We are not able to choose a great many things in our lives, which is obviously annoying, but when we can’t cheat our way out of ourselves, no matter what methods we try, now that’s maddening. By this, I’m referencing our physical appearances: how we look. Do we have a pretty smile? A big nose? Freckles? And since we’re on this path of rhetorical questions, what do looks signify anyway?
Nothing. They signify nothing, and I have a feeling you already knew that. From taking a simple glance in the mirror you know your eye color doesn’t match the exact colors of your thoughts and emotions. We spend most of our early lives watching ourselves grow, hoping we’ll become more of like who we really are, and when this goes awry we angrily wonder “Why can’t I look like what is in my heart?” Because of this, I constantly wonder why our world doesn’t show more empathy towards each other on the simple fact that we are not to blame for our facial structure or body type. Why can’t we judge people on their personalities alone? From personal experience, I can attest that sometimes it’s near impossible to separate someone’s appearance from their substance and, if we can, it’s usually because we get to know the person, which takes a bit of time.
Beauty and it’s opposite, ugliness, get in the way: we love beautiful people, and we can’t help it. Whatever we see as beautiful, we follow with hungry eyes, perhaps because beauty is soothing, it’s art. Beauty represents something godly, ethereal, it scrapes the edges of heaven itself. But now, for ugliness. Ugly is frightening, jarring, it shakes us out of the realm of angles and onto the earth, dropping us to a level that is so repulsively human. Because of this, we avoid people who are ugly, plain, or strange looking, and seek out those few of us who are pretty or even beautiful. Sadly, this allows us to overlook many people who have rich inner worlds, people who could have challenged our views, and people who could have helped us solve a bit of the mystery that is life. Yet we struggle to escape the pull…
The cure: books.
Books with little or no illustrations are the perfect medium to use to escape the barriers appearances cast on every human. Unlike movies or plays where the characters appear before us as solidified, definite real-life humans, which makes it harder for us to separate looks from character, the images we create in our heads when reading are much more fuzzy, since the only thing we’re training our eyes on are the words. We sculpt book characters out of the descriptions the authors offer us, and put them into the dream-like movie playing in our minds and, assuming you’re like me, these characters don’t appear in high-definition. Rather, I always feel as though I’m looking at these characters through squinted eyes, which blurs most of their features, which is actually a good thing, because for the first time we can easily judge these people for who they are on the inside. This works in part because the authors don’t remind us of what the character looks like every second of the novel, and even if they did, the characters don’t appear before our eyes as people do in real life, making it less likely for us to concentrate or judge them based on looks. In books, we can read, and therefore see into a person’s soul. A character’s actions, thoughts, feelings, and words become who they are for us, which is fantastic, only I feel that this clear advantage is largely underutilized by many writers.
Since looks don’t matter in books, we shouldn’t care at all what our characters look like, but we should be honest about how looks do affect someone’s life, since all of the characters in our stories have to see and interact with each other just like we do with people in real life. Sadly, I feel that many writers are playing it too safe when it comes to deciding character appearances, especially the looks of their main protagonists and their love interests. In fact, my attention was brought to this issue when I decided to branch out and read some popular YA novels/series such as The Fault in Our Stars, The Infernal Devices, and The Hunger Games, in which this pattern occurred. Now, I know that this is only a small handful of YA novels, and I’m not saying the genre as a whole has this issue, but I felt that these novels/series were the most popularized examples I could reference. Each of these books centers around a female protagonist who is described as being “plain” or “ordinary-looking”.
This is perfectly fine; in fact, I like it when characters look like this because it makes them feel identifiable and real. The majority of people are not gorgeous, so it’s good when we have characters who look like everyday people. However, I’m beginning to feel that the average looking MC is becoming a bit cliched. Having someone who is neither pretty nor ugly but remarkably “plain” looking falls in the safe-zone for writers, because heaven forbid we should have a female character who is strange-looking and actually has deal with daily problems based on their face. Why not give our characters some peculiar facial features? Why do they always have to be ordinary? What’s more, even if our main character’s looks are executed in an original, interesting manner, the writer usually messes it up by having it have no outward effect on their lives whatsoever. Yep, it doesn’t effect how people treat them, how they view themselves, or their romantic relationships. A perfect example of this comes from The Fault in Our Stars, wherein our MC, Hazel, who describes herself as odd-looking, falls head over heels for a smokin’ hot boy named Augustus (can you say cliche?). Whats more, he falls in love with her too.
Once they become a couple, everyone, and I mean everyone around them always comments on what a beautiful couple they are. The thing is, Hazel as introduced to us as looking pretty shabby, so it baffles me as to why no one would act even slightly averse to her. That may sound cruel, but if you think about it, most people who look that way are treated worse than others, and they most certainly do not get hot boyfriends. This leads me to believe that the character was actually pretty and only had low self esteem which would explain why they went around lamenting their looks. TFIOS is not alone in this issue: many other novel’s I’ve read recently have done the same thing, leading me to believe that our modern authors need to have a little more bravery when playing with our characters looks. After all, as I’ve explained above, having a character look ugly or gorgeous won’t make us like them any less. What will, however, is when the writers are dishonest about how their appearances affect their interactions. For books, the actions and inner worlds of the characters help to seal the reader’s opinion.
A book that executes this flawlessly is Jane Eyre, which just so happens to feature my all time favorite heroine, the titular Jane Eyre. Physical appearances play a centric role in this story, and from the start, Jane is neglected by her nurses and her Aunt because she is small, sickly, and plain. This is made all the more tragic by the fact that she’s an orphan, and as a woman living in 1800s, the only thing which could have possibly redeemed her would have been beauty, but sadly this was never endowed to her. Later on she becomes a governess and falls in love with her rich employer, who IS ACTUALLY DESCRIBED AS BEING UGLY. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT OH NO THE WORLD IS GOING TO END. Anyway, he in turn is being pursued by a rich and gorgeous young woman. Throughout this period of time Jane wonders if she, in all her plainess, can ever be enough to gain importance in the eyes on anyone and, in turn, she learns to honor the dignity in herself and begins to see everyone as her equal. Now THAT’S how you write a strong woman. Despite the flaws in her looks, Jane has since become my favorite book character. She has shown me that one’s worth is not diminished based on external appearances and, even if she were pretty, that would not make her any more valuable than any other character I’ve read about.
I suppose, after turning this post into a slight rant, the main call to action I wanted to get across was this: as writers, we have a responsibility to write our characters as they truly are. We shouldn’t omit or sugar-coat any of their flaws, and the same goes for their appearances. We need to be more honest about what they look like, and more honest about how the world treats people based on looks. In doing so, we will create more realistic characters and therefore better stories.