Visualizing Your Characters; or, How Nice To Finally Meet You!

(This posting originally appeared on The Melt-Ink Pot)

I read a news story recently about an author whose book had been adapted for the stage. When he visited the theater during a rehearsal, he was introduced to the actor playing his main character. He paused for a moment, then said, “How nice to finally meet you!”

The actor was understandably confused, until the author explained, “You’re exactly how I imagined the character when I wrote the book, fifteen years ago.”

Wow. That has to be an amazing feeling.

I haven’t had quite that experience (and it’s unlikely that anyone will be adapting any of my stories for the stage anytime soon), but I have had the disconcerting experience of encountering a random photograph on the Internet that bore a striking resemblance to a character in one of my stories. Most recently, I found this picture of Carey Mulligan, and was struck by her similarity to my mental picture of my character Celia Winterbourne:


It wasn’t so much a physical resemblance (Celia’s hair should be darker and a little curlier, and her eyes should be green) as her eager and interested expression and the shape of her face. I can see this girl in Victorian costume, all excited to be going off to her first day at the Royal Academy of Science. She’s pretty, in a clean, wholesome way, just as Celia would be, but not so glamorous that people would stop in the street to watch her pass.

On the other hand, I know authors who like to have reference photographs for their main characters before they even start writing. I’ve never needed to do that, nor do I usually(1) base my characters on actual actors or other people, but I do like to at least form a mental image of the characters before I write them. It’s usually a clear enough picture that I’d recognize them if I met them on the street (or in the case of Celia’s alter ego, saw them on the Internet)

For The Daughters of August Winterbourne, I went so far as to make up a spreadsheet containing basic information about all of the named characters, such as name, age, hair and eye color, and general appearance notes. That’s the most organized I’ve ever gotten, and I think it did help. (Though now I’m wondering if I should go back and add in pictures as I find them as well.)

How do other people go about visualizing their characters? Do you haunt the Internet for pictures, or do you just build pictures in your head?

(1) There have been exceptions, of course, but only a few. And no, I’m not going to tell you which ones.

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About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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