Character creation is probably my favourite part of writing. I love building these people from the ground up, instilling them with traits of my own or people I’ve met in my life and developing the layers of their personality.
But how important is knowing what they look like? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot the last few months. Does it matter if they have blonde hair or brown? Does it matter if they’re 5’4 or 5’9? Does it matter if they wear glasses or have tattoos?
I think some of it is going to come down to your story. For me, eye colour is very important to the plot and so this is something I have to make conscious notes of. But hair colour is something I have just plucked out of thin air. Same as their heights. Even skin colour is a curious issue, I feel. I’m a strong believer in having diversity in fiction and I endeavour to bring that with my story but at the same time, I always feel very conscious about pointing out skin colour of characters. Like you’re trying to make a point of it. And on the one hand I feel it’s important to do so to make it clear but on the other, I don’t want it to feel heavy handed and deliberate.
I will admit to forgetting character descriptions almost as soon as I’ve read them. I will imagine characters as I imagine them and I don’t doubt they won’t look the same as other people envisage. That’s part of what I like about fiction. But it made me realise that there are certain things that I wouldn’t want people getting wrong when they imagined my characters and so those are the elements that I will need to find a way to weave into the narrative.
If people imagine Evan with blonde hair instead of ginger, fine. If people think Killian has straight hair instead of curls, fine. But if people see Marlaya as white instead of black or Steven without his pathetic attempt at a beard then I need to work harder at making that clear. Because sometimes your appearance is just something you’re stuck with, but other times it’s something that makes you who you are.
Because of this, I always like to document as many things as possible about my characters’ appearance. A lot of it will probably end up being rudimentary and I may not even making a passing mention of it at any point, but it can help me form a better idea of their personality. Do they have scars? How did they get them? Why do they wear their hair a certain way? What’s the significance of the jewellery they wear?
It can be tempting to get lost in the details and want to make everything plot relevant but I think that as long as you know the significance of things, it will make your character seem far more well-rounded to a reader.
Some great ways I’ve found of fleshing out character appearance is from filling in questionnaires. There’s plenty to be found online but here’s a good website with a collection of different ones that are helpful. Most of them deal with the same things but some go into wardrobe and accessories which can be a telling source of a character’s personality.
I’ve also found that it’s just useful to have a physical representation of a character to look at as I write. It can help me visualise scenes and interactions if I have a constant idea of what they look like. In order to do this, I’ve used a few different methods.
- Fan-casting. Essentially, you just use actors or models as physical embodiments of your characters. This can be especially useful when trying to imagine mannerisms and voices but you are likely to compromise the look somewhat because the chances of finding someone exactly as you imagine are slim.
- Avatar Creators. There are online software games where you can…well…create avatars. They tend to be restrictive (especially if you are wanting to design multiple characters at once and they all have the same poses and figures) but it can at least give you an idea of an appearance.
- Art commissions. If you are willing to spend some money to get a more accurate concept, I would definitely recommend commissioning an artist. A good place to start would be Tumblr or Twitter with a quick search of the #commission tag and then just settle on an art style you like and check out their commission details. Prices will vary but it puts you much more in control of what you’ll get and makes it feel far more personal.
I went through all three of these processes for my characters in The Remnant Keepers. Here’s an example of how it worked with Marlaya.
How do you create your characters? Do you put a lot of focus on appearance or do you leave a lot of it down to the reader? Do you like to have your own physical image of them as a reference?