You may be familiar with the Marilyn Monroe–Albert Einstein illusion that operates on the peculiarities of our vision system. Up close, where we perceive detail, the image looks like the great thinker Albert Einstein, but back away a few feet and our eyes will naturally adjust to a less-detailed rendering, allowing the features to resemble the stunning actress Marilyn Monroe. I think both perspectives as well as the distance at which our eyes struggle to decide who we’re seeing is interesting to a writer working to craft character.
Of course, how to describe characters when introducing them to the reader poses one challenge for writers. As emerging writers, at some point we all likely included some awkwardness in that initial description, perhaps including the unfortunate moment when the protagonist surveys herself/himself/itself in a hand mirror/shop window/pond and thoughtfully regards her/his/its own long blonde curls/spiky brown hair/man-killing tentacles. An author like the Franklin W. Dixon ghost troupe just puts it out there, letting us know by page 2 of The Secret Agent on Flight 101 that Joe Hardy is “blond and seventeen,” “enjoys joking,” and is “more impulsive” than his “dark-haird, eighteen-year-old brother.” Oh yeah, both ace teen detectives are “trim all-around athletes,” too.
Adept description of character might involve showing the character in action, letting the reader see how the character looks when doing something. And it involves tracking the character across the story—does the character’s appearance change as the story unfolds? That doesn’t mean a different hairstyle for every scene, unless that’s the character’s authentic trait and there’s a legitimate dramatic reason, or it’s Julia Roberts, in which case, subtly should be suspended, bring on the up-dos, because she’s just so dang pretty and fun to look at.
Does the character you’re writing appear significantly differently close up and from a distance? For example, on-screen and certainly off-screen Julia Roberts displays depth, including her seriousness about child-rearing. In a story, which other characters perceive the protagonist from only far away or very close up, or from both perspectives? In real life, it might be true that we mainly get a cursory view of most of the people we encounter, achieving varying closer-up perspectives the more we interact with certain individuals. So wouldn’t other characters have different viewpoints of the protagonist, including how she/he/it looks? One character sees tempting blonde locks and another just sees man-killing tentacles?
What is the protagonist’s perspective of her own looks? Does she look the way she thinks she should look? Is there tension to be found in the discrepancy between what she thinks she ought to look like and what she does look like? She only gets to see herself up close, physically denied the distanced perspective others can have of her. How far from objective is her self-image? Get to be my age, and you can have a few passport photos to line up and compare. Every decade between grainy mugshots tells a story.
In crafting the transformation of character across a story, we can have some fun returning to the Marilyn-Albert image and asking how the point at which it’s difficult to distinguish who the character is externally relates to the potential interior transformation of a character as well as to the positioning of the story’s climax and possible epiphany. There’s great fun to be had deciding whether to marry the transformation of the exterior with the interior, and likely as many disasters awaiting on the page if we make it too painstakingly obvious. I’m getting my hair foiled this weekend and hoping for a character arc.
xo Laurel Leigh