Elizabeth Peters, a favorite author that I’ve followed for over twenty years, wrote a story back in the 1970’s about this character with a huge nose. I know, this has been done many times. But the way she wrote about this character, The Nose became a runny (sorry, couldn’t resist) running background to the story and part of the plot. She did it in a very subtle way so that it didn’t become a prop or a cliché, or a mean dig at people with larger protuberances. I was thinking about this today when someone in Yahoo Answers was struggling with how to picture a character in her writing. She couldn’t figure out how to bring the character to life because she couldn’t ‘see’ him and wanted to know what other writers did.
I’ve talked about description before, and how hard it is to write just the right amount so that a reader can picture the scene, setting, or character the way they want to see them and not the way the author tells them they have to see someone. Mention dark hair, and I’ll find the shade I want. Yet there has to be seeds of description or the character is a piece of human-shaped white board.
I imagine there are lots of writers out there who can picture a character they’ve created, fully formed in their mind. But I think most writers are observers. When they are out in public I’m sure they are watching people, like I do, and thinking how they could use that awful dated pompadour hairstyle, or those fantastic body piercings. Writers see the way people move, interact, express their emotions through body language, etc., and that all transposes to the written page. Same with how a person looks. So observing the surroundings is a great way to learn how to visualize and describe a character, if you can remember until you get home to the story.
Personally, I find it more useful to print out photos. I’ll see an actor or actress and think, ‘hey, those ears stick out all the way to Montana’ and look the person up, print out a photo, and file it in my ‘faces’ folder. Then when I’m writing, I’ll pull out photos that contain the parts I need for the characters I’m building, and spread those photos out around my writing space. Whenever that character walks into the scene, I’ll glance at those faces and visualize how those ears are going to go up when the person talks, or turn blue in the cold. The faces folder becomes a reminder of the character I’m creating.
This doesn’t mean that I write a character who looks just like Sean Bean (one of my favorite actors). But I might use his hair. The characters are still mine, I just borrow parts. And that’s how I imagine my characters. It would be interesting to find out what works for other writers.