What Characters Look Like

This is another post based on a question from Tumperkin, who is really good at making me think.

The gentleman whose picture is illustrating this post is actor Vincent Perez. Many writers have said they use pictures of people to help them visualize characters; often pictures of actors or models, which makes sense, because those people have their pictures taken a lot, and it’s easy to clip them from a magazine and tuck them into your notebook or hang them on a bulletin board. I don’t do that, though.

A side story, somewhat relevant: for The Moonlight Mistress, I was filling out the information sheets for art and marketing. I decided to try the actor thing, retroactively. I wasted a lot of time looking for appropriate French and Belgian actors to cast in my novel. None of them really worked, but I gave some names anyway (Vincent Perez being one, as sort of like Fournier, though Perez is prettier). The point of this story is that it wasn’t until then I realized that Noel Ashby, one of the British characters, bore a resemblance to British actor Damian Lewis. I hadn’t been picturing Lewis at all as I wrote, but when I thought of “English, redhead, good-looking,” he was pretty much it.

So, the point of this story is that I’m not a very visual person. I like to look at things. But when I’m thinking about things, I don’t tend to visualize them.

I don’t get the whole “movie in my head” thing some writers get. Instead, I get the story from the inside. It’s more a voices thing with me, and a weird sort of tactile sense that isn’t really tactile. If I need specific images, I often have to go and get a picture and then directly describe based on that picture.

When I’m creating a character, they grow from the inside. I know their problems and motivations long before I know the color of their hair. Sometimes, I assign basic physical characteristics almost at random: this one has dark hair because of his ethnicity, so this other one will be blonde. Or, everyone has dark eyes! This guy must have blue eyes.

To keep “physical” track of a character in my head, I will usually assign them one or two key physical points. Those points are like epithets in Homer, or tags on a blog post. I mention those tags, and hopefully the reader gets a sense of the character. Fournier, whom I mentioned earlier, is “marked by his height, his pronounced Gallic nose, and a truly spectacular air of untidiness.” Those three things, plus his tidy moustache, are pretty much it for me so far as appearance goes. I doubt I would recognize him on the street.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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