Thursday, June 1, 2017
“Why have I not yet written about ugly people in literature?”—that’s the thought that occurred to me when I looked in the mirror this morning. Ha ha. But anyway, recent writers (maybe even you) have been incorporating less-than-glamorous characters into their works. Let's find out why...
First of all, the title of this reflection utilizes the word “igly”. No matter what my spell-check says, that’s not a typo; it’s apparently a very elusive and unused word. According to Bart King’s The Big Book of Boy Stuff (one of my many hallowed texts), “igly” means “Really, really ugly.” On the other hand, the online Urban Dictionary defines the word slightly differently, saying that it means “The quality of being ugly and cute at the same time.” Every other dictionary denies the word exists; this obviously indicates that the word is an underrepresented minority, and therefore needs to be given our full appreciation and support! But social justice aside, the slightly differing definitions actually don’t worry me—both of them will serve my purposes here. More on that in a minute.
So, on to literature. Fortunately the literary spectrum is not wholly populated by beautiful people, and thank goodness; if the main characters were always gorgeous, the rest of us non-pop-stars would probably find them less relatable. Take the comic book Valerian, for instance. In my efforts to broaden my sci-fi database, I checked out a copy from my local library and burned through it in a day. While I was more than impressed with the artful world-building (I can only pray the upcoming CGI cinematic adaptation will do it justice), it seemed the sworn duty of every single character to mention how pretty Laureline was. It became my litmus test for the moral bend for each individual; if they noticed how hot Valerian’s sidekick was—even if the observers were of a wholly different species—they were on the side of the good. It got exhausting; Yes, she’s pretty, get over it was my reaction less than halfway through the adventure. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a more relatable and less picturesque protagonist has emerged over the years, acting as a counterpoint to the familiar “Beauty Culture”. However, in its popularity, it has become a separate trend in itself, and as with all trends, it should be analyzed. Why do we use it—and if you are also a writer, why do you use it?
However, if I analyze all of ugliness, it would take way too long. Plus I’d have to study more things along the lines of stereotypes and popularity and cultural norms of beauty, and that can get pretty boring after extended exposure. For both of our sakes, then, I’m limiting my analysis to this category: Characters Who Do Not See Themselves as Appealing.
It’s still a large list.
You know what I’m talking about. Let’s have a look at a few: Quasimodo, Frankenstein’s Monster, Tris in Divergent, Cassie in 5th Wave…I think the list extends to Katniss in Hunger Games and Cia in The Testing, but I can’t remember if that’s so (and the books aren’t within a 3-foot radius of my person). Someone will have to tell me if it extends to Bella in Twilight too; I don’t know if she thinks she’s ordinary, but it’s likely. The point is, much fiction—including recent fiction—has a main character who does not think of him/herself as “the fairest of them all”. You might even have such a character; if you’re a writer nowadays, you can’t get by without one. But why is that character like that? What is the reason for their additional unsightliness? As an author, you can’t just say that you’re fighting the Beauty Culture. Unless your character is ugly because they’re consciously trying to fight the Beauty Culture, that’s not the reason you did it. So find one of your MCs (or find a book with such a protagonist) and let’s see how they compare to some of the reasons why a character is ugly.
1) The protagonist/character is trying to fight the Beauty Culture. No, I’m not contradicting what I said earlier. It can happen; for instance, when a character purposefully does not adhere to the culture’s norms for beauty, especially in the way they dress. An example I can think of is Piper from Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series—even though she’s (MINOR SPOILER) a child of Aphrodite, she rebels against the typical self-obsessive preening of her cabinmates. This does accidentally make her more beautiful/approachable in the eyes of her love interest, of course…
2) The protagonist/character is ugly, and knows him/herself to be so. Think of the extreme cases, like Frankenstein and Quasimodo, or the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. There’s also that movie coming out in November, Wonder, about a boy with facial scarring who attends public school for the first time. Here, the purpose of the deformities is the clearest and strongest; the ugliness is what separates the character from the rest of the world. They’re seen as “igly” in the sense of really ugly. For the sake of exploring a unique individual’s isolation and/or people’s perception of the appealing, it’s an excellent element. If the character wholly obsesses on it, though, it indicates vanity—which will come up again later. As an example, Hester Shaw in the Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series has a massive scar across her face—and her focus on it builds a wall between her and the other MC, Tom Natsworthy. The lack of progress in dismantling the wall was what put me off reading more than the first two books of the quartet; Hester’s character never really moved beyond how ugly she thought she was.
This kind of focus is not the worst issue, though, for here comes the biggest troublemaker of them all…
3) The protagonist/character is NOT ugly, but believes him/herself to be so. This is arguably the most popular version that is out there in literature today. At worst, the character is “igly” in the sense of cute and ugly. Or the character could be plain. But the most common case is that the character is actually a looker. In 5th Wave, I can’t take Cassie’s lamentations seriously when she’s being portrayed by Chloe Moretz and a love triangle is being formed around her. At any rate, this self-perception is an illusion generated by the character him/herself, and as is the case with any falsehood, the creator can either believe or disbelieve it.
If the attractive character does believe that he/she is ugly or plain, it’s a sign of that superficial vanity that was brought up earlier. The protagonist looks fine, but looks into the magic mirror while lamenting that she’s not the fairest in the land…usually because he/she is not attracting the undivided attention of his/her secret crush. On the one hand, it’s often a good thing when character does not believe that he’s God’s ultimate gob of eye candy—whole separate problem there. On the other hand, though, it deals a serious blow to the character himself (I’m tired of writing “him/herself”) if the person is convinced of his irredeemable imperfection. It results in, one, an unnecessary pessimistic timidity on the part of the protagonist; and two, an obsession on the protagonist’s part that he is not achieving some artificial standard—compromising the character himself as he strives for a self-centered and unrealistic goal. He’s focused on the outside, the most misleading factor; and when that’s the most prominent, it eats away the rest of him.
If the attractive character doesn’t wholly believe that he’s ugly/plain but promotes the idea anyway, though, it means that he’s…how do I put this?…fishing for compliments. I do this all the time; look at my opening line of this essay if you don’t believe me. Now granted, some characters need some self-affirmation, for instance, when the protagonist has been told—in a Cinderella-esque fashion—that they are nothing special. But see if this sounds familiar:
“I’m not beautiful,” she said.
“But you are beautiful!” he replied, gazing into her eyes.
When the protagonist has had a regular upbringing, this kind of questioning is manipulative. It steers the friend/significant other into doing exactly what he’s supposed to do, that is, tell her what she wants to hear. What was he supposed to say?
“I’m not beautiful,” she said.
“And boy, you’re not kidding,” he replied, gazing into her eyes.
Look back to Version One of this scene; even though she hears what she wants, the girl can’t fully believe that the boy is telling the truth. Don’t think so? Odds are the plot complication of the narrative will, at some point, include the girl thinking he doesn’t think I’m THAT beautiful. Then, if she doesn’t again hear what she wants, she runs the risk of actually believing she’s nothing special…and I’ve already talked about how shallow that is.
Note: I’m not saying that I hate writers who write about the beautiful-but-blind. I just don’t like the ones who reward their protagonists for being shallow. You’d better handle this well, that’s all I’m saying. I’ve ranted long enough about 5th Wave.
In conclusion, I invite you to look closer at the ugly characters—and your ugly self—to see how the imperfections shape their respective subjects. A well-balanced person neither obsesses over their imperfections nor denies that they exist. Rather, the balance is in the middle; they fight against their problems, but don’t let them define who they are.
In my defense, this reflection wasn’t supposed to be this long. I thank you and your igly face for hanging in there.