All the way back in March of 2017 I cautioned you not to describe characters in terms of numerical statistics (height, weight, age) or obvious features (hair and eye color, etc.), but reading some more “vintage” (1950s-1960s) fiction and running into the perfectly valid question of the “male gaze” made me want to try to sort out two things:
1. How do we (regardless of the gender of the author) describe characters in a compelling, character- and story-rich way that reveals more about the POV character than the character being described?
2. And that being the case, how do we know what that specific POV character is triggered by? How would this person—and our characters have to be people—react to the other people in the story?
That’s not easy to answer in one blog post, but I thought I’d start by looking at some examples starting from around the same era when a lot of fiction, especially “pulp” and genre fiction, had a weak view of women. In the pulps, female characters did tend to be either victims or villains, and almost never the hero of the story. But in the hands of more skilled authors, we saw not just the default sexism of the immediate post-war era, but a sense of mystery when it came to women, who were not just objects of desire but puzzles that might never be solved, saviors, and… well, it turns out female characters filled all sorts of roles, and male POV characters reacted to them in ways that went beyond victim or villain.
Here are some examples from the novel Savage Night (1953) by the amazing Jim Thompson. The POV protagonist is a hired killer, posing as a student, and living in the boardinghouse run by his intended victim, his victim’s wife, and their maid—a strange, twisted sort of love triangle. Here’s the victim’s wife, entirely from the perspective of a sociopath:
“Yes?” she called, while she was still several steps away. “Can I help you?” She had one of those husky well-bred voices—voices that are trained to sound well bred. One look at that frame of hers, and you knew the kind of breeding she’d had: straight out of Beautyrest by box-springs. One look at her eyes, and you knew she could call you more dirty words than you’d find in a mile of privies.
And the maid, via the same sociopath:
She had on an old mucklededung-colored coat—the way it was screaming Sears-Roebuck they should have paid her to wear it—and a kind of rough wool skirt. Her glasses were the kind your grandpa maybe wore, little tiny lenses, steel rims, pinchy across the nose. They made her eyes look like walnuts in a piece of cream fudge. Her hair was black and thick and shiny, but the way it was fixed—murder!
And later, the same maid…
All that hard work and deep breathing had put breasts on her like daddy-come-to-church. And swinging around on that crutch hadn’t done her rear end any harm. If you saw it by itself, you might have thought it belonged to a Shetland pony. But I don’t mean it was big. It was the way it was put on her: the way it hinged into the flat stomach and the narrow waist. It was as though she’d been given a break there for all the places she’d been shortchanged.
This is not just an ordinary sexist 1950s guy, this is a person who sees people as targets, marks, and these two women in particular as pawns in a chess game where his “win” is the murder of his assigned victim according to his boss’s complicated timetable. I won’t spoil the rest of this brilliantly bizarre crime novel—one of the best I’ve ever read—but as weird and decidedly creepy as these examples are the story goes in yet more unsettling and unpredictable directions.
What’s most important, in terms of the “male gaze” question, is that this is, indeed, this one particular male character gazing on two specific female characters. This is what he thinks—and we already know he’s not a good guy. He uses the terminology of the day, focusses on things peculiar to himself, not really the women, like his mistrust of anyone who seems upper class or his weirdly sexualized admiration for the young maid. This is what this one guy thinks, what this one guy sees, and not all guys are good guys. And there is always a difference between what we think and what we say—at least we always hope so.
Leaving the pulp crime stuff behind, here’s another example, this one by Harlan Ellison from the 1977 story “The Other Eye of Polyphemus”:
She was in her early forties and crippled. Something with the left leg and spine. She went sidewise, slowly, like a sailor leaving a ship after a long time at sea. Her face was unindexed as to the rejections she had known; one could search randomly and find a shadow here beneath the eyes that came from the supermarket manager named Charlie; a crease in the space beside her mouth, just at the left side, that had been carved from a two nights’ association with Clara from the florist shop; a moistness here at the right temple each time she recalled the words spoken the morning after the night with the fellow who drove the dry cleaner’s van, Barry or Benny. But there was no sure record. It was all there, everywhere in her face.
And consider this from The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., first published in 1959:
But Beatrice did have a face—and an interesting one. It could be said that she looked like a buck-toothed Indian brave. But anyone who said that would have to add quickly that she looked marvelous. Her face, like the face of Malachi Constant, was a one-of-a-kind, a surprising variation on a familiar theme—a variation that made observers think, Yes—that would be another very nice way for people to look. What Beatrice had done with her face, actually, was what any plain girl could do. She had overlaid it with dignity, suffering, intelligence, and a piquant dash of bitchiness.
Here Vonnegut let’s us decide what she looks like. When he says, Yes—that would be another very nice way for people to look… it’s now our responsibility to fill in what we think is a nice way for people to look, which is much more interesting than giving us the results of a medical exam. How tall, exactly are these women? No idea—doesn’t matter. What color are their eyes? No idea—doesn’t matter. How much do they weigh? You get the idea…
And lest you think this sort of deeper, admittedly stranger way to describe a character only applies to women, here’s Harlan Ellison again, this time in the story, first published in 1959, “Sally in Our Alley” and featured in the collection Gentleman Junkie:
There was a glob of fat and slime behind the desk, and the nameplate read L.T. B.C. KROLL.
Let me tell you, this Kroll character was so far out, he’d automatically have to have a ticket stub to get back in.
Less to say there, but those two sentences say a lot about how a POV character can sometimes peg someone, make a quick, rash, uninformed… human decision about who someone is from the first glance filtered through embedded stereotypes.
These POV characters are not a walking list of aspirational hopes for the future of a united humankind. These are people, products of their times, cultures, and subcultures. Some of them are bad people, and all of them carry around baggage. And it’s the baggage that makes us who we are, even if we’re desperate to unload all that crap.
Or at least some of it.
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