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Writing Resources: Figuring Out Your Character’s Appearance

by - Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Writing can be hard sometimes. I mean, we're pretty much creating entire worlds in our head from scratch. We're also creating people, too.

I read somewhere once that the human brain cannot create faces, so if you imagine someone or dream about a random person, you've seen that person before at some point in your life. Unfortunately, this does not do us writers any favors when your newest character waltzes up to you and says he looks like the random guy from the subway.

However, I've collected some links, tips, and tricks that I've found to help you with figuring out your characters' physical appearance. It's incredibly important, if only for us to know how we picture our beloved story-people. Let's get started!

1. Pinterest

Pretty much everything I do for writing and plotting can, in some form, lead back to Pinterest. Pinterest is an online site that's dedicated to helping you collect the things you love--basically an online, virtual pinboard of all the things you find amazing. For me, it's unfathomable. There are pictures and inspiration everywhere on Pinterest. An image can spark so many things--an idea, a character, a location, a story. It's incredible the way my brain can take a picture and spin a world out of it.

That's why Pinterest is... incredible. I'll scroll down my feed and I'll find ten different characters, story threads, and locations that are just begging for me to write them. And the best part is, if I can't write them right away, I can pin them away and store them somewhere safe. Pinterest seriously is an indispendable tool for writers. At least, this writer. The inspiration I've found there is uncontainable. (A lot of times, Pinterest has created entire novels for me from just a handful of pins. Seriously.)

One huge tool for me has been character boards, which is where someone on Pinterest makes a board full of tons of interesting faces. For those who don't use Pinterest... I know, I know, it's confusing. 'Board' basically just means a collection of images pinned to one place. You can have many different boards for all sorts of different things. In this case, people have made boards with people whose faces they want to keep. (It's less creepy than it sounds, I promise...) I've made my own board with interesting faces, but I also have found a lot of super-helpful boards full with pictures of interesting characters. Here are some of my favorites.

Character & writing boards
Teens - Character Inspiration by Aleks Davis
//CHARACTERS// by LibertyRose1799
Writing Character- Girls by Lyndsey Smethurst
Chicos afeitados by Gnomo.eu
Character Prompts by Hannah Taylor
A Novelist >>> by Sayda Jaycee
All boards by Jo Zimmerman
All boards by Brenna H.
beautiful people (characters) by me
novel ideas & writerly inspiration by me

General inspiration
the sky by india
photography by olivia paige
.spring. by Syd Chavez
F u t u r e by Madison Breanne
Light by Ale Fella Miscelaneas
neighborhood by Donna Giovannitti
Autumn by Kathrin .
a m o r by Yessica Honstein
Musique by Kelsey Hamersley

Not only is Pinterest useful for character boards, but I've found pretty much anything on there. Inspiration for my characters' pets. Beautiful imagery, scenery, and pictures that fit my novel's aesthetic. Fashion ideas for what my characters will wear (we'll get to that in a minute). Locations. Ideas. It's just brimming to full. If you're not on Pinterest yet, what are you waiting for?!

Now, I know there are some writers who prefer not to use models or find character faces for their characters (or simply can't!) That's okay, I've felt the same way, and some of my characters don't have models, just an aesthetic. Pinterest isn't just for finding characters--it's so much more than that. I think Pinterest has something for everyone, you just have to do a little digging to find it. And as far as this post goes, I'll have some other links that will hopefully help you piece together your character's appearance in your head a little more.

2. Height, weight, and body type

I don't know why I didn't realize this sooner, but on October 31st it occurred to me: height, weight, and body type are a big deal. I get into the habit of picturing my characters as body-less apparitions for some odd reason (or they just get a generic body, honestly). But I think to make our characters feel as real as we can, it really is important to consider these things! What do their hands and feet look like? Do they like to wear nail polish? What is their skin like--chapped, dry, freckled, smooth? What shoe-size do they wear? (If you want to go really deep for female characters, what bra-size do they wear?) How tall are they, and how much do they weigh? Doing this, picturing aspects of my character, has honestly really helped me. I try to think of how I'd see them through their eyes as they go about their day--tripping over their feet, seeing their hands turn on a faucet; things like that.

Another thing that falls into that is self-image. How your character looks vs. how they perceive themselves are going to be two very different things. For me, this is important to remember when I write in the first person. A character could see her body as ugly, but the other characters around her wouldn't think of her like that at all. It's like that in real life, too. Keeping in mind how your character feels about their body, and whether or not they have a good self-image, is a really good idea that I'm looking to implement more in my novels.

And now for height and weight. I am extremely bad at this. As a 5'2" person, height is obviously not my strong suit. I didn't even really know what constituted as short and what constituted as tall until my late teens. (Eh, let's be honest, I'm still figuring it out.) Because of this, it's been incredibly hard for me to figure out how tall my characters are, as far as fitting the way I picture them in my head.

Enter the Cockeyed height/weight chart, an awesome project with pictures gathered from people of all shapes and sizes from all over the world. It's separated people into weight and height, and you can click on each category see pictures of what those height and weight numbers look in reality. The great part is the diversity. No body is the same, and weight is distributed differently on each person, which really becomes clear when you look at this site (showing a more realistic view of bodies was actually its fabulous purpose). Seeing this body calculator has not only helped me with my characters, but with myself, because it reminds me that my weight and height are just numbers that mean pretty much nothing as far as my self esteem goes. It's awesome.

Another great tool is this Compare Height Tool. Originally designed for you to compare your height to celebrities, I've found it helps to use for my characters as well. If you can find a celebrity the same height as your characters, and then input the other height, it'll show you the difference between them. It's been helpful for knowing where my characters' eye level would be when standing next to one of their friends. And... let's be honest, it's just a fun thing to do and mess around with.

In addition to height and weight, considering body type is good too. Are they thin, slender, stocky? Do they have curves, or are they a little more on the hard-edged side? Do they slump, do they stand straight, how do they carry themselves? (With all these questions, I'd better be careful, lest this turn into a Beautiful People round. Let's move on.)

3. Hair and Eyes

This is pretty basic, the hair and eye color of your character. Hair color is one of the first things I try to figure out when addressing my character's physical appearance. It's actually harder than it looks for me, especially when I'm hitting about the fourth girl character with dark hair. Nevertheless, there's so much more to consider about hair than just color. Texture is one thing. Is it curly, thick? Thin, silky, smooth, frizzy, rough? There are a lot of options and embracing hair texture is one way to add variety to your characters and flesh them out more in your head. It may never be addressed in the novel, but at least you know.

As for eyes, this is one thing I almost always neglect. Half of my characters probably don't have eye colors. (Well, not ones that I've determined anyway. And they do have eyes, so that's good.) I haven't been very good at this one either, just because it's hard for me to picture eye colors beyond the basic blue. One thing that has helped me is googling eye color charts. I'm not sure where I found this one, and it doesn't have all the colors, but I love the variants and it's helped me quite a bit when trying to find my characters' eye color.

Look around and see what you can find as far as eye color charts go; maybe they'll help you like they've helped me. (And if you constantly give your couples happy endings and future children like I do, here's a guide to eye color genetics, found via this link.)

4. Style and Aesthetic

Ahhh, one of my favorite parts! Seriously, figuring out my characters' style, and more importantly aesthetic, is one of my favorite parts.

Style is something I sometimes forget to think about (and often my characters get shoehorned into wearing plaid most of the time, oops). But the most fleshed out characters I've had have had a sense of style that I've figured out as I wrote them. For Fiona, it's sweatpants and graphic tees--comfort is ABSOLUTELY number one for her. For Cobie, it's tons of black and acid-washed denim, and her trademark combat boots that she never takes off. For Evee, it's black tights, black boots, and dark floral-print dresses. For Audrey, it's cardigans and light floral print dresses. For Chloe, it's light, airy, floral sundresses. You get my drift. This is something that takes time to do, and I'm not exactly sure how you do it beyond imagining and writing them more, but pinpointing your characters' style can be so important.

One thing that I've loved for the past three years is Polyvore. It's a fashion site that allows you to make virtual outfits. It's often used for fashion, but me being the rather fashion-clueless person I am, I just use it to put together character outfits. It's one of my favorite sites ever--it's fun, therapeutic, and beneficial to your writing! Definitely recommend it. If you join, buddy me! I'm MountainFireflower.

And now for aesthetic! I don't really know exactly how to define this, but it's basically the entire essence of your character. For me, often times it's a picture of a sunset or light against a wall, something that looks the way my character's soul would look. Sometimes it's a picture on Pinterest that looks like them, a candid, caught in the moment with their face turned away. Sometimes it's a specific color scheme; dusky purple, yellow, green, whatever. Sometimes it includes a song or a book or a poem or something they love, like a tattered Peter Pan book. Basically, the aesthetic is what I use to define your character as a whole; their essence and their soul. It's a mythical, magical thing and finding it can be hard, but just let it come to you. It will. And it will make all the difference.

One more thing: Charahub is a great resource for keeping all my characters organized. While not directly related to physical appearance, it's like a giant virtual notebook where you keep all your characters and your facts about them. It's one of my favorite sites and it makes me feel very writely and professional. Let me know what you think if you check it out!

I hope you found that semi-helpful! Now tell me, how do you figure out your characters' appearances? Any resources, tools, tips, or tricks that I'm missing? And what's one character whose physical appearance you feel you've developed well?



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1 inklings / what say you?

  1. Thanks for the links to the pinterest boards...they are inspirational, and will definitely help inspire some more writing sessions for NaNo! :)

    ReplyDelete

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