Thursday, August 27, 2009
By J Perry Stone
If any of you remember reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in high school, I’ll bet you still have some vague recollection of the Wife of Bath.
Remember her? Married multiple times, buried all her husbands and was left with lots of moolah?
If you must know, I had to seriously jog my memory to come up with those details because they are completely eclipsed in my memory by Chaucer’s description of that enormous gap between her teeth.
You see, Chaucer was a student of physiognomy--the study of a person's character based on their outward appearance. The gap between the Wife’s front teeth told 14th century readers more than they ever needed to know about her sexual prowess--hence the multiple husbands … perhaps even the cause of their deaths. :)
Of course today, the idea of physiognomy has certainly taken a back seat in the age of psychology. We know that psychopathic serial killers can look like Ted Bundy, and no matter the soft look of Osama Bin Laden’s eyes, he sees Americans through a veil of hatred. But these are psychopathic types. The villains. Those with an innate ability to hide their true nature.
More often than not, however, there is some truth of a person that shows on their face. Even my sweet sister, while extricating herself from her devil-man ex husband, broke out with such a horrid case of acne, all I could think when looking at her was that her body was desperately trying to rid itself of the poison in her life. What’s more, I’ve seen rather narcissistic people from my past age in a puffy-faced manner, as though years and years of only thinking about themselves has over-bloated them--their eyes now small and squinty because they simply cannot see beyond themselves.
Even my own take on life is showing on my face. Around my mouth, I have pretty deep parenthesis lines. It’s from smiling. Of course, I also have a groove between my eyebrows, but I take comfort in the fact that the parenthesis is deeper than the exclamation mark.
As for writing, I read an article in RWR recently that said, “Give your character some detail that shows exactly who they are.” In this case, physiognomy can be a writer’s best friend--particularly when said writer is stuck.
Gap between the teeth = slut (Madonna anyone?)
Broad forehead, high hairline = brainiac
Large, bulbous features that smile easily = someone who is partial to drink
In my own writing, I’ve used physiognomy to help pin down secondary characters in particular. See if you can guess what I’m trying to say about Mrs. Jenkins:
She had a flared-nostril, stretched-necked look about her, as though she had to labor to look down upon the multitude of sinners scuttling about her feet.
Religious zealot, right? Judgmental bitch, right? Of course the stretched-neck part always reminds me of Carol Burnett’s version of Norma Desmond, but paired with the flared nostrils, I think Mrs. Jenkins takes on a rather condemnatory appearance. Don’t believe me? Try it in the mirror.
Physiognomy can work with any character type. Is your character obsequious, timid and unassuming? He or she has no sharp lines in their face, no hard angles, no overtly-pointed point of view.
But there is always something more you can say about a person in addition to their specific features.
Roald Dahl, in his story The Twits, writes:
If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts everyday, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
Now it is your turn. Think of one of your characters, or even a memorable character you’ve read, and tell me how their outer appearance helps show who they are inside. Do you think physiognomy could help you develop your characters? What feature on your face is a telltale hint as to who you are?