The Appearance Cliche Scale

There is a belief, held by physionomists, new novelists, and novelists who aren’t as new as they should be, that outward appearance corresponds with inward traits of characters. I will be the first to admit: In my early works, I was as guilty of this as any. The heroine was slender (largely because I wasn’t), the redhead had a fiery temper, the brave hero had a physique to match, and no one with a receding chin was ever up to any good. I like to think I’ve evolved since then, but I notice in published novel after published novel that other authors don’t agree with me. Perhaps, then, I’m in the wrong and you can identify the villains and heroes in your life by their chins.

So after casting an eye through historical fiction new and old, I have come up with the Appearance Cliche Scale, or the ACS: a guide that will help you assess the people who cross your path.

Hair:
Blond=frivolous, insubstantial
Redhead=explosive temper
Brunette=serious, career-minded

Noses:
Snub nose=cute, funny
Arched nose=aristocratic
Hook nose=evil, possibly English

Chins:
Receding chin=indecisive, meek
Prominent chin=stubborn

Lips:
Full lips=sensual
Thin lips=hard, prim, stingy

Forehead:
Tall forehead=intellectual
Low forehead=Neanderthal

Neck:
Long neck=aristocratic
Short neck=peasant

Feet:
Large feet (for women)=endearingly clumsy
Large feet (for men)=…..huh

Eyes:
Large eyes=sensitive, compassionate
Small eyes=mean, piggish, evil
Close-set eyes=untrustworthy
Tilted eyes=exotic
Blue eyes=honest
Brown eyes=warm
Pale eyes=cold-natured
Green eyes=jealous
Grey eyes=intelligent

Body type (women):
Slim=The Heroine
Curvy=The Slut/The Mother
Fat=The Best Friend/Old Person
Tall and lanky=The Tomboy
Plump=The Plebeian

Body type (men):
Tall and lean=The Hero
Tall and muscular=The Hero Type II
Plump=Hero’s Best Friend/Greasy Corrupt Secondary Villain
Gaunt=fierce and uncompromising
Wide shoulders=good
Narrow shoulders=cowardly
Tall and lanky=awkward, shy, clumsy
Short and fat=funny and bouncy

Miscellaneous:
Freckles=honest, out-spoken
Long fingers=sensitive, skillful
Short fingers=peasant

Now admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to duck appearance cliches. If your hero is a 6th century Danish warrior, logically speaking he will probably be fit and muscular. If he wasn’t, he’d have stayed home in Denmark breeding sheep instead of strapping a sword on his back and setting off to conquer England, discover America, and rape the native female population of both. Likewise, you may end up with a heroine who had a lean childhood on the streets of 18th century London and can’t help being slender because she didn’t have too many square meals in her formative years. And sometimes, a character just comes to life out of nowhere and dictates their own appearance. I had a heroine who insisted on having blue eyes when I was determined to make them brown. We had a number of dialogues on the subject:

Me: Blue eyes on a blonde are cliched! Brown eyes are better.
Her: My eyes are blue.
Me: Who’s the author here? I’m God to you, toots, and if I say your eyes are brown, they’re brown.
Her: I’ll make you type blue. You’ll have to backspace and curse every time. Is this worth it?
Me: @($&#(*@!)#* (Gives up and gives heroine blue eyes)

The occasional struggle with a stubborn character aside, I do try to consult the ACS before figuring out how my characters look. Maybe you could have a short Viking warrior. Look at Lois McMaster Bujold, who wrote a space-opera series around a military genius of a soldier who barely topped 4’10.

If anyone else has any additions to the Appearance Cliche Scale, I’m all ears. This is a work in progress.

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