Is there a name for this literary device? (Character's physical description = good/bad guy)

I’m sure this is a commonly used technique, but it’s really whacking me across the face now that I’m re-reading the Game of Thrones series: if a character is described as homely, ugly, “lips like wet red worms” etc. then it’s a foregone conclusion that this character is Up To No Good.

Everything has a name (and a Wikipedia page…) so I bet this does, too. What might it be?


(Also, cheap, facile, immature, cheesey melodramatics.)

TV Tropes has a bunch of entries on the subject of appearance and goodness/evilness.

Beauty Equals Goodness

Good Scars, Evil Scars

Evil Makes You Ugly

Blond Guys are Evil

There’s also the somewhat-related Astonishingly Appropriate Appearance, but it’s not specific to alignment like the ones you listed.

This is like houses in novels. The bad guys always live in trashy, rundown hovels with cigarette butts tossed on the weedy lawns, and dented mailboxes. The genteel elderly aunt still lives in an iffy part of town but her house is nicely painted and kept up - a bit shabby, but clean and respectable. The evil 1% live in gaudy overdone fortresses behind gates, with guard shacks.

Wearing “hats” ?

I disagree. As some examples:

  • In David Copperfield, Dickens uses Uriah Heep rubbing his hands together to tell you he’s up to no good. Plus his 'umble words. It’s a brilliant literary device, and neither stereotype, nor facile, nor immature, nor cheesey. Melodramatic, perhaps.
  • In Huckleberry Finn, the introduction to Pap:

Again, brilliant. By no means facile or immature or cheesey.

That enough examples? I’d say that the Trinopus’s comments CAN apply to poorly done instances, but I certainly wouldn’t condemn the whole approach of associating the moral with the physical. Obviously, there are the opposite as well – like The Hunchback of Notre Dame that plays on the stereotype and reverse it. However, I don’t know the word for the literary technique.

Hannah Shapero (, an artist who does cover art for fantasy novels, came up with a “color code” for characters in bad fantasy. It’s discussed here (and is the reason why Diana Wynne Jones’ “Tough Guide to Fantasyland” is dedicated to Shapero).

Well, personally, I’d hold those two examples to be cheesey. They rely on physical stereotyping of a person’s body to telegraph to the reader the content of their personality.

It isn’t brilliant. It’s lazy. It’s akin to the pathetic fallacy; it’s depending on extrinsics to convey information. The difference between your examples of “doing it right” and your example (the Hunchback) of doing it wrong are… Well, there aren’t any differences: both approaches use physical appearance the way a movie, today, uses musical motifs. Bassoons in a minor key: bad guy!

(Yes, I adore Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”)

Err Tyrion gets most of the negative trait description and he’s hardly evil. All I can think of specifically who fits is Chett but maybe I’m not trying hard enough. The fatter characters seem to get different descriptions based on if they’re evil or good though. Piggish = evil etc.

The historical “science” that said appearance = personality was physiognomy.

A related concept, don’t know if it is a trope, I will call “George Lucasing.” It means if a guy is named Odious Homocidius or Baddie McHitler, he probably isn’t going to be reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to orphaned children any time soon.

British accent+Middle-aged man+Not the protagonist = Bad Guy

On the other hand, there’s Severus Snape, who’s sallow and gawky and hook-nosed and greasy-haired, and ends up being one of the biggest heroes of the series.

While this is true, it’s a subversion. We’re supposed to not like him and he’s played up as a potential villain for a long time, and even as a hero he’s still a jerk. It’s still a case of his looks making him probably evil, and using that expectation to obfuscate a twist. It’s not much different from introducing a potential villain by having him or her burn down an orphanage, until you find out later that it was really a base for a changeling takeover and no actual children were harmed.

I think a true counterexample would have to be really ugly and homely, but just genuinely nice and never set up as a potential villain.

Rupert Giles would like a word with you. :stuck_out_tongue:

Note that the two examples C K Dexter Haven gave are from novels told in the first person. This is especially relevant with the second example. What Dex quoted is not an objective description of the character; it’s a description of the character as seen by Huck, who knows well what he’s like.

Well, okay… ButI’m not sure that’s really different. It’s stereotyping on the part of the author, if he expects the physical description to be a short-cut for the reader to understand that the character is a badnik. i.e., where is the actual communication occurring?

i.e., not all ugly characters are stereotyped, even if they are also rotters; it’s only cheesey when they author is using it as a lazy short-cut, to convey moral qualities of a character by the physical description.

And…that’s what the OP described. “if a character is described as homely, ugly, . . . etc. then it’s a foregone conclusion that this character is Up To No Good.”

That’s cheesey writing.

I’m not sure, ugliness has at least a small personality component. You can construct fairly scathing physical descriptions of Santa Claus, and it’s been done before for comedy. I think it’s more that people tend to ascribe positive descriptions to people they like and negative ones to people they hate and appearance is part of that. The fact that most people like Santa is what sets apart a man with a “big round belly that jiggles when he laughs” from a “fatass ditz of a man.”

People pay attention to the positive qualities of people they like. Hell, I’ve honestly, in real life, found people physically unattractive until I got to know them. There is a barrier there, none of these people were complete trolls, but sheer personality can count for a lot and change perception of physical appearance. Suddenly that chipped tooth becomes a charming quirk rather than a damning flaw. Even with personality traits, depending on what the writer wants you to think, just a few choice words can tip the scales between “confident” and “cocky” for instance.

Take Bill Murray as an example. Now, nobody is ever going to favorably compare him with Leonardo DiCaprio or anything, but depending on whether he’s playing the leading man or a villain (or otherwise negative character like in Osmosis Jones) just with some characterization and fancy camera work he can really bridge the gap between repulsive and perfectly okay looking.

Brienne is hardly an epitome of beauty, but she’s definitely a good guy in the GoT novels.

It’s more foreshadowing than stereotyping, I think. It can be a lazy cliche, but the trope is so old that some ways of subverting the trope are cliche themselves (like the good looking person who makes him/herself look ugly to fool a shallow person). There are also plenty of stories that subvert the trope in all kinds of ways. As far as Game of Thrones goes: I don’t know how the Lannisters are described in the books, but on the HBO series many of them are attractive and still horrible.

I disagree that it’s a lazy shortcut. For Uriah Heep, for instance, the reader is often uncertain what to make of him at first, it’s only as one reads along that the hand rubbing and 'umble becomes clear. For Pap, we already KNOW he’s wicked, we’ve been told that several times, and Huck’s observation clarifies it. Some readers will think that, since he’s Huck’s father, he SHOULD rightly have some say in the boy’s raising, and Twain wants to shut that down quickly. What Twain writes (the “fish-belly white”) is NOT trite (or wasn’t at the time.)

How about “Portrait of Dorian Grey”? Is that trite? The notion that evil and sinful behavior can leave physical marks was a well-established part of philosophy/theology/wossname.

Goes right along with fat bankers are almost always cheats/villainous. Movies, like books, only have so much time, and often don’t want to take 10 minutes (or three chapters) to establish that so-and-so is wicked. It’s not lazy to short-cut a description of the physical area down to one or two sentences, either. It’s just the author decided what things to spend time on (and what things for the reader to spend time on) and what not.

I don’t disagree that it CAN be lazy and overused and trite; but I don’t think it’s ALWAYS (or even MOSTLY) those things.