Visual Cues and Characterization

The robe and wizard hat. Guns and black leather. White labcoats and peculiar equipment. Breeches, a nice jacket and a riding crop. A military uniform and a wide-brimmed hat with a chinstrap. A bag of dice and a backpack that makes one’s back hurt just looking at it. What do all of these have in common?

It’s simple: we take one look at them and know what kind of person the character packing these things is supposed to be. In short, they’re visual cues, a sort of shorthand for getting across a character without having to come out and reference their occupation, skillset, hobbies, or similar traits.

The premise behind visual cues is simple. Over the course of our lives, we make associations between traits and the people who display them, for whatever reason. In some cases, this is deliberately cultivated, as with the characteristic hat of the drill instructor (sufficiently part of the image that, at least on my depot, they have a dispensation to wear the hats indoors—and did you know that those hats have carefully shaped cases that are screw-clamped around them, in order to preserve their shape?). Some of them are a fact about what sort of gear people need for what they do. And some are just coincidences. But either way, you see a few trappings, you get an idea what kind of character you’re dealing with.

Of course, the easiest way to use visual cues is to play them straight, as indicators of what a character is supposed to be or do. One-panel comics, in particular, depend on visual cues to establish themselves; think about your average political cartoon. The advantage here is that as long as the audience recognizes the same visual cues that you do, you can get a lot more across in fewer words; the disadvantage, as one of my coworkers suggesting a bespectacled mascot to my library’s librarian found out, is that it’s easy to take as stereotyping.

On the other hand, there’s playing against expectation (and theoretically cliché) by having the character’s traits in direct opposition to the visible trappings. So the childlike cutie might be the most dangerous (and possibly most vicious) fighter of the group, the blonde bombshell is also the brains of the outfit, you get the idea. Being this direct can be difficult as well, though, since people tend to expect a certain amount of playing with visual cues.

I’m personally fonder of taking visual cues that can have multiple meanings and playing a bit with which meaning you assign to the cues—sometimes using the most obvious interpretation, sometimes the anti-interpretation, but sometimes taking something that can have several interpretations and making the second or the third the one that actually applies. So the teenage-looking girl with the backpack on the trolley might be a student on her way to the local high school or college, but she might also be on her way to work with a pack full of ways to entertain herself on her commute.

So think about what your audience sees, and whether that’s always what they get.

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