character arc 9: The uses of appearance

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Suz asked:

I’ve come to a point in my book where one of my characters’ body is going to be physically altered based on her personality. Do you have any idea if a character arc could help me decide what my character will eventually look like?

Suz, this sounds so interesting! And your question makes a really good point, which is that a character’s appearance can often have a lot to do with her personality. It might completely fit the way she is inside, which can cause problems, or maybe it actually contradicts what she’s like inside, which can also cause problems. I use this technique all the time—for example, Fil in Girl from Mars is short and skinny, without many curves, like the tomboy she believes herself to be. On the other hand, Nina in Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom is tall and blonde and has model-type looks, while inside she’s insecure and afraid and desperately struggling to live up to who she should be. I love plain-looking characters who are actually extraordinary (think Harry Potter) or villains who are incredibly attractive.

But the idea of a character’s appearance changing to fit her character arc is a great idea. It’s used fairly often, in “makeover” or “Cinderella” stories, where the plain heroine changes her appearance to fit the beautiful person she is inside. It’s also used in less mundane ways—I’m thinking about the wonderful Northern Lights trilogy by Phillip Pullman where everyone has daemons, which are animal manifestations of their souls, sort of like familiars, but closer. Children’s daemons are mutable and change shape often, because children are so changeable and malleable. But when a child grows up, her daemon takes on its true form, which reflects how she really is inside.

I can see how this could be great in paranormal shape-shifter stories, or other types of fantasy.

I’ve done it more subtly in my books, by having the characters change their appearance themselves to fit how they feel inside. So Fil in Girl from Mars, who starts out the story with blue hair and wearing boyish clothes, changes her hair colour and her clothing to fit how she has developed. Another, male, character does something similar in that story—it was an effective and economical way of my showing the heroine and the reader that he had changed. Nina Jones in the Temple of Gloom, who starts out very image-conscious, relaxes her feelings about clothes as the story goes on, as she discovers that other things are more important.

I had a really good time with this idea in the last book I wrote, where the heroine was an identical twin, and so much of her sense of identity was involved in how similar and different to her sister she looks. In the past, she’s always tried to look very different from her sister, but at one point they don’t see each other for two years, and when they meet, they’re surprised to see that they resemble each other more than ever. When everyone mistakes her for her sister, to the extent that she’s actually able to take over her sister’s life, she really begins to question how different she is from her sister at all.

So yes, appearance can really be useful in showing, and also determining, your character’s arc.

Your story sounds great!

Do you have favourite examples of characters whose appearance reflects, or contradicts, their personality?

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  1. Thank you so much for answering my question, Julie!

    What you mentioned about a character changing into someone beautiful to reflect her inner beauty got me thinking about Shrek, because my character is going to be changing from a human form into an ogre like Princess Fiona did! lol – but she’s still got a beautiful personality 🙂

    I can take away loads from your answer about how your characters changed their appearances as their personalities grew.

    Thanks again so much!

  2. Wait no! I didn’t mean my character is going to be changing into an ogre. My character is an angel who gets turned into a demon. A nice demon though. In fact, she’s such a nice angel, that I’m trying to figure out what ‘your friendly neighbourhood demon’ will look like! lol

  3. LOL, Suz, I am cool with ogres and demons! That’s an intriguing idea, especially as Satan was an angel to start out with, so the two forms would have similarities I’d think? You must be having fun with that one, and of course as you’re building your own world, you can make up the rules as you like, to best suit your character.

    Thanks for the question, and I hope the answer was helpful, even though my appearance changes are a lot less radical than yours.

  4. Ah, but it’s nowt to do with Satan 😉

    Seriously though, all your character arc tutorials have been so helpful! And you’ve given me tons to think about with this supernatural character change as well 🙂

  5. I love the idea of personality fitting or altering your character. I like fictional characters who reflect reality in the way that their appearance has affected their personality. The ugly kid who turned into a joker, the beautiful kid who has no personality.

    I’m glad you mentioned the His Dark Materials books, because they inspired a species in my fantasy books, where a person has an animal and a human body, and one soul split between the two. I spent ages deciding exactly what kind of animal ‘twin’ was right for each character: my forceful, beautiful, charming but deadly hero was a lion; his delicate, intelligent sister was a racehorse; his brutish brother a razorback hog.

    Then I wrote a hero in the sequel whose animal never settled (it being mutable in childhood). It reflects various special powers he has, but also makes him more childish. He’s quite mercurial in his personality, and it was fun to have his ‘twin’ reflect this.

    Speaking of twins–the normal human kind–I thought I’d share this, from a pair of twins I was good friends with at school. When one of them was asked if she ever looked at her sister and thought, “Hey, that’s me!” she replied, “No, I look at her and think, ‘God, I look rough’.”

  6. See, Julie? Your advice is limitless! 🙂

    By the way, Kate. Your story sounds incredible!

  7. I agree with Suz, Kate—I love the idea of your animal twins, and especially the hero whose animal never settled. Which titles were these?

    And LOL about the human twins…an identical twin I met said much the same thing to me.

  8. They’re my Ellora’s Cave titles, Almost Human and the sequel Mad, Bad & Dangerous, which lived up to its name and tried to kill me several times during the writing and editing process. It’s out in…oh! Two weeks! Crap, I should be promoting it more. Well, it’s here: http://www.jasminejade.com/ps-8185-50-mad-bad-dangerous.aspx, does that count?

    Yes, the hero with the fluctuating personality was a challenge, but I had a lot of fun with him. Then the blurb described both my hero and heroine as ‘psychotic’ and, er, I was quite proud!

  9. Very cool, Kate, I will look out for it. And go forth and promo! 🙂

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