Do you remember the first time you walked away from a movie and headed straight online or into a store, so that you could purchase a dress or a bag just like the main protagonist wore in the film?
Style and image has been the mainstay of characterization since movies were first created – and it isn’t just fictional characters who use their appearance to channel the kind of individual that they want or need to be.
Let’s think about a few real life examples, starting with the iconic girl group The Spice Girls. The five members of the band may be doing their own independent things now, but back when The Spice Girls were prominent in the world of pop music, each of the five members of the group had their own distinct style and appearance which was intrinsically linked with their name.
Posh Spice always had on formal attire and high end accessories; Sporty Spice was always seen in a tracksuit, while Baby Spice rocked the pink denim and pigtails like no other. Scary Spice was renowned for her big hair and animal print outfits, while Ginger Spice embraced her red hair and vibrant outfits which drew attention to her natural coloring.
If you really think about it, each of these five women uses a different stereotypical style as her individual weapon – creating five personas which are remembered today as being the very embodiment of female power.
Let’s consider another example – this time looking at male image. While it’s very easy to think about style and immediately choose male celebrities who might as well be models with their endless good looks and strong physiques, what about those whose image is so easy to identify that one need only see a picture of them and they can instantly name them? A good example is Hitler – the infamous German dictator who was responsible for the evil that fuelled much of WW2, and who died more than 70 years ago.
Of course, the world is full of dictators and evil individuals in history, so what makes Hitler so memorable and so easy to identify from a single picture? It’s the unique features he invested in as part of his style – both in the Nazi symbol which was used to brand him and his army and draw together his actions, and the small moustache that became his signature look.
How do we use style in building fictional characters?
What these real life examples show us is how individuals have forged careers and even notoriety, by making their appearance as memorable as their actions.
So, how do we do the same with fictional characters?
Think for a moment about your favourite animated movie. For the purposes of using an example we can all picture and relate to, we’re going to consider the Disney movie ‘Frozen’. In this movie, there are two female protagonists – one open and warm, and one mysterious and closed off until the climax of the movie where we learn more about her. However, this moment isn’t until about an hour in – so, how does Disney let us know the inner most feelings of each sister without telling us directly?
It’s all achieved in their image, in what they wear and in how they act. Anna, the open sister who wants to live her life to the full, wears typically warm and inviting colors; her hair is an Autumn red and she wears it in plaits which makes her appear down to earth. Her body language is open and embracing, and she communicates with others as often as she can. Meanwhile, Elsa wears only cool blue tones, and keeps her ice blonde hair in a well-controlled updo which immediately makes her features stand out in contrast. Her body language is closed, with her hands regularly grasped in front of her – and the way she speaks with others is, again, controlled and minimal. Of course, once she finds out who she is and embraces her powers, she immediately pulls her hair into a loose plait – and by the second movie, her approachable and warm nature is dictated with more vibrant and colorful outfits and open arms.
Another example of fictional image playing a huge part in the characterization of certain individuals can be seen in period dramas. While these types of characters may not present the status and class differentiations that we are used to and understand today, costume departments use clothing and style to very clearly portray the social standing and wealth of any specific character – through the cleanliness of their clothes, the amount of coverage they have according to the weather conditions, the colors they wear, and the accessories they carry around with them. Again, this shows how image is used to portray to us, the audience, the information, and facts we need to know – without coming right out and telling us.
The power of image to portray a character
We all use image to portray who we are, often without even realizing it. From the clothes we wear to the gestures we use in our communication, everything about the way we look to others becomes a part of the character we choose to present to the world. Of course, there will always be those who try and replicate the look of others – whether it be a character they admire from a movie, or a real life individual whose views they admire and who they want to emanate themselves.
For the most part, however, we can only use image to hide our real selves for so long – before our true colors are shown. The things we wear and the way we look will only take us so far before our actions and motives start to shine through – and this is where character complexity comes into play.
After all, is Scary Spice really scary? Is Elsa really a cold-hearted Queen? Or is it all a character, created through image and style?