A character with a scar is interesting. They immediately have something mysterious about them. Clearly something happened to give them that scar, and it was probably something either incredibly heroic or unfathomably heartbreaking.
…If it’s a cheek scar. Or a thin, chalk-white eye scar. Something “innocuous.”
If the character actually looks fucked up, they’re probably written to be evil. In those cases, scarring makes them look less human. It shows the audience that the bad guy isn’t like them. Maybe that’s reading too deep into it, but it’s always come off that way to me. I’ll be fair and admit that sometimes it’s used because the villain has a legitimately tragic backstory, to explain why they went down the wrong path. Either way, it’s clear that in popular media, scars are used as visual shorthand to tell the audience who a character is. Be it a mark of bravery or a brand of anger, scarring is an effective tool to show people what’s on the inside of a character by putting it on the outside.
I kinda think that’s all bullshit, though.
I have scars. And I know, I know; everyone has a few scars – little reminders of unpleasant injuries they’ve accumulated over the years. But my scars… they’re not really that. I got my scars all at once, from an accident that I was lucky to live through at all.
You see… I’m actually a burn survivor. When I was a kid, my house caught fire, with me inside it. That experience was horrifying, and it still follows me around, surfacing in dreams or panic attacks that occur during the rare (but not nonexistent) instance where fire comes up in casual conversation. I’ve worked through a lot of my personal trauma over the twenty years since it happened, but I’ll never be able to truly move on. Whenever I start to feel normal, like maybe I’m just like everyone else, I only have to look at my body to be reminded that I’m not.
That’s because I didn’t come away from that fire unscathed. I ended up with third-degree burns covering 17% of my body. The scarring actually covers more than that, due to the skin graft operation I had to undergo in order for those burns to heal. I consider myself lucky because difficult-to-cover areas like my arms and face were unharmed, but my legs have some pretty serious markings all over them. The scars are reddish, and in some places even appear gnarled, like a tree trunk. Some of it has faded over the two decades they’ve been with me, but there are some places that look just as bad as they did shortly after I recovered.
The villain from Disney’s The Lion King is straight-up named “Scar”, making the word synonymous with evil in the context of that movie. That fucking sucks.
You can see why I might be a bit more conscious of how scarred and disfigured characters are portrayed in the media than your average person is. When a character is given a prominent scar for no other reason than to make them “look cool” or whatever, it bums me out. It’s even worse when a character is given a scar to make them intimidating, or otherwise villainous. Like, the villain from Disney’s The Lion King is straight-up named “Scar”, making the word synonymous with evil in the context of that movie. That fucking sucks. Other times, bad guys boast violent scars with little to no explanation as to their origin, and it’s painfully obvious that the scar or scars only exist to make sure the audience knows they’re bad. Minor villains, villains like a Magnius from Namco Bandai’s Tales of Symphonia (called out only because I adore that game) tend to get this treatment pretty often.
In particularly awful cases, severe scarring can even be portrayed as pitiful and shameful. In Gearbox’s Borderlands 2, after the climactic final encounter with primary antagonist Handsome Jack, the mask he normally wears is removed. Underneath is a face marred by what appears to be a scar from a branding iron. This reveal isn’t made until he is defeated, in his most-pitiful state. I was going to put up a screenshot of his disfigured face, but it really looks like it was made to look disgusting in a goofy way, which is so goddamn offensive that I don’t want to make anyone look at it. Maybe that wasn’t what the art department for the game was going for. Maybe it was an accident. On some level, I don’t care. It was avoidable, and they did not avoid it. I actually enjoy that game a fair amount, but fuck all of that garbage.
When a heroic character has a severe scar, it’s generally less offensive than when a villain does, but it never feels particularly real to me. Like, sure, I’m usually not actively made upset by it, but it’s not like the scarring adds anything to the character in most cases. It typically gives them something to brood about, or makes their tragic backstory more sympathetic. As for actually portraying the emotional struggles that come with having a disfigurement like that, it’s rarely even really brought up.
That said, it does happen. In the video game Deadly Premonition, the protagonist, York, has a small scar that runs from above his eye and into his hairline. (I’m going to spoil the shit out of this game, by the way. Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid that.) Other characters often ask him what happened, saying it looks painful, but he always brushes them off, telling them it was only a minor injury. His inner monologues afterwards wonder why people always bring it up, as it’s really not that severe of a scar. The player is left with the same question. Much later in the game, it comes to light that the scar was the result of a deeply traumatic experience, and one of the ways York dealt with it was by fiercely lying to himself, convincing himself that the scar was milder than it really was. You as the player were actually seeing him as how he appeared to himself. In reality, the scar was much more severe and actually very prominent on his face. While it’s not a perfect – or even really realistic – portrayal of how a person might cope with their own deformity, Deadly Premonition at least acknowledged that scars are more than just backstory. Knowing that you are physically different from most other people takes a constant toll on you, and you have to find a way to deal with it. Maybe most people don’t literally see themselves in the mirror as a different-looking person, but everybody has to learn to live with it somehow.
Decent representations of scarring like that one are nice to see, but careless portrayals of scarred characters make me feel terrible. When used as a means to convey evil, I feel self-conscious and become hyperaware of my deformities. When heroes wear scars, but as little more than a design decision meant to make them more visually interesting, I feel like my insecurities are being invalidated. But, you know… it’s not all bad. When a severely scarred character is done right, I feel a close connection to them. I feel like someone out their understands me. That character and I, we share something that few other people do. That’s an incredible feeling, and it’s one that other people can’t have. It’s mine. It’s one of the reasons I have such a close personal connection to the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated TV series.
If you haven’t seen the show, go do that. Seriously. It’s a cult classic, and absolutely brilliant. It’s beautifully drawn, beautifully animated, and most importantly, beautifully written.
The series follows a young boy named Aang, who was born the world’s “Avatar”, destined to master the power of all the elements and maintain balance. Threatening that balance is the ever-expanding Fire Nation, an imperialistic force set on conquering the world with their ability to control flames. Aang eventually finds that he is being pursued by a young Fire Nation prince, who aims to end the Avatar before he can put a stop to the Fire Nation’s ambitions. His name is Zuko.
Prince Zuko is scary. He’s quick to anger, and his wish to capture the Avatar is more than just a wish, it’s an obsession. And… he has a gruesome scar that covers the left side of his face. A burn scar. It soon comes to light that the wound came at the hands of his own father, the emperor (or “Fire Lord”), who burned him as a punishment for speaking out of turn. He exiled Zuko from the Fire Nation, only allowing him to return if he could capture the Avatar and “restore his honor”. It was a task that wasn’t really meant to actually be completed, but Zuko wanted nothing more than to prove to his father that he was good enough.
Zuko is driven by his scar and his trauma. He has allowed himself to be defined by it, and all of his ambitions center around returning his life to the way it used to be. It’s something I can understand. I was young enough when I was burned that I have little memory of life before my accident, but I can imagine that if I were older, I would be desperately wishing for the life I had before it happened. I can also relate to the way he lets himself be defined by it. Like it or not, our physical appearance is a part of who we are, and being physically marred like that changes you.
On top of that, Zuko has a really strong character arc. He isn’t some one-dimensional villain; he evolves constantly and consistently over the course of the show’s three seasons. I don’t want to get into it too much, since I want people to actually experience it for themselves, but him having such a strong arc makes him incredibly relatable. And not just to someone like me, but to anyone. He’s human. He has failures, but he also has successes. Sometimes he learns from his mistakes, but other times he stubbornly refuses to admit that he was wrong. Zuko grows up, just like everyone does. No matter who you are, at some point, you have to get your shit together. I did, too. You can use your scars as a crutch, and you honestly have every right to, but the world is always going to treat you like you’re on crutches. It might be easier sometimes, but it’s not what anyone actually wants.
I think that The Last Airbender is brilliant, obviously, and can not recommend it enough. I relate to Zuko on a level that most people don’t get to. I have a special connection to the Fire Nation prince, but it’s not like he’s the only character to ever do that to me. Hanako, a character from the independent visual novel game Katawa Shoujo, is a burn survivor. The game portrays her struggles very respectfully, treating her situation with an appropriate level of gravitas.
This next part is going to seem like a sidetrack, but bear with me. This is all in service of explaining what makes Hanako so great.
I’ve noticed that sometimes, a story about someone with personal trauma ends up becoming about the trauma, losing sight of the person who went through it. It’s a hard thing to write about, though; the very nature of trauma and disfigurement causes people to walk on eggshells, afraid they might accidentally poke fun or say something offensive. And honestly, it’s probably for the better that that’s the default state. Losing that would lead to people making a bunch of offensive shit, I think.
People with severe scars live in a world where literally everyone around them is uncomfortable.
Physical deformities are hard to talk about, but that leads to some… less-than-ideal situations, I think. People with severe scars in more visible places than me live in a world where literally everyone around them is uncomfortable. People are constantly either staring at them or trying not to stare at them. Nobody behaves naturally, either because they’re freaked out, or they’re actively doing whatever the opposite of freaking out is. Back when I was a kid, before that sense that I was different had really set in, I would wear shorts, and that shit would happen to me. That was a weird feeling, and most of the time, when it’s not being casually offensive about the subject, media tends to be overly-cautious and ends up giving me those exact same weird vibes.
Hanako’s story in Katawa Shoujo is literally about that, though. It’s about how people don’t know how to react to her scarring. The protagonist’s relationship with her is nearly ruined because he constantly treats her like she’s about to break. Actually, scratch that. He treats her like she’s already broken. It’s all coming from a good place in his heart; he wants to help her and hates seeing her hurt. But trying to fix or protect someone at all costs… all it does is focus your attention on the problems even more. He ends up only seeing Hanako as a bundle of issues and insecurities, without even realizing it.
Explicitly writing the story about people being overly-cautious was incredibly smart, and incredibly effective. The author portrays Hanako as a person who has some issues, rather than as some issues they could write a person around. Whether that was how they wrote her or not, it’s clear that they cared more about her as a character than they did about her circumstances. Hanako being more than her trauma made her feel more human.
What really set her apart from other “tragic” characters, though, was her own role in the extremely unhealthy relationship she and the protagonist were in. It wasn’t like he was the only person fucking things up. When he started obsessing over her problems, she used him as a crutch. She was able to fall more often, because he was always waiting to catch her. And when she did fall, he gave her affection and attention, something she didn’t even feel comfortable getting from anyone else. Again, none of it really came from a bad place; he wanted nothing more than to be there for her, and giving him the opportunity made him happy. The good intentions didn’t help, though, as they both made the other’s bad habits worse. I was just really glad that the story treated Hanako with enough respect to let her fuck up, so she could actually grow and change.
If I’ve sold you on the game, that’s great! It’s totally free, too. I should warn you about a few things, though. The first thing is that it’s extremely text-heavy. It’s actually pretty much nothing but reading text. You make choices every now and then, but the vast, vast majority of the experience is reading. The other thing I’d say is that every “route” was written by a different person. I can’t really speak to the quality of the other stories, since I never played them, so try those at your own risk. A byproduct of this little detail is that the parts of the experience that are the same between all of the different story paths were not written by the person who wrote Hanako’s part. This is especially relevant for the opening of the game, which is written… badly. It’s melodramatic in all of the wrong ways. It’s definitely a little cringe-y.
The last thing I need to warn you about is, well, umm… Katawa Shoujo has very explicit sexual content in it. It’s not the focus of the game, by any means, but it’s there. I’d argue that in the case of Hanako’s route, it serves the story really well, though. It would actually be kind of insulting if the obvious complications around having a physical relationship with a burn victim were simply ignored. I have very intense anxiety about it myself, knowing that I have to be up-front and explain my fucked-up body to any sexual partners in advance. And when a romance in my life doesn’t last, I worry that that aspect of our relationship freaking them the fuck out was a factor. Insecurity about physical intimacy is something I assume everyone in my position has to deal with. And it’s really fucking hard. Even thinking about it right now is making me sad. And it’s addressed in Katawa Shoujo. Maybe not quite as deeply as it could have been, but it does make it very clear that opening up physically like that requires so much fucking trust. I personally will never have a one-night stand. Knowing that no one would actually want to is unbelievably depressing in its own way… but even if they did, I wouldn’t be able to open up like that for anyone who I didn’t trust completely. And Katawa Shoujo does manage to get that point across. I mean, it’s also an incredibly unhealthy thing when it happens and almost totally fucks up their relationship for good, because it’s not happening for the right reasons, but… The scene is well done, is all I’m saying.
The portrayal of scarred characters in media has its obvious ups and downs. Most of the time, it’s used as a visual shorthand to express something shallow about a character. The best examples of that, which I find cheap and thoughtless even in their best cases, are characters with scars that only exist to make it clear that they’ve been through some shit. The worst of that already-bad approach to character design can be seen in characters who have scars so the audience will know they’re evil. While all of that just sort of generally sucks and gives me a nebulous bad feeling about the entire world, I do get something out of it that other people don’t. The connections I make to characters who are done right are special to me. I have a fondness for Zuko and Hanako that you normal people straight-up can’t. And I honestly wouldn’t trade that for anything.
[I wrote a somewhat more in-depth post about Katawa Shoujo on my blog at giantbomb.com years and years ago. Normally I’d link to it here, but it was long enough ago that my writing was significantly lower in quality than it is now. If you really want to find it, it’s there, and I link to that blog on other posts. Also, I didn’t take the screenshots I used here; I found the Deadly Premonition one and the Katawa Shoujo one on Giantbomb, and the Zuko ones from pinterest.]