A while back, I read a blog entry by psychologist Mark Changizi arguing that patients should wear skin-colored hospital gowns.
The logic is simple. Skin tone often changes due to illness, but those changes are hard to see against a green or white hospital gown. Because green and white are so drastically different from our skin tone, healthy skin and slightly greenish/reddish/yellowish skin end up looking the same. However, if patients wore gowns that matched the color of their skin, it would be much easier for nurses to see when there is a change. A slightly greenish hue is much easier to detect when it's up against a flesh colored gown.
To see a dramatic demonstration of this, take a look at Mark’s original blog post. He has some flesh colored patches that look similar to each other when placed against a green background, but look completely different when placed against a flesh colored background.
It's a trick of our brains. We are better at seeing subtle differences if we have an immediate point of comparison. So what does this have to do with character development? Well, I’m glad you asked. [Completely forced and utterly unscientific analogy ahead.]
A while ago, I read Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce. I was struck by the strong supporting cast, particularly two sisters named Sarai and Dove. My sense of them was much clearer than I would have expected given the amount of screen time they had. This was especially impressive because they were relatively nuanced characters. It's sometimes easy to sketch out a character with limited screen time if it's a larger-than-life extravagant person, but these girls were fairly normal, yet still well-rounded.
Curious as to how Pierce did this, I went back and analyzed the sections where the girls appeared. I found that Pierce used one technique over and over. She repeatedly presented the girls together and by doing so, caused their differences and unique characteristics to jump out.
Here are three passages -- three slightly different ways in which the girls are used as foils for each other.
1. In the Way Others React To Them
Before anyone could stop him, the man who had first spoken had wriggled over to Sarai. Awkwardly he leaned forward to touch his forehead to Sarai's shoe. "You are as gracious as you are beautiful," he whispered.
Aly bit her tongue. It was Dove who had truly found a way to keep these men alive. She glanced at Dove, who met her eyes and shrugged. "She's prettier," the younger girl murmured as she passed ly on her way back to the wagon. "Everyone always goes to her first."
2. In Their Interaction With Each Other
"Where did you hear that?" Asked Sarai, curious. "I never heard anyone say anything about his return."
"That's because you attract attention," Dove informed her older sister. "I go out of my way not to attract it, so I hear more things. People forget I'm here."
"Oh." Sarai shrugged. "I hate being quiet. It's so very boring."
Aly, shaking her head at Sarai's indifference to what she might learn this way, so that Dove was shaking her head as well.
3. In Their Own Descriptions of Themselves
"I hate still rooms," grumbled Sarai as she took the saddle from her mare. Dove unsaddled her own mount. It seemed the girls planned to stay a while. "If I have to stew up anymore smelly plants, I will scream." Sarai placed her horse's blanket on the grass and sat on it. Aly washed Fesgao and his companion as they dismounted at a distance to leave the girls and Aly in relative privacy.
"Sarai is happier on horseback," Dove explained. "I don't mind mixing up spices and medicines, but it's hard to concentrate when Sarai starts to mutter."
After reading this, what is your impression of the two girls? Note that simply reading the three passages gives the impression that the girls are more two-dimensional than they actually are. In the actual book, Pierce uses other opportunities to round them out. For example, there are several instances when Sarai shows that she's more than just a hotheaded beauty. But the point is that the three passages here do an efficient job of sketching out defining characteristics in a small amount of space.
Can you think of any books that use foils effectively? Do you use foils?
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