The Only Rule That Matters When Choosing Your Character's Appearance


Whenever you are creating a character, everything about him should be dichotomous. His looks to his personality. His wants and desires to his place in life.

Dichotomy, in short, is contrasts and contradictions:

Character Analysis from The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater
*May contain minor spoilers

Ronan - Ronan Lynch is dichotomous because his outward looks completely contrast what he really is when no one is looking. He's rough and mean, shaved head and narrow eyes, but inside he's a sweetheart. He cares. And he cares a lot. He raises a baby raven who absolutely adores him when everyone else only see's the stinging, writhing, angry mess that is Ronan Lynch.

Adam - Adam Parrish is a fair, elegant boy and very intelligent, but he's from the wrong side of the tracks. He's got rotten parents, he works as a car mechanic, and all he wants is to have a better life. He wants to have money and ability to do the things that matter. But Adam's dichotomy is taken a step further because he's proud. He won't take one red cent he doesn't earn himself.

Gansey - Richard Gansey III is dichotomous because he's from a wealthy family, he's been given every chance in life, every important connection. He's charming and smart, and yet what does he choose to do? He chooses to ignore a life of wealth and opportunity and search for a dead Welsh king. His best friends are a "lower class" boy, a boy everyone else hates, and a psychic's daughter. Right down to his orange Camaro Gansey is full of dichotomy.

Every thing about these people is a contrast. A contradiction. These are some of the most real people I've ever loved.

Creating Dichotomy

The only thing you need to remember when creating a character is that everything about him needs to be contrasted.

Gansey is smart, charming and rich, but he's a geek. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, polo shirts, and boat shoes. He drives a car that incessantly breaks down and that he lovingly calls the Pig.

Just like bad boy Ronan is indeed a bad boy because he's been hurt so many times he's closed up all the caring places in his heart and only let a few, choice people into those caring places, your character needs to have a reason for being the way he is. And the reason needs to a total contradiction to all facets of his life.

From his looks, his personality, to his position in life. They should all create this unique and fascinating contrast.
Ask yourself these questions when creating a character:

1. What is his goal? (i.e. he doesn't want to live in poverty for the rest of his life)

2. What conflicts may arise because of what he wants? (i.e. He's poor, can't afford collage, has to work two jobs, and has to study extra hard to achieve a 4.0 to get a scholarship)
3. How can his appearance and personality contrast his goals and his desires? (i.e. his features are fair and elegant, he has little opportunity to pursue his goal, yet he's a tough, hard-working kid from the slums)

Do Appearances Really Matter?

It's easy to agonize over your character's appearance, his eye and hair color, how tall he is and what size shirt he wears. I can spend hours to days surfing Pinterest for just the right the face. But does it REALLY matter what a person looks like?

It only matters if you make it matter. And appearances are something that need to matter in every story. Don't give your character a hair or eye color for no reason. They must have a purpose. Either to the story or to the character's goals, dreams, and personality. 

Don't give us what we expect. Ronan has everything going for him. He's got money, education, he could do and be anything he wanted. But he's a compulsive drag racer. Hates school. He shaves his head because it adds to his tough-guy, angry mask. And raises a raven.

Examples of  Other Dichotomous Characters

Two of the sweetest ladies in the world have their entire neighborhood, including the policeman, completely fooled. Who would have thought they would take to poisoning old men? But to go even further, who would have thought these dears would think that robbing someone of life would make them happy? Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, Arsenic and Old Lace 

The unlikable jerk - give him someone to love, and someone he loves desperately and completely. Dean Winchester, Supernatural

The evil antagonist - he's actually fighting for something good, just going about it in a morally wrong way. Ra's Al Ghul, Batman Begins 

The self-despising drunk - in love with a beautiful woman whom he ultimately sacrifices himself for. Sydney Cartier, A Tale of Two Cities.

If you want your characters to live forever in the minds of your readers, you need to remember that everyone is a frustrating, unknowable, three-dimensional wonder. And the key to creating dichotomous characters is to never make anyone black and white.

Let's chat! What are some dichotomies in your characters?


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