Tuesday, 20 December 2011


Many of us believe in 'Love at First Sight' - but what can we gather about a person from simply looking at them?

The overall image is obviously important, and scientific studies show that we make instant impressions of people. It's not just facial features that get our attention. The way someone stands and gestures, their clothing, their walk, their bearing all count for something.

We make quick educated guesses about someone's age, class, level of education, wealth, personality. There are subtle clues about someone's facial expressions too that we note subconsciously. All this has to gel into a person we find attractive before we decide that we want to know that person better - or even date them.

At another level we may be unconsciously comparing someone - favourably or
unfavourably - to other important people in our lives: a relative, past boy/girlfriend or an ex-lover. Some people seem to fall for the same physical type over and over again.

When we are reading about a character do we want all their physical attributes spelt out to us, along with descriptions of their clothing and a potted life history? That certainly was the habit of novelists in the past.

Mills and Boon readers voted Charlotte Bronte's Mr Rochester, from Jane Eyre, the most romantic character in literature. Here is how she describes him, through Jane's eyes:

' . . . broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair. I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw-yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake. His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with his physiognomy.'

Jane is drawing conclusions about his character from his physiognomy - his facial features - as the Victorians were convinced you should be able to do, but he is hardly presented as an attractive-looking man. Appearances, we learn, can be deceptive and many rough diamonds conceal a heart of gold.

But perhaps it is better not to go into too much detail about a character if you want your reader to fall in love with him. How often has your private image of a character been shattered by someone else's movie portrayal of him or her? Fashions in beauty change, even when it comes to men's hairstyles: compare the 'long-haired lovers from Liverpool' of the 1960s with the neatly sculpted and gelled creations of today.

Looking back, people sometimes feel quite incredulous about their past clothes, hair and make-up, as if they were somehow victims of mass hypnosis. But perhaps that is what 'fashion' really is, after all.

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