While I was toiling away at character sketches yesterday, I realized that I was also making conscious choices about those characters based on their relationships to one another. We're all aware of family resemblances. Sometimes you can just look at a group of pictures and pick out the ones that are members of the same family. Siblings often look like stair steps in more than just size; they are larger or smaller images of each other. The first thing people say about a new baby is something like, "Oh look, he has your eyes (or nose or ears). One blond child in a family of brunettes is likely to raise eyebrows as people speculate about the child's father.
Now obviously, many of those observations are wrong-headed, but there is no question that family members tend to look alike. A writer must keep that in mind. I'm often put off a movie or TV program by actors who do not look enough like one another to be convincing as brothers or sisters. Currently, for example, I have a slight problem with Downton Abbey, simply because I cannot see Mary, Edith, and Sybil as sisters. Each one is a fine actress in her own right, but together I find them disconcerting. Nor did Shirley MacLain convince me that she could really be Lady Grantham's mother.
Here are some assumptions I follow when working on characterization. I'm not saying that any of them have scientific proof to back them up, but they do help to make my characters more believable.
1. I'll start with my favorite, simple because it seems so implausible. If you want to know whether a marriage will succeed or fail, look at the couple's noses. If their noses match, chances are that their personalities will, too. I questioned that at first, until I looked at myself and my husband in the bathroom mirror one morning as we stood side by side. Yep! there's one reason we've been married for fifty-two years. At that very moment two of our friends were divorcing -- one had a tiny snub nose. the other a hooked beak. No wonder they fought all the time!
2. In general women pick men who look like (or behave like) their fathers, and men pick women who remind them of their mothers. Superficial resemblance may in some cases by less important than similar personalities, but there is frequently something that rings a familiar bell. In my own case, I was entirely too "corn-fed" to resemble my tiny mother-in-law, but I realize that our personalities are closer than I would like to admit. As for my father and my husband, they shared height, hairlines, tendency to park in front of sports broadcasts, and even their first names.
3. Children often resemble their same-sex grandparents rather than their parents, both in superficial characteristics and in personality. Bonds between grandparents and grandchildren are usually stronger, particularly when children are at odds with their parents in some way. Perhaps it's because Grandma looks at the child and sees herself.
4. Parents tend to favor offspring who look like themselves, and to be harder on the odd duck in the family. Thinking about that for a moment, perhaps that's one explanation for Edith's character in Downton Abbey. She is all wrong for the Grantham family, blonde where the others have dark hair, skinny rather than nicely rounded . . .and that pointy nose! No wonder she is always the one left out.
5. The older you get, the more you resemble your same-sex parent, so there's some truth in the advice that a young man who wants to know what his future wife will look like should take a good hard look at her mother. Several years ago, I taught in a summer program in England. The tutors all stayed in college residences, and several of us shared a bathroom. One of our number came to breakfast one morning stating, "I hate our shower! Every time I step out, I have to look in that full-length mirror, and I think my mother is in the room." The next day, I made sure to notice the mirror. My colleague was wrong. Her mother wasn't there at all. Mine was!
OK, none of these observations are scientific. But my characters seem more real when I remember to apply them. Can you think of others?