Fictional makeovers almost always work. Unless the story invokes an “Emperor’s New Clothes” type of comeuppance, a character’s efforts to look their best will typically earn them some immediate reward according to their desires.
And characters usually seek makeovers for one of two reasons:
- A desire to fit in with one’s “betters.”
- A desire for revenge.
Take a couple seconds to guess which one I think provides the more interesting plot line. Go on. Guess.
(Aside: there is a third scenario where the character receives a makeover through no instigation of their own, but that is a topic for another post. Next week, wink wink.)
#1: A Desire to Fit In with One’s “Betters”
Jaws drop. Eyes bulge. A higher social standing gets served up on a silver platter. This type of makeover is all about the reveal, all about that wonderful moment where the downtrodden former dweeb unveils their new, stylish look.
This reveal usually involves a montage of the character sauntering slo-mo down a school hall or a street somewhere, parading their new digs to all their peers in that triumphant glory-walk.
It’s a Cinderella moment, a fairy-tale dream come true. Its placement in the storyline determines its overall effectiveness, too:
- If it occurs near the end, the character gets their love and their success and lives happily ever after.
- If it happens toward the beginning, the character will get their desired effect for a season, but will likely realize they’re not happy and possibly revert to their old self, at least to some degree (but still live happily ever after that way, natch).
This type of makeover feeds upon the social narrative that image is everything, and that the prettier you are, the better your life will be.
#2: A Desire for Revenge
Characters who want revenge against former tormentors often employ a makeover as one of their tactics. Sometimes, this makeover is drastic enough that they can assume an entirely different identity, unrecognizable to those who once knew them.
The revenge makeover renders a character physically equal or superior to their opponents. It opens doors, it creates opportunities, and it masks intentions.
It is, however, a means to an end and not the end itself.
The quintessential example of the revenge makeover occurs in Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Wrongfully imprisoned Edmond Dantès returns to society some twenty years after his supposed death to masquerade as the wealthy Count. Money, time, and life’s experiences transform him so that his victims fail to recognize the poor sailor Dantès beneath his cultivated façade. Instead, with a massive fortune to back his movements, the Count masterfully manipulates and systematically destroys the men who ruined his life.
And the reader relishes every minute of his journey.
A Lasting Image
The revenge theme makes for wonderful dramatic tension, most particularly because of the toll it takes upon the vengeful character. This darker theme breeds anti-heroes and fosters sympathy for the former tormentors, who suffer under reversed fortunes. It is both ruthless and humanizing, a true storyteller’s delight.
The revenge makeover cynically delves beneath the “image is everything” narrative. Image becomes both a weapon and a weakness, ripe for the vengeful character’s exploitation. It facilitates the plot, but it does not govern it. Revenge itself governs until that fateful moment—if and when—redemption topples it from its lofty perch.