08 May 2013

Visualize Your Characters, Part One

Have you ever played the Sims? If you’re also a writer, I’d be willing to bet money that you’ve played it as one of your characters. It’s a fun little indulgence. But isn’t the best part crafting your character before you even start the game? You get to pick every tiny detail, down to the shape of their nose and what they wear for pajamas. While it may not be perfect, (I couldn’t get Jordan’s hair quite right. And what do you mean a teenager can’t be in a relationship with an adult? Sheesh.) it’s pretty damn close. Then your character gets to frolic around town wreaking havoc (or just fishing a lot). It can be a lot of fun.

When you’re picturing what your characters look like, how do you decide? Do you plan out every tiny detail of their appearance, or does it just come to you? You want your readers to be able to visualize your characters. So the first step is that you have to be able to visualize them.

I’m having a difficult time truly picturing one of the characters for my side project. Other than the fact that he has green eyes and is just a little chubby, I can’t really picture him. His face isn’t clear, his hair, how he dresses. Nothing. And while this sort of predicament can be frustrating, it isn’t the end of the world. I truly believe in letting the characters speak for themselves, rather than forcing them to be what you want them to be. Sure, you could come up with a quick description, and if you don’t like it, you can always change it. But if your character is constantly changing, does he feel real to you? Or does he feel contrived?

Every character is different. You may be able to see them perfectly in your mind before you get the first word down, or you may have to start your story with your characters being blurry ghosts that haven’t fully developed yet. It took a very long time before Jordan was clear to me, probably over a month after I had finished the initial short story. His love interest, on the other hand, was clear to me in the very first scene I wrote him in. I really have no idea why. Maybe because it’s easier for a narrator to describe someone else rather than himself (more on this in my next post!). Maybe my characters are just finicky.

But how do you decide on what your characters look like? You want them to look like real people. You want there to be differences between them, like not having all of them have brown hair (Whoops. I may have done that. But there are like a million shades of brown…). And unless you’re writing romance, you probably don’t want to have your hero be a tall, muscular god who can easily lift the petite, long, flowing-haired beauty into his arms. Appearances have to work for the story as well as the characters. If your character is awkward, maybe he can have an awkward appearance. If he's confident and self-centered, he's probably good-looking. 

You can have fun with it, too. I’m a full supporter of geeking out when it comes to people who look like your characters. I once saw a boy on the subway that looked just like Jordan and had to seriously restrain myself from taking a picture of him. And I know there are plenty of authors who come up with dream casting for their books, which I feel can be a good and bad thing. But if a book is made into a movie, isn’t it hard to read the book without picturing the characters as the actors? I don’t think this is a bad thing. It really helps make the characters, and thus the entire book, more concrete as you read. If it helps you to see your characters better, then go for it. Just try not to get too attached, or realize that one of your characters looks like an actor you already like and become even more obsessed (not that I’ve done that or anything). But still, it’s a fun thing to do, like playlists or playing the Sims.

Come back on Friday for Part Two, where I’ll attempt to explain how to describe your characters.


  1. I've been trying to nail down the details for my characters lately. I noticed the same thing you did -- I've never been able to see my MC as clearly as the other characters. Also something that I haven't been able to get down is the characters' voices. Can you hear your characters when they speak?

    1. That's a great question, and a hard one to answer, I think. I can certainly distinguish how my characters talk--like different phrases they might use, or like, a shy character will use a lot of "ums." But I don't think I could really describe what their voices actually sound like. Now I'm thinking that's something to work on. Thanks!