Writing Characters: Who Do You See?

I know numerous writers who assemble storyboards or character files prior to writing a single word.  These boards or files include photographs, snagged from the internet or various publications, with the facial and physical characteristics they will ascribe to their characters.

I can’t work that way.  My characters reveal themselves a little here, a little there, until the picture is complete.  That said, by the time I’ve come to know them well, I realize the character isn’t a random accumulation of parts but is, rather, someone who has impressed me enough that, although I probably can’t name the person or recall the why or wherefore of the encounter or observation, I made a mental file.  The character’s physical attributes spill from that subconcious file and reassembled on the page.

This makes finding photographic representations somewhat difficult.

My critique partner illuminated this problem as we discussed cover art.  She knows me well and understands my aversion to covers—and titles—that don’t honestly convey the books they represent.  Thus, the hunt commenced.

I started with my first heroine (who you will not meet until Book Two of my Merlin’s Prophesy series), since she first entered my pages in the mid 9os, and I knew everything I could know about her.  Hours and hours later, it occurred to me who she resembled.  The problem?  I didn’t know the gal’s name.  I could only recall seeing her in a Riverdance production.  More hours, but I found her:  first, in the cast of Riverdance, then, reprising her Riverdance role as Erin the Goddess in Feet of Flames

While my heroine’s hair is darker red, longer, and less curly, and she describes herself as “too tall, too thin, and too plain”, a far cry from anyone portraying a goddess, here is the woman who jumped from those mental files I mentioned earlier.  Meet Anne Buckley aka my first heroine.   

And just because I love this song and there is none to stop me from indulging: 

My second heroine (who you will meet in the first book of my series), entrances the hero on page one.  Seeing her in silhouette against a setting sun, he thinks her an angel, albeit a stacked angel, and is unsettled by his uncharacteristic viceral response.  I searched high and low for a good photo and found a few that came close, but none were quite right.  Then another friend said, “Have you looked at your oldest daughter?”

Well, duh!  I’d written the character, but didn’t realize the physical representation came from my own brood.  (Thus, it’s fair to conclude, not only am I not a linear thinker, I can be as dense as diamonds.)

Genetics blessed my oldest daughter with her father’s golden-blond hair and dense, Highland Scot bones, while youngest, also blonde, received my mother’s Irish “bird-bones”.  My heroine is golden-blonde, has Highland antecedents, and thinks of herself a “over-tall for a woman”, so the resemblance is a no-brainer—or should have been.  (I’ll not insert photos since there are a couple on my photos page, but if you look, you’ll see exactly what I mean.)

Two down.  One to go—at least for this series . . . I hope.

Heroes are an entirely different battle and will wait for another day.

Do you start with photos?  Drawings?  A friend or acquaintance?  Or are you like me, scrambling after the fact?


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10 responses to “Writing Characters: Who Do You See?

  1. Laurie Kellogg

    I definitely use head shots of actors to help myself visualize the appearance of my characters.

    • Yes, I know, and like everything else about your process, doing so is probably much more efficient, but it just doesn’t work for me. *Sigh* Thanks for keeping me grounded, my friend. {{{Hugs}}}

  2. I know what my characters look like long before I start trying to find head shots of someone who resembles them…but with that being said I also uncover other “truths” about them later, some times long after I have started writing. My current batch of heroes didn’t appear as immortal alien vampires until after I started the series, then one smiled at me in a dream… whoops, where did those fangs come from….back to chapter one.

    • I can so relate to that, Virginia—as revealed in my post about Kendra’s little visit in IHOP. They really have to stop doing these things to us. Right now, I’m also back in chapter one for a wee tweak thanks to some cameo appearances by the instigators of the prophesy. Fun? I think not! Thanks for stopping.

  3. darynda

    For the most part, I am very much like you, Gwyn. My characters reveal themselves bit by bit. Even when they start out as a character I might have seen, they never end up that way in my head. I have a very definite picture of who my characters are, and they are rarely anyone I’ve actually seen or know. More like, they have attributes of those people. Great post, you!

  4. Glad you like it, D. I may recycle it to the Ruby Blog in the future since few will see it here.

    I must say, I don’t care from whence your characters evolve. They are wonderful. I feel like I know Cookie and Ubie. Love them. A collage character can be fascinating, but again, finding a photo is killer! {{{Hugs}}}

  5. dianalayne

    You know, sometimes if I’ve been playing with the characters a long time before I write their story, I might stumble across the perfect picture and only realize it at the moment I see it. Most of the time it’s bit by bit, there’s just a shadowy image at first with voices, kinda like that dance of the seven veils or whatever, where the fuzziness peels away little by little. I think I’m repeating myself, been a long day and I plan on working all night, wonder what I’ll end up with lol.

    • I like that 7 veils image, di. It’s perfect. And I know what you mean about knowing the moment you see an image, too. Sometimes it’s just right. Don’t work too hard, my friend. You don’t want to be sick with Anaheim looming in the future.

  6. Gwyn,
    I’m more interested in what my characters look like on the insides than on the outsides. I will spend hours and hours figuring out my characters’ needs, wants, wounds, scars, backstory and conflicts before I even put the first word on the page. I also you archetypes to help me flesh them out — including behavior and speech tags. (I know I’m OCD.)

    I often have no real clue what they look like, except their size, eye and hair color, and hair style and texture. But I do know the entire landscape of their psyches by the time the book is over. I can really tell you all about every single one of my characters, even some of the minor ones. But I usually can’t find photos of them.

  7. My mom used to say, “Pretty on the outside fades away. Pretty on the inside is forever.” Sounds like you got the same message. I find it odd you can’t picture them, though. For me, that physicality comes to life in the way they move, the way they carry themselves, but most especially, in the way the other characters perceive them.

    It just further proves that none of us writes like any other of us. Thanks for stopping and sharing, Hope.

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