My inability to recognise people is ruining movies

Twin ducks

I have a lot of trouble recognising people, and it seriously interferes with my enjoyment of certain movies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, my ability to recognise people I’ve met before is beyond terrible.

At times this is inconvenient, like when I introduce myself to someone at a conference and they gently remind me that we’ve met at several conferences before. Same thing at meetings.

Fortunately I can smile sweetly, which usually stops them being too mad.

Look, it’s not my fault that all people look the same. They all have hair, except the ones who don’t. They all have faces, except the ones who don’t. And they all have a body, two arms, and two legs. Except the ones who don’t.

They don’t give me many differences to go on.

But real life isn’t the main problem with not being able to recognise people. The main problem is that it means a lot of movies make no sense.

Once you get past a cast of one guy and one girl (who I can tell apart, provided the girl’s hair is sufficiently long and the guy’s hair is sufficiently short and/or he has a beard) I start to get confused.

And some movies set out to be confusing. I mean, who thinks that two groups of nondescript white guys, many of whom have brown hair, can be told apart?

Take Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, for instance. My husband thinks this is a great movie.

I wouldn’t know. I can’t following the story line because I can’t tell the two groups of guys apart.

I would explain the plot so you’d know why this is such a problem, but the fact I can’t tell the groups of men apart means I don’t know the plot, even though I’ve seen the movie several times.

It’s problematic, I tell you.

You tell me they’re different, but I know they’re not.

On the other hand, some movies are designed for people like me. The Princess Bride is an excellent example. It has only one important woman in it, and she’s easy to tell apart because she has exceptionally long hair.

Then, from recollection, there are five important male characters. One is a giant, and thus easy to distinguish. One has a delightful moustache, which I don’t forget in a hurry. One is a little man, and he dies quite near the start anyway.

The last two, Westley and Prince Humperdinck, look similar enough to be problematic, but someone came up with a great solution for that: let’s stick a mask on Westley. Even I can figure out which guy is wearing the mask.

I tell you, more movies should be considerate to people like me the way The Princess Bride is.

Twin pronghorns
See, they’re the same.

Enchanted is another great example of a considerate movie. It has three adult men and three adult women as main characters. That’s a lot, and yet they’re all totally different.

One of the men is a rat, so I’ll always know him, one is doctor, and one wears poofy prince clothes and acts insane. Pretty hard to mix them up.

One of the women is blonde and insane, one has dark hair and is very much sane, and the third is an evil witch who wears a lot of eyeshadow.

Again, distinctive.

Maybe I should stick to watching Disney-type movies.

Maybe the lesson here is not that you need to keep your cast to one person of each gender (which is admittedly limiting), but that each character should be distinctive. Not John and George. Not a dark-haired man of average height and a brown-haired man of above average height.

Give one guy one arm, make one half alien, and give one a big grey beard and a pointy hat. Whatever. Just make them different. I will thank you for it.

Do you ever have trouble telling characters apart? Any advice on how to remember faces I might run into at conferences? … and is this all just me?


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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

28 thoughts on “My inability to recognise people is ruining movies”

  1. OMG you are my soul mate. I also have this issue, and nine times out of ten it’s the white men I can’t tell apart. I can’t go to the cinema because everybody would tell me to STFU the fiftieth time I lean over and whisper, “Which one is he?”

    I mean, it’s not like I can go and see all those movies that don’t have a cast of 80%+ white men, is it?


    1. Haha, yes! I wasn’t going to mention race because I figured someone would probably get upset, but that is definitely the most common problem. Sometimes I want to yell at the screen, “All you white guys look the same!” An excellent reason for more diversity in movies. 🙂

  2. *Laughing* I struggle with this too. Recently I re-introduced myself to my second cousin. So embarrassing. I read somewhere that the part of the brain that recognizes faces also distinguishes colors. And I have very poor color distinction. I’m not colorblind, but I see much fewer shades of color than other people do. This explains a lot about me. lol. When we watch movies, my mother is always recognizing the actors and saying, “That’s so and so from the other movie.” And I’m like, “No way.” But she’s always right. Sadly, I have no advice about recognizing faces. But I suggest you pay more attention to their other distinguishing characteristics. I am pretty good at recognizing voices and body language (the way they walk, peculiar movements etc). So that helps.

    1. Oops! I know the feeling. I had a meeting recently with a woman who didn’t look in the least bit familiar, and she must have realised I didn’t recognise her because she pointed out we’ve met three times before. I’m sure I wouldn’t recognise my second cousins, but I never see them so it doesn’t really matter.

      That’s interesting about distinguishing colours. I think I’m pretty good with colours, I just suck at faces (and names). I like the idea of looking for voices and mannerisms – that has saved me on occasion.

  3. I had a legitimately hard time keeping the men in Game of Thrones straight. It started with Robb and Theon (who eventually became very distinct to me) and culminated in an embarrassing moment where I complained that “that guy wasn’t supposed to be at the Red Wedding, I call BS!” Then I realized I was mixing up Stannis and… someone else. Honestly there are too many characters to keep straight as it is.

    As a side-note, this could be a good argument for more diversity in film and television.

    1. Game of Thrones absolutely has too many white men with brown hair – no one thinks less you for not being able to keep them all straight. But GRRM is making a good effort to fix that problem by killing most of them off. 🙂

      I agree, it’s an excellent argument for more diversity. You know how they say, “blond is not a character type”, “Asian is not a character type”, and so on? It might not be, but it sure helps us tell them apart.

    2. Stannis and the guy who betrayed Robb at the Red Wedding! They are both slightly bald. Umm…he is the dad of the flayer….who married Sansa Stark. What is their name?!

  4. I have a thing where it drives me nuts if I see an actor in something and they look familiar but I can’t remember where I saw them before. This can be really distracting at times. Lucky now, the internet exists and I can look up the movie and the cast. So now I can just go, “Well, I’ll figure it out when it’s over.” Back in the dark ages, I would just sit there racking my brain like crazy.

    Your problem is a different one, though. They need to make some kind of app, like the colorblind app I have on my phone. Something like, “Close captioning for the faceblind” (or the mildly faceblind, as the case may be, or maybe just the mildly face confused. Anyway…) So you would put the movie title in when you started, and the app would access a database, and then when you held the phone up during the movie and watched the screen through the camera, there would be character names hanging over the character’s heads and maybe even a section with brief bios at the bottom below the screen.

    Of course, then you’d have to be constantly watching the movie THROUGH your phone, which could be annoying and may even get you thrown out of a theater, because they’ll think you’re bootlegging the movie. So then you’ll need an app to address these problems. Eventually apps will be like medications; you’ll constantly need new ones to counteract the side-effects of the other ones.

    1. “Close captioning for the face confused.” Don’t go spreading that idea around because your app is going to make millions! Can I suggest you make the bio thing a separate function? Sometimes taking a few minutes to remember can be fun, so you don’t want to give it away, but there should be a cheat button: “What else have I seen you in?” where it lists other popular movies you might have seen the actor/actress in. That will save us going nuts until we can get on Google, as you say.

      You know, I think we’re already pretty close to having apps to treat the side effects of apps, if we’re not actually there.

  5. I definitely don’t remember people if I don’t think I’m going see them again. Unless they’re witty and cool, my brain scrubs them away, because I can’t possibly remember everyone I see. The only time I felt bad is when it was someone who lived in the same building as me at the time. I ran into him several times before his face stuck. He was starting to get hurt. It’s not my fault he has a plain face.

    On TV, if I’m familiar with the actors, this won’t happen at all. But one of the reasons I don’t watch war movies is because all of those guys are definitely going to blend together. The other reason is that I don’t like war movies. But unless someone’s a redhead, they’re all wearing the same thing, and they all have the same hair cut and build. Can’t do it. I don’t like massive fight scenes where all the guys are piling up on each other for the same reason. They’re all covered in dirt, and I have no idea which side I’m rooting for or if someone I care about just got stabbed. Game of Thrones, drove me especially crazy. Not only could I barely keep up with the plot for a few seasons, it was impossible to tell most of those guys apart. They were all grungy looking. I never did get some of them straight, but they’re all dead now, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Wait, is Jon Snow’s uncle dead? I have no idea. No clue. Don’t know what his name is either. Not 100% sure I would recognize him if I did see him.

    1. People with ordinary faces should be obliged to wear funny hats. Looking ordinary and dressing ordinary is just inconsiderate.

      I totally agree – war movies are terrible if you have trouble recognising people. Plus they tend not to be very interesting.

      Haha, Game of Thrones characters were totally grungy looking. I’ve actually only watched the first season, and this is part of the reason. Plus my husband whined because the dragons were hardly in it.

  6. Everyone in movies needs name tags that include the phrase “You may have also seen me in…” I’m absolutely terrible with this. Actually, I’m terrible with movies in general – I once sat through an entire movie (don’t ask me what it was called), then turned to the SO and said, “that woman was awfully familiar. What’s she been in?”

    It was Jodie Foster.

    1. Haha, I don’t think even I’m that bad. No, actually I probably am, but it’s funny when it happens to someone else. Helpful name tags are a great idea.

  7. And don’t you hate it when the Casting Director, or whoever it is, decides to use people who like amazingly similar? The thin, blonde woman with large breasts (the Star) and her second best friend…the thin, blonde woman with large breasts? I hate this. We have all sorts of sizes, shapes and colors in this world. Please put them in my movies!

    1. So much! If there’s one thin blonde woman with large breasts, the second blonde woman should be required to be pear-shaped with small breasts. And preferably brunette – I’m really bad at telling blondes apart.

  8. I have a terrible facial memory. One time I was supposed to pick up a friend from the airport. Okay, I hadn’t seen him in six months, so my memory was a bit blurry, but I accidentally picked up a total stranger. I only realized once we started talking properly on the way out that I was talking to the wrong guy. Embarrassing! I had to apologize, return him to the arrivals hall and grab my friend instead. I wish I could blame bad eyesight, but there’s nothing wrong with my eyes. I just don’t remember faces…

    I agree with you on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It was a fun movie, I like anything witty and fast-paced, but following the plot was a pain because I couldn’t tell those guys apart.

    1. You made me laugh so hard I cried. I want to say that would never happen to me, but there have been times when I really haven’t known if a person is who I think they are, and I’ve just waited for them to talk first. 🙂

      Yes! It’s not just me! My husband can’t believe I can’t tell the Lock, Stock characters apart. Now I can tell him I’m not the only one.

  9. I confused the actors on the Star Trek revamp when it first came out. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pine. Neither of them were famous yet (Chris Hemsworth is Thor now and Chris Pine is Captain Kirk). When I watched the commentary on the film, J.J. Abrams mentions that his WIFE did the exact same thing the first time she watched it! Asking him why they used the same actor for both (father and son) parts lol.

  10. A tough problem to overcome! I don’t struggle to the same extent as you in recognising faces, but there are times when I’ve met somebody three or four times (conference is a great example, as they only last a couple of hours, which isn’t long enough for a lasting impression to be made in my mind) but I can’t think where or when or why. If somebody has a particular feature (protuberant nose, huge adam’s apple, unfortunately located mole, monobrow) then I have a chance of recognising them because they stand out a little more from the crowd, but otherwise, they all sorta blend into one.

    I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for their diversity. As far as protags go, one’s a skinny girl, one’s a coloured dude, one’s a fur rug, one’s a robot, and the other is Harrison Ford. The bad guys are also easy to sort out. Brooding emo guy, Nazi red-head guy, giant bald hologram man. In a way, I’m glad Storm Troopers wear identical armour. Faceless minions means I don’t have to remember names or appearances.

    1. Very considerate of The Force Awakens. That’s actually a very good point. It doesn’t matter if the characters all look totally different (even I can tell them apart) or all look exactly the same (no one cares which is which). What’s problematic is when they look kind of similar.

  11. I thought of this post on Saturday when I had a movie marathon with my friend.

    We watched one film about a kid who had a special power where whatever he dreamed would be happening in the real world as he slept. He fell asleep at school and had a nightmare about a monster, which ate him.

    Except it didn’t; it ate another little white kid in the class. I was so very confused about why everyone kept talking about a kid running away from school, until I realised they meant the other kid who had been eaten…

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