Writing Challenge #4: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

This is the front cover of the sesquicentennial edition of the Vassar Quarterly, the alumnae/i magazine. (Yes I went there, hence deferring to the publication’s inclusive and always consistent use of alumnae/i to recognize and celebrate its heritage as a women’s college.)

Back to the assignment.

On first glance, the cover seems to be a reproduction of a famous painting of Matthew Vassar, the school’s founder, titled, most aptly, “Matthew Vassar, 1861.” I remember looking at that painting–writing about it, even–during my four years there.

But look again. That’s not Matthew Vassar at all, but actress Meryl Streep, class of 1971. According to the Quarterly, she was photographed by Brigitte Lacombe. I love this cover–how clever, how brilliantly executed, and how Vassar. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 150 years than this issue, which is full of historical reflections, photographs and what the future will bring to campus.

Here’s the assignment. Take a close look at your protagonist. How do the other characters judge his or her appearance? What do they assume about your character based on looks? What do they miss on first glance?

Please feel free to leave your responses and thoughts in the comments. Or if you respond to the prompt on your blog, post a link to your insights. Happy writing!

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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10 Responses to Writing Challenge #4: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

  1. Interesting premise. I have a few characters who get judged by their appearance from time to time (as I indicated in a recent blog post, I’m not sure if I have “protagonists”).

    One is my detective character, who I’ve been writing about for 40 years now. She always wears three-piece suits, partly because (as she put it once) it leaves people without an obvious category to put her in. When she was in high school, she decided to become like the detectives she read about in books (which gave some context to her being “that weird-looking girl who reads all the time”).
    I wrote about her here:
    And here (scroll down to the “Joey and Janice” part):

    The main thing people miss about her at first glance? How young she is. She is in her early 20s, which usually surprises people when they get to know her.

    Trivia question: Where did Meryl Streep play a male character (other than that photograph)?

    • Love your descriptions of Janice, Anthony, and how her appearance surprises (confuses?) the other people in your story-world. No idea about the Meryl Streep trivia, though–and I didn’t cheat and google it!

  2. This is a doozy for me, as I only have one POV in my current project. My main character can’t know for sure how others judge her, but I do. It helps me write their reactions, but she’s left floundering about what’s going on in their heads.

    I think it might be giving me multiple personality syndrome… ^_^

    • How interesting, Barbara! I love it when a character thinks she understands what others are thinking–and the reader knows otherwise. Delicious!

      • The trivia answer is Angels in America (it was a miniseries on HBO or somewhere like that), where she played three roles, including a (male) rabbi. Also a Mormon woman, and Ethel Rosenberg.

        • (My previous reply ended up attached to the wrong message. Ooops. Maybe time for bed.)

          I think it makes stories more realistic when characters are wrong about things, when they get the wrong ideas about other characters, when they unintentionally cause confusion in others, because that happens all the time in real life. If you smooth that out too much, it would seem flat and unreal.

  3. Love this post and its insights. I love the complexities of character…and the subtle misdirection that can come from appearance. The baggage beneath the surface is always fascinating, isn’t it? xo Lynn

  4. Sarah Cypher says:

    Ooh, that’s a good one. And a good challenge if you have to figure out other characters’ guesses with a first-person narrator–all around, people’s judgments say more about them than appearances do.

    And what a cover!

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