The Sunday Times in the UK recently revealed some sneak peeks of the third volume of the Bridget Jones Diary, a book I have never read. The startling revelation in these extracts was that the male lead, named Mark Darcy, was somehow dead or something, because Bridget Jones was seen obsessing over a 29-year-old man instead. I don’t know these chicklit things, but Bridget Jones had been a bestseller and so numerous women all over the world were horrified at this unexpected turn of events, because Mr Darcy had been the stereotypical dream man. He was tall, dark, handsome and devoted.
I think most of us have our own literary romantic figures as well. Maybe they’re not portrayed so explicitly as tall, dark and handsome (though I must say something about this “dark” part; do people really like extremely tanned men? Or was there some other meaning to “dark” in Victorian times?), or pretty, dainty and fair, but it’s interesting that we’ll always imagine them to be of favourable appearance. The book may say quite little about what these people actually look like, but we take them and we impose on them an ideal image that we find pleasant. It’s a bit like making friends on the internet. Theory has it that we imagine these people to be a lot like us, and to be nice, good-looking people. It’s an instinctive assumption. And so this ideal image sticks. Sometimes they look like an actor, sometimes a cartoon character. It’s more fun than in movies because we don’t always like the actors in movies.
I must say I can’t say offhand who my literary Prince Charming is, though. I do rather have a strange attraction for Jalil in EverWorld, but he’s younger than me by now so that’s wrong and I don’t think about it anymore. I have a good opinion of Jonathan Strange in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I think the book already stated that he was a charming lad. Maybe an unconventional one would be the guy in The Shadow of the Wind, forgot his name. I thought he was probably really cute. David, I think his name was.
But it gets harder and harder for us to think of literary people that we admire and love. Now that almost every book we’ve read is turned into a film, oftentimes we defer to the film adaptation for the final say on how the characters look. So we have a pretty awkward-looking Harry Potter and an absurd Voldemort with no nose, even though I expected Voldemort to wear more black in the book. But no, rarely do we criticise a character’s appearance based on how he was written in the book, because rarely do we remember enough to prove that they’re vastly different. I mean, no one seemed to have raised any complaint that Willy Wonka in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’s movie was totally off and didn’t have a goatee as he was supposed to. And the next time you ask somebody what Willy Wonka or Voldemort looks like, they’ll definitely give you the movie portrayal as if it were the absolute truth all along.
But don’t abandon your literary princes and princesses, people! Hold fast to them, even in an era of visual stimulation, over-skinny bodies and plastic surgery. Hold true to your perfect beauty, with the perfect personality, who cannot be described in mere imagery, whose soul lives on in the text of your book. Even if their soul might be flaky like Bridget Jones.
And on the authors’ perspective, maybe there’s some merit to not spelling out a character’s appearance anymore than needed too. You may have an idea of how your characters look, but don’t restrict the fertile imaginations of your readers. Words provide suggestions, never enforcement.