Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Two grey eyes, with lids to them - Charlie Butler


I recently took a fun, online test – one of those things people do when they’re meant to be working – and discovered that I have really bad facial recognition, or, to give it its fancy name, prosopagnosia. Actually, I’ve always known this, but gilding the knowledge with a Greek polysyllable makes it feel much more respectable. Apart from giving me a ready excuse in various embarrassing social settings (“I thought I knew you from somewhere, but then I have so many nieces. It’s the old prosopagnosia playing me up again.”) it explains a difficulty I’ve often had in writing.
In short, I’m just not very good at describing people. I do usually have a sense of whether they’re old or young, tall or short, fat or thin, and will happily say so. I know whether they’re smiling or frowning, and anything that’s directly relevant to the plot I will duly mention. But the acute observation of physical idiosyncrasies, the play of changes across a face, the significance of a hairstyle, none of these comes easily to me. My first-draft descriptions turn into catalogues, blue-tacked onto the action, and it takes a lot of work to integrate them – which usually means, in practice, discarding 90% of what I’d originally written. Maybe that’s not a bad thing: the most effective parts of a book are often written between the lines, after all. However, I still envy people who can (or so it appears) conjure up a person’s history and character through their physiognomy with a few bold Raphaelesque strokes, or hold our attention as they show, à la Sherlock Holmes, how much information can be read in the face, clothes and body language.
Since I’ve got started, let the ABBA records show that I’m equally useless at recognizing flowers (I can do roses, dandelions, buttercups, tulips, daffodils, and er, that’s it) and makes of car (Mini, Robin Reliant and Citroen 2CV are okay, and maybe a Renault Scenic, but that’s only because I drive one). If you found yourself acting as getaway driver for an armed robbery at a florist’s, I would be your ideal witness. Luckily I do know how to look things up in books, though.
Hmm. I don’t seem to have done a great job on selling myself as a writer, today. Perhaps next time I’ll make a list of my good qualities! At least I’ve never been tempted to write a Mary Sue character. I mention that only as a way of pointing you to this fun, online test...

12 comments:

bookwitch said...

I'm the oldish, short and fat one...

Elen Caldecott said...

Yesterday, we looked at our new-to-us garden and said things like 'is that a weed?', 'it's a bit big for a weed,' 'I think it's ugly, it must be a weed.'


So, I went and bought a book. We will have a nice garden someday!
I'm with you on cars and people too.

John Dougherty said...

But where's the prosopagnosia test?

Charlie Butler said...

Good point, John! I've edited to provide a link.

Lee said...

Oh no. Something more to obsess about - my MarySue score, which is even greater than my weight.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Cars? Are they those things that have 4 wheels?

Lee said...

Heheh Dianne, only sometimes:

http://jalopnik.com/5291013/125-mpg-diesel+electric-three+wheeled-car-headed-for-production

Nick Green said...

I'm rubbish at faces too. Or is it names? Either way, I have been known to work with people for years and still refer to them as 'um...'

I rarely see the point of describing characters' faces, until I read an author that does it really well, and I pine, 'Now why can't I write something like that...?'

I suspect those authors who are also painters etc can do it very well.

Joanna Kenrick said...

I have EXACTLY the same problem, Charlie! Recently introduced myself to someone who had come to our bbq, only to be met by a rather bemused expression and a 'yes, we've met three times before' - eeek!

I'd never connected it with my inability to (and disinterest in) describe characters, but I think you may be right. I never know what any of my characters look like, and I never think it matters! (unless of course their physical appearance is somehow a big part of the plot).

John Dougherty said...

Having asked for the test, I haven't dared take it yet... I'm forever failing to recognise people, and I don't generally see the need to describe characters. Maybe we should start a support group.

Brian Keaney said...

Me too, Charlie. The car thing is so embarrassing for a man as well. But it's comforting to know there's a Greek word for it.

Charlie Butler said...

It's very comforting to know that I'm not alone. Thanks, everyone - whoever you all are...