Often we read to escape- but sometimes we find ourselves. In genre fiction, the novels of science fiction, fantasy and historical authors build a world where readers can travel to imaginary worlds, marvel and be lost to the present day. But a book can be so much more. It can be a place where someone who needs a dream – some hope – can find it. So what does the physical appearance of your characters say to the reader?
This is a tough call. Hollywood movies and the cult of the celebrity all worship at the altar of extreme beauty, of washboard abdominals and electric blue eyes. Magazines offer articles on how one can resemble someone who is as beautiful as a god. In a world as deep as a photo, a pretty face is bankable, enviable, adored. That’s not a bad thing – actors spend hours perfection their genetic blessings, and come up a treat. I won’t deny the benefits of a hour of eye candy on the screen.
But what of the rest of the world? Working in rotten jobs, sitting on a school bus, endlessly house cleaning? Watching their hands become gnarled with age, and the wrinkles deepen? Or starting out with problems they cannot fix? Don’t they deserve a dream where someone just like them saves the world? Let them open a secret door and find magic.
A real world hero is a complicated beast. A past that might have left scars. A present perhaps afflicted with medical issues. A future where injuries do not magically disappear.
Science fiction offers the opportunity for perfection – advanced surgery to achieve the body of a god. But this doesn’t have to be the route you take. Heinlein in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” had the main character missing an arm, the result of an accident. Andre Norton often had the space traders beset by plagues and boils. Harry Harrison in his “Bill, The Galactic Hero” series had Bill the victim of military surgery that resulted in two right hands of different colours, and at one stage, a leg that ended in a claw. Doctor Who has been an epic series where the companions are ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.
Fantasy offers a complex canvas to explore the concept of inclusion. Wars, plagues and quests are all times when injuries happen, and cannot be fixed with primitive medical or magical healing. Some interesting consequences of healing come up in the scarring of Jondalar in Jean Auel’s “Clan of the Cave Bear” where Jondalar who himself is quite beauty conscious, becomes scarred. Another is “Last of the Renshai” by Mickey Zucker Reichert, where the main character becomes a paraplegic. For people who have seen “King Solomon’s Mines” with the gorgeous Stewart Granger or Richard Chamberlain in the main role, it is worth reading the book by Henry Rider Haggard. The original hero is a short, older man with hair that he refers to as like a scrubbing brush.
Historical fiction has a wonderful advantage in research. The effects of battle, the pox, poor nutrition, industrial accidents and all sorts of things can be included. Victorian times were an era of poisonous cosmetics, of adulterated food, and multiple childbirths. Even in regency novels, often plagued by hauntingly beautiful women fawning over a man in tight breeches can make good use of a hero with some issues. The novel “The Captain’s Wallflower” by Audrey Harrison has a captain returning to society, after having lost his sight in a battle at sea. The novel “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco has scarcely a comely character from beginning to end. The Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters often juxtaposes beauty beside – and sometimes in spite of – hideous maladies.
But there are some that combine a handsome hero with scars that mark their journey through the events that made them what they are. Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was described by Jane as having “a godlike exterior” but had many scars, with a noticeable one that ran across his forehead, and became a red band when enraged. More recently, the Netflix series “Arrow” has the hero Oliver Queen adorned with a mosaic of scars and tattoos, a reminder of the harsh process of turning a useless pretty boy into a vigilante hero.
But even heroes, no matter what their external appearance, are people. People with a past, and an uncertain future – depending on the sort of novel. An ordinary person becomes beautiful in the eyes of love. A person steps up and does the job that no one else is willing to do – and that is the mark of a hero. They may be saving the universe, or saving a dog from traffic, but to the reader, they will be someone to admire because of who they are and what they do, not what they look like.
Inside every reader lies a hero in waiting.
P.S. Druid’s Portal : The Second Journey is due out May 22 with Soul Mate publishing.
If you are a writer, I have a book “The Organized Author” coming out in April with Rhetoric Askew.
For those that have not read Druid’s Portal yet, here is a link to the first chapter DruidsPortal
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