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Appearance Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Some characters Lie to the Beholder, appearing selectively different to one or two people than they appear to anyone else.

Other characters appear differently to anybody who sees them. One man will view them as a tall blonde woman, where another will see a short black man. Obviously, this makes tracking the character down by description difficult. Such an ability is almost always mystical in nature, although scientific or pseudoscientific explanations like "psychic resonance" or "nanotechnology" are often used in science-fiction settings. Keep in mind that when Appearance Is In The Eye of The Beholder, that means that the entity involved looks different to multiple people at the same time.

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A common variant of this in settings with multiple species is to have an entity which appears different depending on the species of the beholder, most often as a member of the same species.

A Form You Are Comfortable With and You Cannot Grasp the True Form are often forms of this. Compare Lie to the Beholder, which generally causes the same illusion to all affected viewers. Compare an Empathic Shapeshifter, who physically changes, while this trope is more often an illusion. Often employed by a Master of Illusion.


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Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Truth in Fullmetal Alchemist takes the form of a silhouette of the one talking to it, because what everyone is actually seeing is their personal "truth" connecting them to all other life in the world.
  • In Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, Kafuka Fuura only appears in front of those who she had gave up her organs to. Other people will only see the host bodies she possesses at the time, which are basically almost the entirety of the class 2-He and the same people she had gave up her organs to.
  • In the second Space Battleship Yamato 2199 movie Ark of the Stars, an away team from the Yamato find themselves trapped in a hotel with a group of Gamilon soldiers. However as one of them soon finds out, what they're seeing is not necessarily the same as what the Gamilons are seeing. The most obvious clue came when two of them were looking at a book — while Mikage (one of the Yamato's away team members) sees a biography of Helen Keller, the Gamilon instead sees a Gamilon children's book.
  • The Illusion from Cardcaptor Sakura in Episode 6 appears as whatever each person is expecting to see so Sakura and her friends cannot settle on what they saw, like Tomoyo picturing a nikuman since she was hungry and Sakura picturing Nadeshiko since it was their birthday. However, this is ultimately exploited by Sakura, as she expects Nadeshiko, and comes to seal the card after realising that her mother would never let her fall of a cliff.
  • In Space Patrol Luluco, the villain Kill ** Killian is an Emotion Eater who operates a Lotus-Eater Machine. Everybody sees him as their favorite person; since we see him from Luluco's perspective, he looks like her Love Interest Nova (except wearing a COVER). His location likewise takes the form of their stolen hometown, Ogikubo.
  • In Noragami, Izanami takes A Form You Are Comfortable With to whomever looks upon her, as part of her way to make them stay longer with her in the Underworld. To Yato, she looked like Hiyori. To Ebisu, she took the form of the old woman who owned his favourite restaurant.
  • Zombie Land Saga: How the zombies are depicted changes on how they're perceived by whoever sees them. Amongst each other, the zombies look like normal girls, albeit with greenish-blue skin and the occasional bandages or Scary Stitches. However, when people are frightened by their appearance—including each other when they realize their makeup washed off in public—their putrefied complexions, sunken features, and bulging red eyes become apparent, reminding the viewer that they're still walking corpses.

    Comic Books 
  • This is why Galactus looks to us humans like a human with a funny hat and the letter G on his belt buckle. To the Stone Men from Saturn he looks like a Stone Man, to Toad Men he looks like a Toad Man, etc. One appearance consists of an entire page showing Galactus as he is normally shown, overlaid with dozens of smaller images of how he appears to every other alien species in the room.
  • This is the method that Harry Vanderspeigle, the alien protagonist of Resident Alien, uses to telepathically disguise himself as a normal human being. However, about 1 in a million people can see through it.
  • This is explicitly shown several times in The Sandman, where Morpheus (as his name implies) always appears like a member of the observer's own species and culture, or like what the observer would expect the God of Dreams to resemble.
    • It also extends to speech, everyone hears him speak in their native language. This makes one person realize that Morpheus is who he claims to be when he realizes that he's hearing him speak in English even though his father-in-law (who doesn't know English) is conversing with Morpheus in Greek at the same time.
  • One Justice League of America story featuring Hal Jordan as The Spectre had this applying to Hal, making it hard to convince the Justice League that he was who he said he was.
  • The Demo story "Girl You Want" combines this with Involuntary Shapeshifting: The main character automatically shapeshifts into whatever the person who looks at her wants to see. The events involves her happening upon the one and only person who doesn't cause her to do this.
  • In Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog, the goddess Aurora looks like an echidna to Knuckles but different to anyone else, saying "people see me how they imagine me."
  • Man-Thing in Thunderbolts has the "Ear of the Beholder" version: when he's Suddenly Speaking, everyone hears the accent, sentence structure, and terminology they associate with authority, whether that means a wise master or a crime boss. This is because he's actually speaking the Universal Language.

    Comic Strips 
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    Films — Live-Action 
  • Shallow Hal is based on this. The main character can only see "inner beauty," so he sees people according to what they look like inside. He is attracted to Rosemary's inner beauty, and can't see her not-traditionally-attractive, overweight appearance. This holds true for several outwardly-ugly people in the film, including Ralph and the Littlest Cancer Patient child burn victims in the hospital ward. It also holds true for the outwardly-hot woman his friend is dating, who appears as a not-traditionally-attractive old crone to Hal, because that's what she looks like inside. When the POV switches to another character, we see the "ugly" outward appearances through their eyes.
  • The entity haunting the Ayres family in The Little Stranger manifests itself differently depending on what scares each family member the most. To the son, badly burned in a plane crash, it shows itself as fire. To the mother, it shows itself as her dead daughter, Suki. To the daughter, it shows its more or less true form, which is the monstrous version of her former fiance Dr. Faraday.
  • The entity Indrid Cold of The Mothman Prophecies claims that his appearance is dependent on whoever is looking at him.

    Literature 
  • In Stephen King's IT, when the heroes go to the villain's lair, the sign above the door of the lair is like this: each character sees it differently. The appearance of IT, as well, varies depending on what scares the beholder/victim the most.
  • In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, each character is asked to see the Wizard one at a time, appearing as something different to each one. It's all a trick, however; the real "wizard" is The Man Behind the Curtain.
  • There's an interesting variation in the Dragaera series: the goddess Verra is not described as appearing differently to everyone who beholds her, but it becomes clear that when she speaks, everyone hears something different, effectively holding multiple different conversations simultaneously. Descriptions of godhood elsewhere in the series imply that this is a result of one of the defining characteristics of deities and demons in the Dragaera-verse.
  • In The End of Mr. Y, everything in the Troposphere is dependent on the eye of the beholder.
  • In The Well of Lost Plots, the Grand Panjandarum resembles the beholder when they appear at the end of the book.
  • In Percy Jackson and the Olympians and its sequel series The Heroes of Olympus Aphrodite's appearance is not only different for each person who sees her, but her appearence will change while they are looking at her to better reflect the individual's idea of ideal beauty. When Percy sees her, he thinks she looks like Annabeth.
  • In the Young Wizards series the Powers That Be can manifest in multiple ways. In one particular form of manifestationnote  they look different to every mortal who sees them. The main character perceives the Lone Power to be a handsome faced man with red hair, and the Archangel Michael to be a glowing seven foot tall woman wearing sweats and sneakers.
  • In the Nightside books, the succubus Pretty Poison looks like whatever you find most attractive.
  • The Traitor's Hand: The Slaaneshi sorceress Cain and a squad encounter has the ability to appear as the person each viewer cares the most for. Cain sees her as Amberley (and is about to shoot another Guardsman for looking at her with the same expression and calling her by a different name)... until Jurgen shows up, breaking the spell and revealing her as a homely middle-aged woman.
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy has a variant: demons can take on human form, but in the "higher planes" they still look like themselves; Bartimaeus will sometimes comment that a character looks like a chef to a human, but he can also see a tentacled spirit. Wizards can see a few of these planes with special contact lenses; Bartimaeus can see seven, and insists that anyone who claims to see more is just being a braggart.
  • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the Mirror of Erised shows a person whatever their greatest desire is, but nobody else can see it. Harry sees his dead family and tries to show them to Ron, but Ron sees himself, having matched all of his older brothers' accomplishments. This is important for the climax, as the mirror shows Harry how to get the MacGuffin while the villain can't see it.
  • Yvonnel in Homecoming has several artists of Mezoberranzan draw her portrait, telling them that they should only draw exactly what they see. She ends up with a hall full of very different paintings (some even with Multicolored Hair), because she appears to everyone as their ideal of beauty.
  • The Philip K. Dick story "Faith of Our Fathers" uses a variation on this. A True Believer in a future dystopia attempts to watch a televised speech by the all-powerful leader while under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, and sees the leader transform into a hideous Eldritch Abomination. He is then informed that what he took was not a hallucinogen, but an antidote to the hallucinogens that are in every citizen's rations... The leader is in fact an alien monster, but no one can grasp his true form because he has a whole handful of different appearances — which one you see ostensibly depends on your personality.
  • Ghosts in John Dies at the End appear different depending on the expectations and desires of the person seeing them. A female ghost might conform to the beholder's standards of beauty, for example. This is the way that they are spotted, when different people disagree on the details of their appearance (hair color, skin color, etc).
  • What The Hell Did I Just Read
    • Mister Nymph takes the form of what you most fear.
    • The NON agents, who give their names to a crowd of three people who hear three different versions.
    • The appearance of the extra-dimensional door.
  • In the sequel to The Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Starlight Barking, when Sirius the Dog Star appears to the dogs, Pongo and Missis see a dalmatian ... and then hear the General exclaiming in surprise that Sirius is a sheepdog. It becomes apparent that every dog sees Sirius as their own breed.
  • Animorphs: The Ellimist regularly appears to the animophs in different shapes, though he takes a form they'd be inclined to trust, such as a Grandpa God. To Tobias, he takes the form of a mashup of every bird of prey, while in one story he freezes time and takes the appearance of a girl sitting not far away. Strangely, although he more or less created the Andalites, he doesn't appear as one to Ax.
  • The Franny K. Stein book The Frandidate had Franny create a living suit that would change its appearance based on the interests of whoever looked at it. For example, Franny's dog Igor sees the suit turn into the hostess of his favorite TV show, while one of the girls at Franny's school sees the suit take on the form of a bunny wearing a dress decorated with penguin patterns.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Angel: The second Conduit. In "A Hole in the World", it reverts to Gunn's shape after Gunn unknowingly arranges the death of Fred.
  • In Babylon 5, the character Kosh (once outside of his encounter suit) appears to a member of any given starfaring race as that race's version of an "angel"—except to Londo. To him, he's invisible.
  • The maid in American Horror Story: Murder House appeared young and beautiful to the husband, but middle-aged to the wife.
  • The sisters (and Leo) use a spell to this effect in season eight of Charmed (1998). Having faked their deaths during the Series Fauxnale, but finding traditional magical disguises too confusing (particularly for Wyatt and Chris), they came up with a glamour that would make them appear as themselves only to "those [they] call family," while everyone else would see a pre-selected alternative appearance.
  • Red Dwarf:
    • Pleasure GELFs can appear to any onlooker as their perfect mate, despite looking like disgusting green blobs in their natural form. Cat is so vain and egotistical that when he goes to meet the GELF he ends up having a cheerful conversation with a copy of himself.
    • Also Psirens, whose true form was some sort of giant beetle thing.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Man Trap". Early in the episode the salt vampire made itself appear differently to three different people simultaneously. It looked like a young Nancy Crater to McCoy, an older Nancy Crater to Kirk, and to crewman Darnell it was a young blonde woman who looked nothing like Nancy Crater. Later in the episode it changed methods, appearing to all comers as an older Nancy Crater, and making use of a different Trope.
  • The Humanoid Abomination known as the Shape in Sapphire and Steel supposedly looks different to anyone who looks at him, although they could only afford two actors. When he's seen in any shot which isn't supposedly from another character's point of view, he's The Blank.
  • Subverted in The Middleman, when Wendy and the Middleman visit the Underworld.
    Wendy: This is the Underworld? So all those temp jobs really were hell on earth.
    Middleman: What do you mean?
    Wendy: It was a joke. You know, because this is supposed to be the Underworld, but instead it looks just like a boring old office building.
    Middleman: Sands of Zanzibar! You see an office building?
    Wendy: Yeah. You don't?
    Middleman: I see a field. Wild. Overgrown. Barbaric. Look, over there! A feral rabbit.
    Wendy: Seriously?
    Middleman: No. I see an office building.
    Wendy: Wow. Somebody's funny in the Underworld.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "First Anniversary", Dennis can see his wife Barbara in her true form, that of a repulsive aquatic alien, while his best friend Norman Glass sees her in the new form that she has assumed to trick him. This is because Dennis has developed a resistance to Barbara's ability to fool his senses after a year of close contact. Later, when the same thing happens to Norman, he sees his own wife Ady as she truly is while the paramedics who are taking him to hospital see her as the beautiful woman whose form she assumed when she first met Norman.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • The monstrous dream larva in uses this ability to be every one of its enemies' worst nightmares at once.
    • The spell reflective disguise causes anyone looking at the caster to see them as a member of the same race and gender as themselves, which could easily lead to Pronoun Trouble in group interactions.
    • Beholders, giant floating monstrous heads studded with eyestalks, are insanely xenophobic, particularly towards other Beholders - in all but the rarest of cases, a Beholder will attack another of its kind on sight because it looks wrong. Their deity, the Great Mother, embodies perfection, but when it manifests in front of a group of Beholders, each sees a larger, grander version of themselves.
  • Members of the demonic race of gilmyne in Exalted appear to all viewers as members of their own species - a human would see a gilmyne as a human, an elemental would see it as an elemental, etc.
  • New World of Darkness:
  • The Rogue Trader (2009 RPG) Warpstorm trilogy has a character called Karrad Vall "The Faceless Lord" who not only looks different to each player character, but also has different in-game mechanics and behavior similar to the observing character.
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Emperor of Mankind is sometimes depicted this way: even when he's not consciously using his psychic powers to disguise himself, his passive psychic abilities are so powerful that they affect other people's perception of him. Most humans see him as a shining god-like being, warriors see him as a man of tremendous stature and strength, while intellectuals see him as a wise man, and so forth. It's suggested that extremely powerful psykers, or just people with very strong wills (such as his bodyguards and Malcador the Sigillite) could see past the illusion and see him as simply an ordinary man.

    Video Games 
  • This is used as a handwave in the bonus chapter of The World Ends with You, explaining why a character who logically should look different in this timeline still has the same appearance—Neku knows the character one way, and is incapable of perceiving otherwise. (When he challenges this, the real explanation breaks the fourth wall: why bother making a new appearance for a character who will only show up once?)
  • Shin Megami Tensei: Implied to be the case with Lucifer. His avatars' variance from game to game might seem like either Shapeshifting or Depending on the Artist. However, he casually tells Raidou that the Mushibito call him "Beelzeboo" because they see him as a fly. Note that he rarely appears in person with more than one person watching and the player presumably shares the main character's POV....
  • In Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, this is The Reveal for Xion. Her appearance depends on who sees her. Roxas, Axel, Riku, and a few others see her as Kairi with black hair. Xigbar sees her as Ventus. Xemnas sees her as Sora. Saix sees her as a faceless puppet, which is part of the reason why he calls her "it" and can't understand why Axel cares about her.
  • Ib: The dolls you see before Garry is separated from Ib and Mary. Ib sees them as adorable bunnies, but Garry sees them as disturbing dolls and is appropriately creeped out.
    • This comes up again when Ib and Garry are wandering the storybook section and only Ib and the player see a doll version of Ib hanging from the ceiling.
  • Touhou: Nue Houjuu's ability is to conceal the true nature of objects, including herself. With the object's identity obscured, it will appear as different things to different people as their minds try to fill in the blanks to explain what they're seeing.
  • Mass Effect: Implied to be the case with the Asari. For some reason, every sentient race sees them as looking like blue members of their own species, with bipedal features for those with 4 legs or those without. The effect has yet to be properly explored in universe as even the theories which scientists propose do not explain why the effect carries over to film, security cameras, and other methods of recording images.
  • According to Fi's description of him in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Demise appears differently in each epoch and to each person who lays eyes on him, though this is an Informed Attribute as her description of this is the only hint that it is the case.
  • Happens to the entire town of Silent Hill, which changes appearance and content depending upon the psychology of the person viewing it, and is implied to almost never be seen the same way by any two people.
  • Bramimond of Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade delved so deeply into dark magic that it utterly erased his sense of self. Now, he — or rather it — acts as a mirror of whomever it speaks to, copying their voice and mannerisms. The implication is that its cloaked, hooded appearance is likewise only how the Tactician sees it.

    Web Comics 
  • The Kevin & Kell version of the story of Jesus' birth has the baby Jesus seen as being the same species of whoever looks at him.
  • In El Goonish Shive, Tedd's dad leaves his son a note on their refrigerator, but his handwriting is so inscrutable that only he can read the original message. To everyone else, the note opens, "Dear Tedd," and then imparts a message the reader needed to hear. This is never explained.
  • In Gosu, when Hwan Sa the Spirit Lord comes into the tavern-at-the-fork, four different customers see him as a scarred brutish man, a young pretty man, an old man with a white beard and a noble lady respectively. The readers simply see him as a regular looking man (although his face is completely shaded out).
  • Gunnerkrigg Court:
    • The Realm of the Dead appears different to everyone. For Antimony and Mort, it appears (or so we're told) to be a majestic underworld, filled with enormous libraries, labyrinthine mazes, and enormous creatures of glory. For Kat, the devoted skeptic - as well as the audience - it appears to be nothing more than a cheap haunted house run by guys in dollar-store costumes.
    • The last page of that chapter shows that what looked like pasty guy in plastic green monster gloves to Kat looked, to the others, like this... thing.
    • The next chapter is from Mort's and Antimony's perspectives. Curiously, even though they both seemed to be seeing the same things in the previous chapter, Mort's "case worker" looked like a guy wearing a cheesy vampire costume (possibly because we see it much earlier, moments after his death), while to Antimony it's a hideous emaciated vampire, mouth drenched in gore.
    • The Norns appear to Annie, Kat and Anja as themselves at three different ages. This seems to be relative to their current age, so for the teenaged Annie and Kat, Urðr is a child and Skuld is an adult, but to the adult Anja, Urðr is a teenager and Skuld is an old woman. (Verðandi is them at their current age, of course.)
  • Played With in The Order of the Stick: everyone can see the Oracle as he really is (a bad-tempered kobold), but when they leave his valley, they magically forget everything that happened there, except for whatever prophecies he "officially" gave them. As such, their memories will just fill in the blanks with what they expected/wanted him to be like: Vaarsuvius remembers a wise elf, Elan remembers a nice woman who looked like his mom, etc.
  • Cubi clan leader Diamanika in Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures initially appears to Dan as his mother. She suggests he try imagining someone he doesn't know, which lets him break the illusion.
  • In Unsounded, perceptive glamours let a spellwright cloak themselves in abstract traits to this effect; Duane goes incognito by borrowing the unobtrusive pleasantness of autumn leaves. The disadvantage is that every viewer interprets a perceptive glamour according to their own preconceptions, so it quickly falls apart if people start comparing notes.

    Web Original 
  • If you can believe it, the original concept of The Slender Man was not The Blank we all know and love. He had a face that looked different to everyone, and only appeared faceless in pictures and videos due to Glamour Failure. Needless to say, this aspect of the character was quickly dropped in favour of making him genuinely faceless.
  • A video from CollegeHumor features an "Optical Illusion Girlfriend" who looks like a pretty girl to her boyfriend but an ugly hag to his friend. After an argument with his friend over her ambiguous driver license picture and them both trying to explain to each other just what they see in it, the boyfriend's perspective of her suddenly switches to the "ugly hag" and he flees in horror whereas his friend begins seeing the "pretty girl" instead and approaches her with a leer.
  • How to Survive Camping: The man with a skull cup appears differently to every person it interacts with. This is what he looks like to Kate, but other people for instance see him as a woman instead.
  • The Glow Cloud appears in different colors to all who see it in Welcome to Night Vale. Also, some Fanon interpretations of Cecil feature him as a different person to whomever looks at him.
  • Tasakeru: When Zero first transforms into the God of Time, the other Outcasts each see their own respective versions of the God in his place.

    Western Animation 
  • The Weird Sisters of Gargoyles take several forms, always identical except for their hair color. In one scene, they appear to Macbeth and Demona as old women, but while Macbeth sees human women, Demona sees them as gargoyles.
  • The Contemelia of Ben 10: Omniverse are fifth-dimensional beings who cannot be seen in their true forms, so everyone sees them as the thing or person they care for the most. Ben sees the Mr. Smoothy mascot, Rook sees his father and Maltruant sees... himself.
  • Legend Quest: Alebrije's true form is a brightly colored and cartoony dinosaur or dragon-like creature however only ghosts and Leo can see him for what he truly is, humans see him as purple and yellow versions of normal animals like goats, pigeons and dogs while supernatural beings (witches and trolls for example) see him as magical creatures like imps and triplecorns.
  • Season two of Young Justice has Artemis using a magical amulet that casts an illusory disguise. The only people who can see through it are Wally, Robin, and Aqualad, also the only ones who know that they're a Double Agent.

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