Thursday, March 04, 2021

Visualizing Characters

Any Superman fans here? I mostly enjoyed the first two episodes of the new series SUPERMAN AND LOIS on the CW network, although for me neither this program nor the older series SMALLVILLE measures up to LOIS AND CLARK. My husband complained about my griping over Lana Lang's black hair (same objection I had to that character on SMALLVILLE). Everybody knows Lana is a redhead, just as everybody knows Lex Luthor is bald (eventually ending up bald even if he doesn't start that way). Her hair is one of the iconic traits of her character in the comics. It wouldn't have been hard to have the actress wear a wig—flame-red, auburn, strawberry blonde, any shade within that general category. A visual image of a fictional character so jarringly different from expectations interferes with my immersion in the story.

Many actors have portrayed Count Dracula, the classic character I'm most familiar with, probably lots more than I've gotten around to watching. Christopher Lee and John Carradine come closest to my image of Dracula, although even Lee never performed him in a script fully faithful to the novel. Among the myriad attempts at adapting the original, the Dan Curtis TV movie starring Jack Palance makes a pretty decent try, but Palance in the title role made it hard for me to suspend disbelief. In my opinion, he's the least suitable Dracula I've ever seen.

For fans of Dorothy Sayers' mysteries, the adaptations broadcast on public TV under the umbrella title MURDER MOST ENGLISH dramatize the novels with a high degree of fidelity. Ian Carmichael, however, doesn't quite fit the image of Lord Peter Wimsey as described in the books. Still, he comes close enough not to undermine my suspension of disbelief. As far as Sherlock Holmes is concerned, for me Jeremy Brett was perfect (until he began to gain a little weight in the later seasons, but he can hardly be blamed for that). And from my perspective, Anthony Hopkins IS Dr. Hannibal Lecter, probably because I'd seen clips from the movie (although not the entire film) before reading the book.

How much does the appearance of an actor who plays a character from a novel or comic series matter to you? Does it make a difference whether or not print illustrations (as in comics or on book covers) exist to provide a template? If you view the movie before reading the original text, do you visualize the character as looking like the actor?

For writers, this topic bears on how much visual detail to provide in describing characters. Some novelists touch very lightly on physical appearance. The only characters in DRACULA described thoroughly enough to draw portraits of them are Dr. Van Helsing and the Count himself. Robert Heinlein sometimes delineates characters in detail, but not always. Although the clothing and body paint of Eunice in I WILL FEAR NO EVIL are often described, we get very little hint of how she herself looks except the "telling" rather than "showing" remark that she's very beautiful. According to Heinlein, she's meant to be Black, but the actual text of the novel says nothing to indicate that fact (nothing to contradict it, either, though). As a reader, I want to know what fictional characters look like, preferably early in the story. It's jarring to imagine a character one way and later receive information that invalidates the image I've formed. It also bugs me to visualize a fictional person as a particular gender and then find out well into the story that I've been mistaken, unless the author has a sound narrative reason for the ambiguity. As a writer, I know it can be difficult to work in descriptions of characters—particularly a viewpoint character—with grace and subtlety rather than producing a "wanted poster" list of traits. It's especially hard to manage this task with a first-person narrator, of course. If she gazes at herself in the mirror and says things like, "I brushed my luxuriant blonde hair," she'll come across as insufferably self-absorbed. That's probably a major reason why I use third-person limited rather than first-person narrative in my fiction.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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