Visualizing Characters

If you write fiction, where do your characters come from? Do you invent them to suit a plot? Do you dream them? Have they always been in the back of your mind waiting for you to tell their stories?

For my current project, my main character, Jenny, showed up in the pages of my notebook. From the first entry about her, I knew her childhood, her mother’s story, her fears and her needs. I could see her face clearly. She walked out of my pen a whole person.

The supporting characters in Jenny’s story came to my mind in a less dramatic fashion, but their personalities are no less vivid.

  • Roz was inspired by a friend who is just right to play the role of a teacher figure Jenny needed in her life. Of course, Roz has become quite different from my friend, but I can still feel the echo of that first idea.
  • Abby came to life more slowly in a more intellectual fashion. I wanted to explore a certain family dynamic and her character developed to play a role that is removed from my own experience.
  • Joy appeared when I needed a character to have a specific job. She became much like a childhood family friend who has the same career. When I write Joy’s scenes, now I hear that friend’s voice in my head.

For these supporting characters, I know a lot about their inner lives and their voices, but physically, they’re blurry. I ponder hair and eye color, height and weight, trying to decide what combination suits them best.

I’ve read that some authors assign actors to their characters to help them imagine how scenes will pan out. Evidently, this technique works better for novels than it does for screenplays, because novelists don’t have to worry about convincing that perfect actor to play the role. And they can imagine the actor at any age, not just the age she is now.

I tried this for a few characters and while it was fun holding auditions, I haven’t gotten far enough to know if it will help me in the long run.

If you write fiction, what techniques do you use to visualize your characters?


Filed under characterization, characters, novels, Writing

16 responses to “Visualizing Characters

  1. For the most part I let my characters simply “be”. Certainly on the first draft I was more concerned with the story than how a character looked. Sure, I had a blurry image in my mind of the main characters, but details definitely changed for them, in some cases all the way to the final draft.

    I do sometimes see photos or people on screen who “could be” a character, but I don’t dwell on it. Besides, when you’re a reader you don’t have a photo of the character (normally), so you rely on your imagination to create the look of the character.

    It can also be dangerous to have a specific look in mind, as you might be tempted to detail the character’s look. Unless you introduce each character with a detailed description (that’s not a suggestion :-)), by the time you get round to describing a thin pointy nose the reader might have a bulbous one in mind, and that can detach the reader from the story.

    • How funny that a difference in an imagined nose could distract a reader. I actually have had that experience when reading. I’ve seen a character a certain way and then a detail about her appearance is revealed that doesn’t match the picture in my head.
      When I write, I definitely like to know how my “people” look whether or not I actually describe them. I have an easier time writing scenes if I can see them in my mind, but I guess I just need enough detail to avoid contradicting myself in later chapters.

  2. Tom Scanlan

    As you get older, this approach gets easier. Base most of your characters on people you’ve known (This makes the standard disclaimer phrase about ‘none of the characters representing real people’ even more important). You can then change them to make them more as you wish they were (or had been, if they’re no longer around) or exaggerate their traits to make them more interesting or unusual. All writers probably do a lot of this anyway without realizing (or admitting) it. Because part of your life experience is the films you’ve seen and the books you’ve read, that’s always another source. These suggestions obviously apply to more than just visualizing characters; it’s how many are created in the first place.

    Whereas some writers describe their characters in great detail, others barely describe them at all, at least physically. It’s amazing what the reader’s imagination will fill in if you leave it out,–and maybe that’s good.

    • You’re so right about the disclaimer! My plots are never based on real events, but somehow every character I write about comes from someone I’ve met.
      In my last manuscript, I didn’t have much detail early on about how my main character looks. (We talked about that when you read it, didn’t we?) In my new project, my heroine’s appearance is a huge part of her story, so I will have to help the reader “see” her as clearly as I do.

      • Tom Scanlan

        On your previous novel, I do remember commenting that I wanted to know a little bit more about your main character. Hair color, anything. I imagined her as a brunette, slim, taller than average. In her case, it wasn’t crucial to know. If the character’s appearance is important to your new story, then you have to let the reader know. It’s just that so many of the classics spent PAGES sometimes on a character’s physical characteristics, habits, dress, and there were times I really wanted to skip ahead and get on with the story. Ideally, even if the character’s appearance is very important, there’s probably still a way to write the story so that the reader has to imagine their appearance but the context provides all the clues necessary (the old ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim). E.g., “She always had trouble with size 6 but bought it anyway and just endured the tightness…” I’ve no doubt you’ll work it out, but now that you’ve stirred our interest, please keep us informed!

  3. anitra

    HI Shary-It’s intriguing to see how your characters “form.” See my email!

  4. Shary, I loved reading about how your characters form! I’ve never really thought about how mine form. I think they pop into my head and insist they have a role in a story. I do know that once my muse comes into play, I have to start writing everything down. Otherwise, once the inspiration is gone, it’s gone and I can’t recall a thing.

    • If you had asked me before I wrote this post, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where my characters come from. I had to work to remember the inspiration for each one. I was surprised that they all came about so differently. I’m with you 100% on having to write things down. I think I’ll remember, but I never do.

  5. Sandy

    I often ask classes to choose their perfect cast when reading a piece of literature – sometimes there are clues for them in a physical description but often they must resort to typecasting based on personalities… their choices for Tybalt and the lead in the “Scottish Play” are usually the most interesting but recently Beowulf and Gawain are surprising. I probably should start keeping a list in case I want to moonlight as a casting director.

  6. I find this fascinating and I’d love to know more about how you find these characters. My writing tends to be non-fiction. And if I were taking a shot at fiction, I’d have to base my characters on people I know. It comes so naturally to you!

  7. Nice post, Shary! Sometimes I can picture a certain actor, sometimes it’s a friend’s mannerisms or phrases, sometimes it’s a long-forgotten somebody I probably passed in the lunchroom or grocery store. Who knows. One friend told me she gives her characters a personality test, like the Briggs-Myer. Never done that, but am intrigued by the idea. What if they all turn out to be me?! =)

    • I’ve done the Myers-Briggs or similar tests for characters. It always makes me think about who they really are inside and it helps me flesh out the backstory.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this a lot — I’m in the midst of editing a first draft, and as I do I find my characters shifting slightly. Not only from the beginning of first draft to the end, but also once I’ve started editing the book! I was so certain when I started it: how they looked, who they were, and now they really are taking on lives of their own. It’s cool but on the other hand I find myself redefining them, a time consuming process! Does this happen to you?

    • It does! I keep a notebook with details about characters and settings so I don’t lose track of the world I’ve created and my character pages are always filled with edits. Sometimes I change things deliberately for plot purposes, but usually, it’s more of an evolution that comes from the characters themselves and their motivations. I agree 100%… very time consuming. I guess that explains some of the 6 years I spent on my last novel.