly concerned clothes and mannerisms. Locks and legs got overlooked.
It’s something to remember when writing my own stuff, however. Make the details count. Nobody’s going to care about the type of tie someone was wearing if they can’t picture the face.