The Changing Face(s) Of Literature

by Lee Cross

So… I’m in this pub and a guy sitting down the counter says something like, “I’m telling you, that’s not what Jack Reacher looks like.” I didn’t bother looking up from my crossword, I merely smiled in silent agreement…

70243455[The Jack Reacher of the highly successful novel series is 6 ft 5 inches tall and built like a brick shit-house… The Jack Reacher of moderately successful movie series is… well, he’s played by Tom Cruise, who’s built a touch shorter and more akin to a highly polished commode]

As I sat there, my pen rendered impotent by a tricky clue, this idea started to form in the dark of my mind, “what do the characters in literature really look like?” I mean REALLY look like.

Ok, so writing 1oh1: – you need to describe your characters…

“Tom was tall, had light hair, was well built, yet he held himself in a tired fashion. You could see there’d been a spark in his eyes once but all that was left of it now were an old man’s crow’s feet, like burned down ashes, left at the place where the fire had died”.

…but what does Tom look like? Well he’s tall, it says it right there on the page, but what is tall? How tall is tall? and what the fu…flip are crow’s feet?!

Get my point? (subtle right). I wrote that, mere moments ago, using myself as a model (I’ve had a long day, in a shit job, and I’m feeling my age), and I’m not even sure of what I see when I read the words over.

On the screen Tom seems a lot more romantic than I am… he seems to know what he’s doing and where he’s going… he’s seems to have hair!! how did that happen? I’m bald, and even when I did have hair it was off-black, far from being light.

When we read, how much of what we see is there on the page, and how much of ourselves (our ideas, biases, stereotypes, etc) do we bring to the page?

Some sweeping generalizations (again from my own mind) of the way characters look;- all racists are white, all geeks wear .glasses, all beautiful women smile, and all super-heroes have capes. FACT. Stone Cold. Nailed-On. Certainties.

…and all bullshit, just what my mind, experience and prejudices expect to see. In the real world there are female rapists, black Nazi’s and the real super-heroes never wear capes (they’re too busy dishing out soup for either capes or capers).

How do we build real images, not just the silly stereotypes but believable characters that we want to become invested in?

Well surely the answer must life in the skill of the writer? I mean, it must, right??

[End of part one, go to part 2]

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