Thursday, December 29

Who a Character is v.s. What a Character is Thought to Be

With so many readers, it is inevitable that we will perceive the things we read in different ways. We make assumptions and imagine our own variations on how things are described.

One thing which always varies is our perception of certain characters. We are inclined to like or dislike characters for opposing reasons. We picture them in our minds in ways that our friends and even the author may not.

There are some characters which are forever fixed in our minds in certain ways. This may be because they are quintessential characters which are so often presented in modern media that we have an idea of who they are and what they are like without even having read their original text. It could be because there is a well-known film adaptation which portrays the character in a certain way. It might just be because a particular remark or detail in the text has usurped the reader's interpretation of the character.

Having not read many classics, I am prone to being unfamiliar with plenty of these characters' original representations. For instance, I have no personal idea of the figure of Merlin, only a scattering of portrayals and mentions in literature and television. Of course it isn't just classical characters which are imagined and portrayed in different ways. Modern characters in literature are just as easy for a reader to argue over with another. It is just that characters who have been around for longer have been subjected to more imaginings and representations.

I have never read or seen any adaptation of Pride and Prejudice where Mr Collins comes close to his true physical appearance. He always appears to be old, fat, short or gangly. It seems that these physical qualities are seen to be best suited to his personality which I think rather small-minded. It is Collins' manner which makes him, not his physical appearance.

"He was a tall, heavy-looking young man of five-and-twenty. His air was grave and stately, and his manners were very formal."

This is the first description of Mr Collins from Jane Austin's novel. It does not seem to match any of the portrayals I have seen of his character, whether on the screen or on the page. What is your physical interpretation of Mr Collins from these two short sentences?

It can also be said that plenty of readers have been known to over-romanticize the character of Mr Darcy. His withdrawn manner has compelled many readers to enjoy the bantering relationship between him and Elizabeth Bennet (conflict is, after all, the essence of storytelling) but it has also inspired many to write male love interests who at first appear nasty but are then revealed to be just misunderstood. Regardless of why Darcy is seen as an ideal love interest, many fail to duplicate his character. You think they would stop trying.

I think there is a difference between being proud and candid and being bad-boy nasty with a slight innocent touch. Do you?

I was discussing this subject with Sydnee. She mentioned the character of the Beast, from Beauty and the Beast. She meant the Disney film adaptation (which I will admit now is one of my favourite films ever) but it made me think of the story and how it has been adapted. The idea of an ugly and twisted individual imprisoning a beautiful young woman and making her fall in love with him seems to scream one thing - Stockholm Syndrome.

An adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast fable which plenty of people will be familiar with is The Phantom of the Opera, although I am sure most will be more familiar with Webber's musical than with Erik as he appears in Leroux's novel, myself included.

If you were really holed up with someone as if you were the last two people on earth, against your will, would you find that romantic?

One of my favourite fictional characters is Lord Henry Wotton from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Harry (as he is nicknamed) has a wonderful speech in the novel where he encourages Dorian to take advantage of his youth and beauty because the height of his life is fleeting. He does it for his own selfish reasons but he does not mean to be vicious, only influential and thus heightening his importance in the eyes of the boy.

There is a 1940s film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I watched it with my mum. She asked me if Lord Wotton was meant to be Satanic. I was taken aback because I didn't think this was how his character was at all but she had a valid point. They had certainly not portrayed him in the best light. While I do think that Harry is not faultless in what becomes of Dorian, I don't believe him to be malicious or even antagonistic.

Is a man who feeds on the anxieties of another evil or just insensitive?

Another point which Almi brought up, when I discussed the subject with her, was that of white-washing. It has long been my notice that unless a character is described otherwise (usually in a way that makes their skin sound like a delicious edible treat: olive, chocolate, caramel...) they are presumed to be white.

Almi informed me of a novel called 'Liar' by Justine Larbalestier where the the cover of the novel may have been in black and white but the complexion of the main character on it seemed very pale. Thus the author rallied for it to be redesigned. It reminded me of 'Magic Under Glass' by Jaclyn Dolamore and how they had done the same with her protagonist on the cover of the novel, until it was reprinted.

Is a reader likely to want to imagine the protagonist to be more like them, in order to identify with the character, right down to physical appearance?

It wasn't until I saw Robert Downey Jr. portray Sherlock Holmes that he really struck me as an amazing actor. However, despite not knowing much about the character of Sherlock Holmes, from the first time I saw the trailer for the film I wondered how it would be received. They had the character wielding a gun and jumping out of windows and acting more like how I would perceive James Bond.

Now, I haven't read any of the Sherlock Holmes or James Bond novels, so my impressions of both characters are based (so far) entirely on the conjecture of how they have been portrayed through different medias. Even that is vague to me because I have not seen all of the James Bond films or the Sherlock Holmes serials that many others will know all too well.

While I think James Bond to be a character who flings into action and snogs any hot female that moves, Sherlock Holmes seems, to my knowledge, to be quite the opposite. He is the embodiment of intellect, deduction and asexuality.

This is my example of a conceived idea at work. An assumption about a character - or in this case two - which has been formed by me, solely from second-hand depictions of the characters in question. Until I read the original works of the authors, I feel I shall remain oblivious to what Sherlock Holmes and James Bond are really like.

Have you ever come across a character whom you thought you knew the gist of, only to discover upon reading their original text that they were something quite different and perhaps more wonderful?

One of the misconceptions about a character's appearance that I find most hilarious is that of Sirius Black from the Harry Potter novels. There seems to be a common idea that Sirius Black is sex on legs.

Something I hear often expressed is that Gary Oldman, who played Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, was not attractive enough for the role. This makes me laugh. Whereas if someone argued that he was too old to portray the character - or too short - I might agree, the idea that he wasn't attractive enough was ridiculous.

If you asked someone which character in the series Harry thought looked most like a vampire, they might think it was Snape (another character with too many misconceptions over to count) but they would be mistaken.

"Harry looked into the shadowed eyes of Sirius Black, the only part of the sunken face that seemed alive. Harry had never met a vampire, but he had seen pictures of them in his Defence Against the Dark Arts classes, and Black, with his waxy white skin, looked just like one."

That is Harry's impression upon seeing a picture of Black in a paper in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.' Do you think he sounds like sex on legs?

Of course, I know where this idea springs from. It comes back to what I said about how one thing about a character can overshadow the rest in a reader's mind. They want to view a character in a certain light, so they latch onto a quality they like and amplify it.

"Sirius was lounging in his chair at his ease, tilting it back on two legs. He was very good-looking; his dark hair fell into his eyes with a sort of casual elegance neither James's nor Harry's could ever have achieved, and a girl sitting behind him was eyeing him hopefully, though he didn't seem to have noticed."

This is a description of Sirius Black from a flashback in 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' where his character is fifteen or - more likely - sixteen. So there you have it...a simple description of an attractive teenager usurping the sickly description of the same man at twice the age.

Are there any characters you know to be commonly perceived in a way that isn't accurate to their true appearance or nature?

1 comment:

Michael said...

Not a book character, but the original inspiration behind the fan fiction I'm currently working on was my annoyance at the common misperception of Sonozaki Shion from Higurashi no naku koro ni. In one arc of the story, she commits a series of brutal murders, and this is the only part anyone really remembers. But she was under the influence of a mind-altering parasite at the time, so it wasn't an expression of her true character. I'm not saying we should pretend the murders didn't happen, but they shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the rest of her character either.

Oh, I just thought of another example. Watson, from the Sherlock Holmes series. This goes back a long way; in Father Knox's ten commandments for detective fiction (1929) he refers to "the stupid friend of the detective, the Watson". In adaptations and parodies, Watson is always portrayed as being so stupid that it's incomprehensible why Sherlock Holmes ever became friends with him. The original Watson was actually reasonably intelligent, albeit always overshadowed by his brilliant friend. In "The Hound of the Baskervilles" he does his own detection for part of the story, quite successfully. In "The Cardboard Box" he correctly names the murderer before Holmes reveals it, even if he hasn't grasped all the evidence. And so on.