Today is April 14, the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. (I know; technically, it sank on April 15, but hitting the iceberg started the whole thing.) I don’t have a commemorative post this year, but you can refer to this post if you want to do something in memoriam. I will most likely watch the film tonight.
L is for Looks.
You might not think looks are important. We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we’re told. But in truth, the first thing people notice about other people is how they look.
After all, we are mostly visual creatures. Our brains process a huge amount of information from our eyes, which are our primary sensory organs.
If you’re writing a character who is handsome, he will be treated differently by other people than if he were ugly. I had to think about this for Rose’s Hostage. I made bank robber Joshua Rose handsome because 1) it disarms Libby, his hostage, and 2) it bothers the serial killer (once they find out who he is). If I wrote him as ugly, it would have been a completely different book.
In addition to that, it complicates things. Joshua even says it himself:
“You are hot.” She blushed as she said it, and warmth spread through him.
“Thanks, beauty. I’m glad you think so.” He was teasing and she got it, grinning at him. “But people look at me the same way they would if I were deformed.” He saw her mouth open in protest and continued, talking over her objection. “See, they’re responding to something unusual about the way I look. I’m not above using it to get my way. In my line of work, it’s dangerous because people remember my face, especially women. Makes it hard to hide.”
Think about all the ways we judge by looks. Good-looking people are often treated as if they are better than they are and may become spoiled as a result. Some of them hate it; they feel their skills and ability aren’t taken seriously because of their looks. Average-looking people may resent the beautiful ones, especially if they think the person is coasting on his or her physical attributes. And they may be jealous.
This is definitely true for women. We seem to take the brunt of this stereotype—if a woman is beautiful, she doesn’t need or can’t possibly have any brains. Of course, that isn’t true, but your character could fall prey to the same notion. A female character might have to work harder to prove herself than a male one in certain professional situations. Your male character’s kryptonite could be his outdated attitude toward the gorgeous colleague who saves his bacon (or the sexy villain he thinks he can outsmart).
There’s also the danger of making a character good-looking for the sake of it, as with a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Let’s face it; the vast majority of people don’t measure up to Hollywood standards. Most of us are average. A protagonist who is too good to be true loses something important for readers—they won’t relate to him/her.
Let’s talk now about unattractive characters. Unattractive girls are called dogs, or worse. It’s a tired old trope that the guy will always go for the hot girl, and if you have an ugly duckling character, she better transform herself before he takes her to the prom, because if not, that would be social suicide.
Guys suffer just as much, especially during adolescence. In our society, it’s on them to initiate most romantic encounters. How hard is that, even for a good-looking guy? Imagine your character trying to do it when he looks in the mirror and hates what he sees.
If the person has a deformity, or perceives himself to have one (like Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon), then that will change how he reacts to other people. We telegraph our inner thoughts about ourselves in subtle ways, and they treat us accordingly.
Think about how that happens. How can you show that a character has these thoughts, especially if you don’t get inside his head?
- Dialogue: You could have the character use straightforward, self-deprecating language, such as “Oh, nobody will go out with a lard-ass like me.”
- Mannerisms (next post!): Confident people move with authority, carry their heads high and shoulders back, and look people straight in the eye. Your self-hating character may shuffle, avoid eye contact, and have poor posture, as though he is trying to hide.
- Reactions of other characters: Think about someone you know who has a poor opinion of himself. How do you feel when you’re around that person? Do you get irritated with him when he makes remarks like the one above? Do you feel pity for him and overcompensate to help him out?
If you’re tempted to make your character resemble your dream man or woman, take time to consider why. Try to brainstorm—would it make your story more interesting if the character were average, or even unattractive?