December’s FEATURED AUTHOR: Brent Weeks & Ugly Characters in Fantasy…

Happy Boxing Day! It’s almost the end of the year, can you believe it? But, stress not, we have Featured Author Brent Weeks stopping by with a guest post on ugly characters — and Hollywood’s interpretation of “ugly”. Read on!

Ugly Characters in Fantasy by Brent Weeks

Ugly characters are one of the profound strengths of books. When I started writing The Lightbringer series, I deliberately decided to make one of the main characters (Kip) a fat kid. Can you do that? My editors didn’t think I could. “Can you erase the word ‘fat’ a few dozen times?” they asked. Because not only is Kip fat, but he’s aware that he’s fat, and he’s embarrassed about it.

Ultimately, I think I get away with it because in a book, you spend time not looking at a character, but instead inside his head. Kip’s sense of humor, his essential goodness, and his predilection for saying the first thing that comes to mind becomes far more important than his cellulite. I don’t think I could have done it if I’d been writing for Hollywood.

Take The Game of Thrones. George R. R. Martin is a huge success, and everyone knew that the show would only be successful if the fanboy element was satisfied — that is, if the show was faithful to the books. I flipped on the first episode with intense interest for any number of reasons, but the foremost in my mind was, “How are they going to cast Arya?”

In the books, Arya is called Arya Horseface. Her essential ugliness makes her a contrast to the beautiful Sansa. If you read the books, there’s no question that Arya is at least a step or two below “plain.” And they cast this girl:

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark

Wow, SHE obviously fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, huh?

No. Not at all. She’s a typical cute kid actress. (This isn’t to say they don’t do a fine job with making her looking boyish. They do. But she certainly doesn’t look like an ugly boy that you’d never give a second glance to, which is what her character is.)

The point is, the directors blinked. They believe that viewers are so shallow that they could never root for the ugly girl. Now, this belief stems not just from Hollywood believing the worst of people, but also from science. People like attractive people.

There’s a lot of science that shows how we ascribe positive attributes like intelligence and likability to those who are good looking.

Denzel WashingtonSmart actors even use this to their advantage: Denzel Washington in Training Day? He couldn’t really be a bad guy, could he? He’s too darn likable!

Interestingly enough, this human truth — that we think good things of good looking people — is a dagger that cuts both ways. Once we get to know people, we tend to rate those who are good (i.e. smart, nice, warm) as more attractive.

Books do this with an immediacy. When I introduce Kip, he’s pulling up his pants, because he’s fat and they keep falling down. But in a novel, I can trust you to get over that first reaction and get to know him as an adolescent growing into a formidable man quickly.

Hollywood can’t do that. They can’t trust you that much, and in the end, it’s to their own detriment. Because let’s be honest: some of the greatest actors in the world probably can’t get jobs, simply because

Megan Fox in Transformers

Yeah, I was saying… You know what? Never mind.

Hahahahaha! How funny you ended the post with that picture… But yeah, it’s true that Hollywood has a warped perception. Sometimes I wonder, how would they cast Kip? Or Mark Lawrence’s Jorg? Or even Jay Lake’s Green?

Thank you so much for visiting us this month. I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and I’m sure my readers have too. Happy 2013!

About drey

I read. A lot. And then I share my thoughts with you. Sometimes I even invite authors to visit and say a thing or two...

16 Responses to December’s FEATURED AUTHOR: Brent Weeks & Ugly Characters in Fantasy…

  1. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin) 26 December, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Arya is not the only character in the books that gets “prettified” in the show, its true.

  2. Leah Petersen 26 December, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    What a great post. I always think of my own instinctive reaction to a [insert unattractive adjective here] character. I thought about it when I met Kip. I was keenly aware and ashamed of my ‘awwww, does he have to be fat? I like him…’ reaction. I think about it every time I run across a character who doesn’t fit the going definition of attractive. Even, sometimes, when there’s a disfiguring deformity, or a character’s lost a [hand, leg, eye, etc], or even has bad acne. I HATE that I have this reaction, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.

    I don’t want to make all my characters pretty, in fact, I make an effort to make sure most of them are average. I haven’t had the guts to do more, though.

    It makes it even more brilliant that Mark Lawrence succeeded at Jorg when he was a genuinely repulsive personality, and Lawrence didn’t fall back on making him attractive so it would be easier for the reader.

  3. Jennifer M Zeiger 26 December, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Recently came across The Night Angel Trilogy and I love the fact that Durzo Blint isn’t exactly your typical handsome. I admire authors who can stray from the expected norm and make a reader love their characters. Brent Weeks definitely succeed at this and I look forward to reading the Lightbringer Series!

  4. Daniel J. Cassidy 26 December, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    As a reader of fantasy, I don’t expect the the characters to be as pretty as Hollywood likes them. For instance, two of my favorite characters are San dan Glokta, Joe Abercrombie’s crippled torturer, and Black Dow, one of his ruthless barbarians.

    Now that I think about it, Joe might corner the market on unattractive characters with Monza Murcatto being left horribly disfigured in an assassination attempt in Best Served Cold, who partners up with Shivers, who ends up being horribly disfigured a brutal torture.

    Brent, you used disfigured characters effectively with Doll Girl/Elene in The Night Angel Trilogy, and in Kip.

    Scott Lynch makes a great “wimp” out of Locke Lamora, who relies upon the muscle of Jean Tannen to back up his brains and quick wit.

    Glenn Cook does a great job with “gritty” characters in his Black Company series, too.

    Overall, I relate to the realness of characters, and not everyone can relate to beautiful characters like Kaladin Stormborn, Jaime Lannister, Atticus O’Sullivan, or perfect ones such as Richard Rahl, Drizzt Do’Urden, and Tavi.

    They are all fantastic, but sometimes we like some imperfection : )

    • drey 27 December, 2012 at 11:43 am #

      OMG, how could I forget Joe’s characters? *face-palm*

      I agree on the realness – I don’t mind gorgeous characters in my romance reads, but fantasy? Give me characters I can (somewhat?) identify with. And not just in physical qualities either. Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam is one screwed up heroine, and I love her for it.

      • Hell 20 January, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

        His name is Kaladin Stormblessed.

        Also, i don’t think people relate to the characters face, since you don’t really see the face. You relate to their personalities. sure, those personalities are affected by what they look like, but they aren’t defined by them.

        • drey 20 August, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

          Readers may not relate, per se, but other characters do. In a perfect world, physical attributes shouldn’t matter – but it’s never a perfect world, real or fictional. And a character’s looks will affect how others interact with them.

  5. Steve McIlhatton 26 December, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    The Imp is another character that I think they have wimped out on. He should not only be short but hideous.

    I guess the makeup requirement goes some way to explaining why they didn’t go that path (and similarly for the scarring rather than having his nose sliced off).

    • drey 20 August, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

      Yeah, I can see how it would be difficult to have an actor’s nose appear sliced off… :)

      • Blaise 4 April, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

        Arya Horseface is what her sister and her friend called her to make fun of her, it seems she’s supposed to be more awkward and hasn’t really grown into her looks than actually hideous because its also said that she bears a great resemblance to Lyanna Stark who was said to be very beautiful. She stole Rhaegars attention after all.

  6. Ashley 28 December, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    I remember waiting for the end of the first season of Game of Thrones to see if they would “burn” Dany’s hair off. Of course they didn’t and I wasn’t at all surprised. I don’t mind that Arya isn’t as “horseface” as she should be but the hound definitely needed to be more hideous.

    Ugly characters in books immediately brought Joe Abercrombie to my mind as well.

  7. Kell 30 December, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    I agree hollywood does way to much “prettying” up of charactors, like in game of thrones tyrion is not at all what he should be like in the show, in the book he is deformed, has bent legs a hunched back and is extremely ugly. He makes a great counterpoint to the beaty of jamie and cersei yet hollywood pretty him up so people will not get offended.

  8. Amanda 1 January, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    I can’t tell you how many times this has crossed my mind and has came up in conversations! See, when I first read Black Prism and Kip was introduced as this fat, pimply, awkward young boy I absolutely fell in love with him for those reasons because up to that point I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that had such a character, at least a main character. So for that, Mr. Weeks, I thank you. :)

    Sadly, it’s impossible to capture the interest of viewers if the characters aren’t pretty. People have a hard time seeing passed it. It’s just like in the book trailer for Black Prism, how it depicted Kip inaccurately, and I know it was just a book trailer but even yet…

  9. Stan 18 January, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    I’m not so sure they went as far off the reserve with Arya’s casting as you believe, Brent. The thing about Arya is that she isn’t beautiful *now*. But it’s strongly foreshadowed that she’ll be stunningly beautiful as an adult. She’s an ugly duckling, not just ugly.

    The problem with that is how do predict how a young actress is going to develop over time? How do you find that perfect mixture of awkwardly ugly *now* but beautiful *later*?

  10. Meretsen 2 June, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    They cast Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Enough said.

  11. iolanthe 22 October, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    I like the fact that Kip is fat. It’s a) realistic – some people are fat. It’s b) different – we don’t often get fat main characters.

    On a different-but-related note: reading the Black Prism, I felt a bit bored by all the analysis we got of female characters’ hair/boobs/clothes/face/boobs/figure/overall appeal/boobs. Given there weren’t many female characters in the book (Liv, Karriss, Marissia), I thought it was a damned shame they were so heart-stoppingly gorgeous, stunningly talented and beguilingly unaware of it. It may be a by-product of the POV (horny teen) but I think you run the risk of alienating female readers if your handful of significant female characters are all impossibly beautiful and powerful. It gives you the feeling that women are only worth reading about, only deserve to be part of the story, if they’re outstanding in every category. Especially boobs. The White is the obvious exception…

    The Blinding Knife is a much better fit. You have Teia, Samite, The Third Eye, Lady Verangheti, Janus Borig, the Blackguard women’s lecture etc, and they all make for a more balanced world. However we still often get the assessment of a female character’s looks first, and we hear a lot about boobs. In fact, there’s almost a whole chapter on boobs (Seers Island). Is this because the assumed audience is mostly adolescent and/or male, or is it because the principal POVs of the book are?

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