Thursday, August 27, 2009

Let’s Face It: Using Physiognomy for Character Development

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.

Yes exactly.

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?


Sandy Elzie said...


Wow, your blogs are almost always aimed, it seems, at being deep and making us stop, ponder and then improve our writing.

I've never read the Canterbury Tales...well, not completely...(hope my college prof isn't reading this) but I can certainly see what you mean.

I try to steer away from the stereo-type features...but frown lines and laugh lines are hard to avoid if you do either of them all the time.

Great blog.


Marilyn Baron said...

What a cool post! I can definitely use this in better defining my characters and will start on this right away.

My telltale sign is my squirrel cheeks that puff up every time I smile.

Thanks for this great information.

Marilyn Baron

Linsey Lanier said...

Cool post, J! Those details can really make a character come alive. I liked your description of Mrs. Jenkins.

I used to read Charles Dickens and remember Uriah Heep, bowing and rubbing his hands together, saying how 'umble he was. All the while, he was swindling his employer out of his fortune. He tried to look meek, but the reader could see through him.


Sally Kilpatrick said...

J-fascinating. I have to think about what features I use, and that's not a good thing. I'll get to work on it later today as I write.

Have to remember the gap between the teeth, though. You can bet that one is showing up somewhere, soon. Oddly enough my English teacher didn't see fit to let us know what that one meant.

J Perry Stone said...

Sandy, thank you so much. And no, I won't out you to your prof.

As for "stereotypes," even the word makes me cringe. But I think physiognomy can also help a writer really look at a person in an original way. When I asked my husband about what he thought his features said about him, he said, "my eyebrows let people know I won't be that subtle."

Good gracious, yes.

J Perry Stone said...

Marilyn, I can't tell you how it's helped me only in the last week!

I'm not sure you have squirrel cheeks, but you do have a terrific light-up-the-room smile.

J Perry Stone said...

Thank you so much, Linsey.

Ahhh yes. Uriah Heep. He was so disgusting.

What a terrific character.

Ooooo and remember the lashless eyes? If that doesn't tell you all you need to know about him, I don't know what does.

J Perry Stone said...

Sally, my high school was religiously affiliated, but since my English teacher was kind of a rebel (at 75 years of age), she not only told us about the Wife's gap, but also had us read The Miller's Tale--as silently as we could muster it in class.

God, I miss that woman!

I'm waiting for you to repost, kay? I'm curious to find out what features you do use.

J Perry Stone said...

My mother just informed me she used to have a gap between her teeth.

Excuse me will I run screaming into the hills.

Susan May said...

Great, great post! Your are right about certain looks make us think of certain personality traits. I like tall, dark and handsome. That automatically puts a picture of the hero in my mind. I always enjoy a book that tells me how the character looks. Good description is important. Thanks for giving me a deeper understanding of how to go about doing that in my writing.

Dianna Love said...

J - Fascinating post. I won't be able to look at another person with gaps in their teeth without thinking...I wonder? "g"

Love that your mom told you she had a gap at one time. Too funny.

I do believe deep personality and emotional issues will surface physically.

thanks for new food for the brain.

CiCi Barnes said...

Wow, what an educational post.

Thanks, J, for bring this tidbit to life.

I now will spend more time thinking about my character's outward appearance in connection with their inward identity.

You'd make a great teacher -- giving the students something to make them think!


J Perry Stone said...

Susan, me too. TDH is where it's at! :)

The truth is, I use physiognomy more for my secondary characters than my main ones. I think a quick, vivid snapshot is all that is needed for the outer circle dwellers, but obviously you have to do much more with the h/h.

Starting with what YOU like is great.

J Perry Stone said...

Diana said: "deep personality and emotional issues will surface physically."

See Diana. I love the way your gears work, because it's true, isn't it?

And even if it isn't true, everyone makes snap judgments about people based first upon how they look. It's always fun when a character is dead wrong about someone.

J Perry Stone said...

CiCi, you're the sweetest.

I just think the more I share, the more I'll be helped--which I need desperately.

And it's funny you say that about teaching because guess what I did for about ... counting ... 9 years?

What I want to know now is if you've ever moonlighted as a detective? ;)

TerriOsburn said...

Great post and it sounds vaguely familiar...*g*

I have no idea what my features say about me since I don't like them much, but I love that bit from Roald Daul.

I never think to do this with my characters, though I recently introduced a villainess of sorts in my WIP and I made her thin and all hard angles. Perhaps I was channeling this?

And as someone else mentioned, this topic really makes me think of Dickens. I always thought of him revealing characters through the names he gave them, but I realize he used physical character traits as well.

Nicki Salcedo said...

My spouse has a gap between his teeth. I'm afraid to make any further comments.

The hero in my current book wears a hat. I think it is an extension of his face. It is like his mask, and he is trying to hide behind it. The other two men in the story are opposing. One is tall and lean (he is reaching for something different, he wants to leave town), they other is stocky (grounded, not a risky taker). I hadn't done it intentionally, JP! You are helping us all rethink today. (And you are the best!)

Julie said...

You ARE the best!
What feature on your face is a telltale hint as to who you are?
My eyes... not that anyone looks at my face ...

J Perry Stone said...

Ter, well where would writer's be without writer revenge? If I can't talk about the narcissist's squinty eyes, then I'm foregoing one of the best perks of writing:)

It's true about Dickens. Since Linsey mentioned him this morning, a kabillion other examples have sprung to mind.

J Perry Stone said...

Nicki, ahahaha about your husband. Wish I could be there when you discuss this with him.

You are so brilliant. I adore this:

"One is tall and lean (he is reaching for something different, he wants to leave town), they other is stocky (grounded, not a risky taker)."

J Perry Stone said...

Julie, your eyes are beautiful, strange and wicked.

Yep. I'd say you're right about that one.

Julie said...

Uhh ... I think that thats a compliment? And at least you didn't add "guilty" to that list.

J Perry Stone said...

and guilty!

Tami Brothers said...

Too funny! I love the comments you generate, JP!!!

With me, I don't remember right off the top of my head any facial features, but I do write about clumbsy characters or stress their grace. Maybe it's because I'm such a clutz, it just seems to describe a lot about people. Not exactly sure what it describes about me, it works really well when I'm crafting a new character.

Still laughing at some of the comments. And your mom's admission (and Nicki's!!!). Too good!


J Perry Stone said...

It's totally true, Tami. We write about what we know.

I write a lot about embarrassment and characters who feel they don't measure up.

Umm, don't want to get into that too much. ;)

Darcy Crowder said...

J -

Amazing post! I loved your examples (and Nicki's). I haven't really thought about a characters overall appearance reflecting their inner personality in such detail, but you can bet I will now. Thanks. :)


J Perry Stone said...

I know it's a kind of superficial approach, Darcy, but who cares, right?--especially if you're dealing with secondary characters.

Cinthia Hamer said...

Great post, J! Mrs. Jenkins is quite an interesting character. Especially given what I already know about her. ;) Your future readers will just have to writhe in agony until...

I haven't really given my secondary characters much description, but will ponder what I can do for Aunt Martha, Uncle Wainscott and Elizabeth. I can see them in my mind's eye, but don't think I've done such a hot job of putting them out for the reader to imagine.

Thanks a heap for making me work harder! LOL!

In thinking of my own physiognomy, I would say that my eyes tell the world that I'm a kind soul. I have these little crinkles around them because I've smiled a lot over the years, but the way my mouth pulls down, tells that I get melancholy quite often, too.

Ana Aragón said...


Just getting to your post (it's been a long week with 7 and 8 year olds!) but as usual, you get me thinking! What a great post! Every one of my heroes, regardless of their coloring, has piercing eyes that can strip you bare, a smile that twitches beneath the frown, and hands...well...slow hands. Yeah.

Off to write my next hero...

Muchisimas gracias!