Bear with me. Anyone who’s watched any Hollywood release or network television series in the past, well, ever, knows that lookism is a powerful force. It shapes not only the actors chosen to play leading roles, but also the types of characters written for television and film.
The same culture of beauty also exerts an influence on literature, as anyone who has flipped through some recent YA releases (for starters) can attest. However, literature is a much less visual medium than television or film. The best literature draws on a full range of sensory cues and also evokes non-sensory information such as memory and interior thought to create living, breathing characters. It is this non-visual flexibility that gives the prose writer more freedom to create ugly characters. Here are four reasons why you should.
1) It’s rare. Writers feel pressure to stick to conventionally attractive characters; as a result, when a character in a book is described at all, they’re likely to be at least average if they’re not beautiful. An ugly character will be more memorable than another pretty face. We’re abundantly used to watching and reading about attractive people. After a while, they all blend together, don’t they?
2) It challenges lookism. Books are a less visual medium than film, which means there are fewer contraints on a character’s appearance. It’s easier in prose to present a character’s interiority, personality and goals alongside their ugliness. This creates a fuller picture of the character and encourages readers to value them for more than their appearance.
3) Ugly characters will have a different outlook and mindset than handsome ones. Think about the ways in which your own appearance has influenced how you present yourself and interact with people, and how you perceive the way others relate to you. An ugly character will have a different social history than an attractive one, which will influence their attitude and outlook.
4) Including ugly characters honors human variation. Not everyone in real life is conventionally attractive, so why should they be in your story? Writing characters who vary not just in their personalities and back stories but in their physical features will add verisimilitude to your story, while communicating that attractiveness isn’t the be-all end-all of a character’s value.
Now I want to hear from you, fellow writers: when creating a character, how much thought do you put into their physical appearance? Is it an important element or a minor consideration? Tell me in the comments below!