As I slogged through the last couple of hours of ‘The Man in the High Castle’ (Amazon’s series inspired by Philip K. Dick’s 1962 Hugo Award Winner) my focus wandered from the action of the story to the physical appearance of the characters. How and why actors are cast in roles has a great deal to do with their appearance. This is not news to anyone, but there are subtle, and sometimes interesting, ramifications of casting.
In real life, we all encounter people who defy quick definitions. Women who are compelling and very attractive without being conventionally beautiful or even pretty, are less likely to appear in fiction than their male counterparts, i.e. the sometimes ugly, but eminently swoon worthy leading men of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In fiction, unconventional looks often signal individuals with a dynamic presence, eccentric outlook or outsider status. These characters may be good, evil, helpful, harmful or anything else, but their appearance often jives with their actions as characters. It is not simple beauty or ugliness, so the reader knows this person is outside the ‘norm.’
Although costumes, make-up and hairstyles can transform actors—making the pretty girl beautiful, the beautiful woman dour, the handsome guy a little goofy and the young man old, etc.; writers describe physical appearance of characters and readers fill in the blanks—no prosthetic noses or stylists required.
Here are some typical character entrances:
The tall man commands attention as he fills the doorway.
All eyes turn to the stunning, statuesque brunette.
The nerd slips into the party, bumps into a table and drops his glasses.
The eccentric old heiress sweeps into the room on a wave of perfume.
The famous athlete enters surrounded by his adoring posse.
After watching binge watching too many hours of the TV series, I took a walk around my neighborhood. Was the short, squat porter at the building up the street destined to be a porter? Was he too small to be an impressive doorman? Was he working toward the skill set to be a higher paid superintendent or get training in construction trades? Was the tall, slender, blonde teenaged girl a model? Or maybe the vacuous look covered a brilliant, college student mind? She had the kind of beauty that invites modeling offers, but maybe she’d defy the destiny of her biology and find another path?
As storytellers, we have opportunities to create original characters that defy stereotypes and, yes, biology as destiny.