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The Characters – Create a visual library to get to know your characters: Novel Writing Prep Series

Sometimes no matter how much time you spend getting to know your characters, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Pardon the cliche, but it’s fitting for this topic.  I can spend hours creating detailed character outlines, but sometimes I don’t feel like I truly know my characters until I find a picture that speaks to me.  As authors we spend a lot of time focusing on the internal characteristics of our characters.  Are they responsible? What makes them angry?  Does he/she have any physical or speech tics? How will we break through her facade of selfish boorishness and get to the insecure little girl inside?

I often forget to think about my characters’ physical appearance.  So, I spend some time with my favorite friend, the internet, until I track down some pictures that speak to me.  And then I save these images to my character sheets.  Eventually I end up with something like this:

This collage offers a glimpse at some of the characters in my historical fiction novel.  I print this out and hang it above my desk while I’m working.  I have one of these for every work in progress.  It isn’t always the physical appearance that speaks to me.  Although I must say that my character Konrad is the spitting image of Harvey Keitel.  The minute I created that character, Keitel popped into my brain.  My character of Tom, however, doesn’t look exactly like Matthew Modine (circa 1995), but there’s something about Modine’s expression in this photo that pulls me right into the seriousness and intensity of my character Tom.

Per usual, an activity like this needs to be limited.  The internet, as we all know, can be a time suck for authors.  I usually give myself a day.  I surf with wild abandon looking for just the right photo for each character.  At the end of the day I usually have a fairly good stack of images to sort.  I put them together in pairs.  Do Ivy (my MC) and her best friend look too much alike or do they offer up a visual contrast?  Is there any resemblance between Ivy and her parents or have I created an adoptive family rather than a family of blood relations?  I rework my choices until I’m comfortable with the combinations.

Then I answer one question about each of the final photo choices.  “What is it about this photo that represents my character?”  The answer to this question may be simple.  In the case of Konrad, the answer is, “He looks exactly like Harvey Keitel.”  In the case of Tom it might be, “Matthew Modine’s angular chin and the faraway look in his eyes make me think of Tom.”  These sentences are often very revealing.  Until I defined the reason for my photo choice, I didn’t realize that the faraway look was important to Tom’s characterization.  This exercise often reveals personality traits that are important to my character’s underlying motivations.

Once I have those images staring down at me, the hard part begins – weaving the physical attributes of my characters into my writing. It’s tough to describe the curly mass of hair on Natasha Lyonne’s head (bottom row center) without sounding cliche or slowing down the pace of the story.  We’ll talk more about this in another post.  But for now here is a wonderful article about describing your characters’ physical attributes.  For now, I’m off to work on my WIP’s character collage.  Happy writing!

P.S. Sometimes I see people on the street who are the epitome of my characters.  Just yesterday, there was a high school-ish girl walking into the grocery store with pink flannel house slippers and long dark hair with a blond streaky feather woven in.  The way she tossed her hair and slouched along in her slippers would be perfect for a character in my WIP.  I thought about pulling out my cell phone and stealthily snapping a photo of the girl.  But then my level-head get the best of me.  How would it look if the 30-something mom who was hanging out in her car in the grocery store parking lot was snapping photos of the high schoolers on their lunch break.  Hmmm…  not good.  I put down the phone and today, I’ll spend some time searching for a photo online that might replicate the look of my local teenager.  Or maybe I’ll get brave and try to draw her picture.

What about you?  Have you ever created a collage of images to get to know your characters?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this idea, Sara. I am wondering where you find all of these photos. I’m not much of one for following the society pages. Oh, and I downloaded personalbrain and I love it. It’s really easy and fun and I find it helpful for brainstorming and also linking everything together. I think I’m going to buy Scribner, too, so thanks for all of the techie advice.

    February 24, 2012
    • I use lots of photos of movie stars. Fortunately, I love movies, so I’m quite familiar with lots of actors. I’m glad to hear you like Personal Brain. I downloaded it but haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet.

      February 26, 2012
  2. Great idea–and I can use Pinterest. (Something new I am trying for pics of setting.) Thanks!

    February 25, 2012
    • I use Pinterest for setting and characters images, too, Shutta. It makes it so easy to keep everything organized.

      February 26, 2012
  3. I create collages all the time. A cross between journaling, bubbles, and a mod-podge of illustrations. At a conference once an attendee sitting next to me asked about my notes, “What in the world is that?” In the business world a client once asked if I knew how to take notes at all, stating my notes appeared too whimsical for serious business. 🙂

    February 25, 2012
    • I don’t think it’s possible for notes to be “too whimsical”, Michelle. That’s funny though. I could see in a business setting how someone could think that. It sound like you have a lot of right-brain action going on – even in the world of note taking. Thanks for stopping by.

      February 26, 2012
  4. dkdodd52 #

    I have never done this myself, but it is a compelling idea. Sometimes, though, when I am watching a movie or playing a game I will come across a character that reminds me of one of my own. It is always a treat.

    February 29, 2012
  5. As an illustrator, I’ve had this tendency to pick up bits and pieces along the way for my artwork. Now, I apply the same collaging instinct to my writing. It truly works!

    July 25, 2012
    • I’m a very visual person, Heidi. So images and collages seem to work well for me too. Immersing myself in the visual of what I’m writing helps transport me to that place. Thanks for stopping by.

      August 27, 2012

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  1. Planner or Pantser? A novel writing prep series that might help… | Sara Toole Miller – Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer

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