Saturday, October 1, 2016

"The Composites:" Drawing a rogues' gallery of fictional characters

Humbert Humbert, as described by Nabokov in Lolita,sketched by Brian Joseph Davis

What does Emma Bovary really look like? Sam Spade? How about "that lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows"?
In the reader's imagination literary characters have a way of becoming real people, and film adaptations imprint a visual image that may be once- or twice-removed from the printed page. (It's difficult to imagine Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade without seeing Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.)
Brian Joseph Davis curates a website called The Composites which interprets literary characters using police-artist techniques and composite sketch software, using descriptions from the books themselves. The straight-ahead interpretations feature wide eyes and expressionless faces, a rogues gallery of the fictionally famous and infamous.
Here are a few, with the authors' descriptions included:
Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.

Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
… Combed his light-brown hair neatly in front of the mirror, and set off for Radio City. He had always thought he had the world’s dullest face, a thoroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand, and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase. A real conformist’s face, he thought … Really it was only his darker hair that was very different from Dickie. Otherwise, his nose—or at least its general form—his narrow jaw, his eyebrows if he held them right … He wasn’t really worried. Tom had at first amused himself with an eyebrow pencil—Dickie’s eyebrows were longer and turned up a little at the outer edges—and with a touch of putty at the end of his nose to make it longer and more pointed, but he abandoned these as too likely to be noticed. The main thing about impersonation, Tom thought, was to maintain the mood and temperament of the person one was impersonating, and to assume the facial expressions that went with them. The rest fell into place … He might play up Tom a little more, he thought. He could stoop a little more, he could be shyer than ever, he could even wear horn-rimmed glasses and hold his mouth in an even sadder, droopier manner to contrast with Dickie’s tenseness.

Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
She was pale all over, white as a sheet; the skin of her nose was drawn at the nostrils, her eyes looked at you vaguely. After discovering three grey hairs on her temples, she talked much of her old age…Her eyelids seemed chiseled expressly for her long amorous looks in which the pupil disappeared, while a strong inspiration expanded her delicate nostrils and raised the fleshy corner of her lips, shaded in the light by a little black down.

The results, as expected, can be a little spooky: the intent isn't a three-dimensional portrait, but an artist's sketch of characters rendered through the writer's words. "The program and process is quite manual and interpretive. We're not in CSI-territory yet,* Davis writes.

His renderings benefit from the ideas readers bring to the characters themselves -- these are all creations authors and readers have imagined as strong, willful, and even (as in the case of Emma Bovary) more than a little cautious of revealing too much. Davis invites suggestions, and asks those interested in submitting character ideas to include the novels' descriptive passages. Next up, according to Davis's recent note: Mrs. Dalloway, Kilgore Trout, Holden Caulfield.

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