Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers


Picture this: a magical notebook that collects your lists of character names, rough draft progress meters, and memorable feedback from readers all in one place. Imagine being able to organize it and add new things as you go, without needing to allocate perfectly spaced sections ahead of time. There’s even a special page that helps you find whatever you’re looking for in seconds.

This, my writerly friend, is the magic of a bullet journal.

Picture this: a magical notebook that collects your lists of character names, rough draft progress meters, and memorable feedback from readers all in one place. Imagine being able to organize it and add new things as you go, without needing to allocate perfectly spaced sections ahead of time. There’s even a special page that helps you find whatever you’re looking for in seconds.  Click the pin to read more about the magic of bullet journaling for writers! // Something Delicious

What is a bullet journal?


Bullet journals have been rapidly gaining in popularity over the last few years as a way to simplify your life and keep all your to-dos, lists, and future planning in one spot. Once you have the basics sorted, it’s incredibly easy to customize to your tastes. Pinterest and YouTube abound with suggestions and tutorials to help you make it your own.

If you haven’t encountered bullet journaling before, start with these articles to give you a sense of the basics. After that, make sure to return here to discover how you can use this magical notebook when you’re writing a novel!

Getting Started With Bullet Journaling

An In-Depth Guide to Bullet Journaling, from GenTwenty: A basic overview by yours truly of bullet journaling.

Thorough Guide to the Bullet Journal System, from Tiny Ray of Sunshine: This is incredibly comprehensive and helpful, but if it starts to feel overwhelming, scroll down to the bottom of her post where Kim has an infographic summarizing her main points!

Bullet Journal - Daily Planning, a video from Boho Berry: I’ve watched a lot of videos and read a lot of posts about daily planning in bullet journals, but this one still tops my list as one of the most helpful resources out there, especially for something you’ll be doing a lot.

Examples of Bullet Journaling

How to Bullet Journal and Braindump, from Emily Scott: This is a great example of how you can incorporate freewriting and journaling along with to-do lists and scheduling.

A Peek Inside My Bullet Journal, from Sublime Reflection: As well as having some good starting pointers for newbies to bullet journaling, Kimberly has helpfully included photos of her own bullet journal.

Bullet Journal Flip Through, a video from Boho Berry: When I first started bullet journaling, I found it a lot easier to grasp the concept when I could actually see examples on video and watch people flip through the pages. It gives you a better idea of how everything works together. This video is well worth the 30-minute watch!

There are a few other things to wrap your brain around to make your bullet journaling experience as smooth as possible, like migration and threading. If this is all new to you, do yourself a favour and come back to those after you’ve read the rest of this post and decided if bullet journaling seems like a good fit. That way you’ll better be able to visualize how these concepts work.

What you need to start your bullet journal


A blank notebook. Some people love the Leuchtturm1917, which is the original Bullet Journal. Others, like myself, love a good ol’ Moleskine notebook. My personal favourite is 5 x 8.25 inches with the dot grid*. It’s light, holds up well to repeated use, has heavier-than-average paper, and it’s preeeetty. Honestly, though, you can use just about any notebook for this, especially if you’re just starting out and aren’t sure whether bullet journalling is right for you.

( * This is an affiliate link, which means that if you fall in love with the Moleskine notebook on that page and decide to purchase it, I may receive a small fee in return.  This will not at all affect the price you pay, and I will never recommend something I don't absolutely love! :) )

A pen. Pick one that doesn’t bleed too much, so you can use both sides of the page without issue. I’m currently using the same pens I use for just about everything (BIC Ultra Round Stic Grip) because they’re super comfy and work well. Kara (Boho Berry) has some recommendations on this front, too.

Washi tape and/or coloured pencils. Optional, but fun for decorating your pages with ease and creating colour-coded charts!

What if I already have a bullet journal?


If you already have a bullet journal, the choice is yours as to whether you use the same notebook for your writing tidbits or keep them separate. Honestly, though, at the rate mine fills up, I’d be starting new notebooks all the time if I kept my writing-related notes in my regular bullet journal. Unless you just write every once in a while, chances are you’ll be happier having a dedicated bullet journal for your writing.

Can I use one bullet journal for all my writing projects?


Of course! That being said, if you’re writing an epic fantasy novel with characters and settings and ideas coming out the wazoo, you might want to give that one a journal of its very own. Totally your call. If you’re not sure, start with one and see how it goes!

Would a bullet journal for writing still have a spot for daily and monthly planning? A key? An index?


Short answer: Yes!

Long answer: Let’s take this one by one …

Daily Planning

This isn’t a must-have, especially if you’re only working on one project and/or not on a daily basis. You could keep a weekly planner, instead. Whether you choose to jot down tasks on a daily or weekly basis, though, you could include things like:

  • how many words you plan to write
  • a research question to follow up on and how you’ll be doing that
  • a writing date at Starbucks with a friend
  • finishing an assignment from the writing class you’re taking
  • reading a how-to book on amping up your writing skills

Monthly Planning

If you’ve watched my Vive la Writing! webinar or enrolled in my course, you’ll know I have a thing for planning out writing sessions in advance, and developed a whole customizable calendar system around that idea. You could totally transfer that system to your bullet journal!

Already have standing writing dates scheduled into your planner? You could skip this step, then, or you could start keeping them in your bullet journal instead. There’s something about giving your writing dates their own calendar that makes them feel like more of a priority. It gives you more room to jot down details about what you’ll be doing during those writing sessions, too, like "incorporate more sensory details into Chapter 5."

A Key

Having a key for your bullet journal will help you differentiate at a glance between things that need doing, to-dos that are half-finished, things you want to remember or look up, and anything else you happen to put in your bullet journal. I keep mine on a sticky note inside the front cover; that way, if I want to change the symbols around at some point, I can do that without having to cross out the old ones.

Here are some quick examples of a bullet journal key:

Example 1
Example 2

If you have multiple works-in-progress, you could even assign a symbol to each one!

Why do this?

Because, on a day when you’re working on all of them, it saves you having to write “write 1,000 words of He Left in the Night” and “edit chapter 4 of Loose Sails.” It’s not a big deal, when all’s said and done, and you could just use initials instead, but using a symbol makes meanings easy to discern at a glance.

Alternatively, you could colour-code your symbols for each WIP. I’m a big fan of colour-coding things … can you tell?

An Index

I’m going to put on my Bossy Pants here and insist that, even if you don’t have the last three things, you HAVE to have a bullet journal index. Without that, you just have a notebook with a jumble of notes. Same old, same old.

Create an index, update it whenever you add something new or continue a collection on a different page, and you’ll make things so much easier for yourself in the future.

What’s a collection?


Pretty much everything in a bullet journal is a collection, strictly speaking, even your daily planning pages. However, my personal definition of a collection is that it’s a convenient way to gather ideas, notes, and/or lists on specific topics in one spot. In my everyday bullet journal, I have collections for everything from soon-to-be-released movies on my radar to sewing tips I glean from YouTube videos.

The best thing about collections is you don’t have to allocate a certain number of pages for them from the get-go, so they can be as lengthy or petite as you need them to be! Once you have one page filled up, simply flip to the next blank page, whether that’s right after or thirty pages later, and carry on with your collection. Just make sure to add it to your index, while you’re at it. You might also want to consider threading, a quick extra step that makes your collections even easier to navigate.

What collections could I create for a writing bullet journal?


Excellent question!

For specific works-in-progress, I’d include collections for:

  • Main characters (start by giving them each their own collection page): include their name, background, important relationships, and any other pertinent information, such as their motivation and how they evolve as the story unfolds
  • Supporting characters: you could have these all in the same collection or give them each their own collection page, depending on how much detail you have for them
  • Master list of characters: this could just be their names, or you could also include when they make their first appearance
  • Master list of settings
  • Scene ideas
  • Dialogue ideas
  • Research questions
  • Books, websites, and other resources for future research
  • Title ideas
  • Progress meters for word count/chapter count, for rough drafts and/or revisions
  • Chapter-by-chapter charts to show how often you use different settings or weather patterns

As far as general writing collections, I’d go for:

  • Favourite writing prompts, so you’re never without inspiration and writer’s block busters
  • Plot bunnies that won’t leave you alone
  • How-to books to read about writing

Don’t forget about the “peripherally related to writing” collections:

  • Literary agents to query
  • Publishing houses to query
  • Other writing or publishing professionals (editors, coaches, proofreaders, publicists, cover designers)
  • Submissions chart
  • Blog tour stops
  • Chart to track sales
  • Happy Moments log (positive snippets from reviews, fan letters, beta readers, Twitter friends)
  • Promotion ideas

If you want to incorporate these into your bullet journal but feel a wee bit overwhelmed at the prospect, have no fear!  I've created a checklist so you can start ticking them off one by one.

When wouldn’t you use a bullet journal for novel writing?


For me, having a bullet journal, especially for my writing, is about having all the information I need at my fingertips, without having to search through a thousand bits and pieces of paper and text messages and emails and computer files to get it. It’s not a space for scene drafts, heavy brainstorming sessions, and things that go all over the map.

That being said, this is your bullet journal. If you want to use it for brainstorming and drafting your novel, go for it! Just remember it’ll fill up a lot faster if you do this. Finding what you need when you need it should still be just as simple, so long as you’re keeping up with your index and numbering those pages.

(Remember that post I mentioned earlier, How to Bullet Journal and Braindump? It’s a great example of an approach that differs from mine in this regard!)

What about your research?


This really depends how extensive your research will be. If you’ll only have a few pages worth, it could totally go in the same bullet journal as all your other writing material. Otherwise, you’ll likely want to keep it separate; just keep track in your bullet journal of what research you’ve done and what still needs doing, and keep the piles of paper and sticky notes and annotations elsewhere.

What do you do when your bullet journal is full?


Start a new one and immediately set up: (1) the index, and (2) any ongoing collections.

Not sure which collections are ongoing? Ask yourself if you’ll be adding to it anytime soon. If your research is done for your current project, you don’t need a collection for research just yet. Once you do, you can add one!

After you’ve got the index and your collections sorted, you can set up your first planning pages (daily, weekly, monthly) if these are a regular part of your bullet journaling process.

When all's said and done ...


It took me a few months to really sink into bullet journaling, but now I couldn't live without it.  I feel calmer and my productivity has soared.  Writing time is precious, and now I don't have to waste it rummaging through my room for scraps of paper because I have one spot for All the Notes.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, I completely understand.  My best advice is to snag a notebook - any notebook, it doesn't have to be THE notebook - even if it's halfway full already, and just give this a try.  Devote twenty pages to this newfangled bullet journaling idea and see how it goes.

What do you think?  Will you give bullet journaling a try for your writing bits and bobs?  If you already are, I'd love to hear how you're making it work for you: the collections you've added, the symbols you're using, what you include and what you leave out.

Whether you're a bullet journaling veteran or just dipping your toes in the water, leave a comment below!  I'd love to hear what your plans are.



Do you want a snazzy checklist to help you incorporate these collections into your own bullet journal?  I've got you covered!  Just click here to snag the checklist for your very own.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Creative Round Table: an interview with Faye Kirwin from Writerology!

Welcome to another installment of the Creative Round Table, a gathering of wisdom, advice, and inspirational stories from some amazing creative souls. Today, we're talking to Faye Kirwin from Writerology about the impact of psychology on character development, reconnecting with your creative passions, and a healthy dose of encouragement!  Click the pin to read this inspiring interview.

Hello, beautiful writers!  Welcome to another installment of the Creative Round Table, a gathering of wisdom, advice, and inspirational stories from some amazing creative souls. Today, we're talking to Faye Kirwin from Writerology about the impact of psychology on character development, reconnecting with your creative passions, and a healthy dose of encouragement!

Victoria: Your love of digging into the inner workings of your characters led you to study psychology at university.  Did your perspective on character development change throughout your years at university and, if so, how?

Faye: Oh, most definitely. If there’s one thing studying psychology made me appreciate, it’s how complex and nuanced the human mind is. The more I learnt about personality, about social influence, about relationships and discourse and mental health, the more I realised that I only understood a fraction of who my characters were. If I wanted them to reflect all the different aspects that make up a real person, I needed to go deeper and get to grips with parts of their psyches that I’d never heard mentioned by other writers before—parts like locus of control and attachment styles and cognitive biases. With each year that passed, I was able to build more and more layers into my characters, discovering new ways for them to grow and new twists to add to their journeys.

Victoria: What's the most valuable thing your studies in psychology have shown you about creativity?

Faye: That creativity isn’t something some people are born with and some people aren’t. Anyone can be creative and anyone can become more creative, which I think is very encouraging for all of us, whatever our calling.

Developing your mental flexibility can lead to so many possibilities: more imaginative solutions, a more persistent and energetic work style, an increased receptivity to inspiration, and that’s to name just a few!

Trying something that requires you to adopt a different mindset to normal and forces you to consider things from a different perspective is a great way to exercise those creative muscles. For me, that was writing 140-character microfiction. Telling a story in 2-3 lines, rather than over a whole novel, pushed me out of my comfort zone and tightened my storytelling. Whatever your passion, turn your expectations on their head and try doing things a different way. It really can expand the mind.


Victoria: Do you ever find yourself so entrenched in character development that it's hard to move on to the actual drafting process?  How do you recognize the signs, and what would you do in a case like this?

Faye: This was such a problem for me a few years ago. I’d spend more time developing characters than writing about them and, when I finally did start writing, they changed so much over the first draft that they were almost unrecognisable. All that time spent on character development down the drain.

While it was frustrating, I learnt an important lesson from all that: having a solid idea of who your characters are before you start the story is valuable, but things will change as you write. The more you discover about the plot and the characters, the more your initial beliefs about them change, so be flexible with your character development and don’t spend more than a few weeks on it before you start writing. Remember: you can always revisit those character notes later, when you have a better idea of who your cast are.

Victoria: What's the most telling question you can ask a character who's only just begun to make themselves known to you?

Faye: ‘Is the glass half empty or is it half full?’

The first thing I try to get a feel of when writing a character is their worldview. Is their perception of the world around them tinted by optimism or pessimism? Both optimists and pessimists see the same glass, but their interpretation of it differs. That raises an important point for writers: your characters’ narratives are not objective. They’re subjective, tinted by their individual worldviews, coloured by their personalities, thought patterns and experiences.

No two people (or characters) see the world in the same way, and something as simple as an optimistic or pessimistic streak can have a significant impact on that. If you think about it that way, how your character interprets the glass half empty or half full question can be very telling.

Victoria: Other than writing, what forms of creativity are present in your everyday life?

Faye: I spend most of my time writing and reading, but when I need a break from the written word, I like to break out my sketchbook and draw. Translating what I see in my mind on to the page in a way that doesn’t involve words is a fun way to shake things up and try something new. And, as an added bonus, it gives me a break from the computer screen (which I should probably do more often).

Victoria: Do these different creative passions play well in the sandbox, or do they start to compete for time and attention?

Faye: I’ve always loved how writing and drawing fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Both involve telling stories, but where writing does that with words, over a certain number of pages, drawing does it in a single image. When I’m worn out by working on a narrative that stretches across thousands of words, drawing lets me focus on that one frozen moment of a story.

Balancing the two isn’t that easy for me, though. Drawing takes me a lot longer than writing, and with writing being my greatest passion, I’ll often feel guilty for spending time with my sketchpad. In the future, I’d love to balance the two more, so that I can give both sides of my storytelling muse the attention they deserve.

Victoria: On days where you're feeling drained of energy and inspiration, how do you deal with it?  Do you march yourself to the blank page regardless?  Do you settle in with a book and a cup of tea?

Faye: I’m a huge proponent of writing regularly—every day, if possible—and feeling drained of energy and inspiration are some of the greatest obstacles to doing that. It’s not easy, but I’ve researched and experimented over the years and found specific triggers that motivate and energise me enough to get the words down, each day, every day.

A big one for me is reminding myself why I write and what I love about my current project. It’s easy to lose sight of that when I’m tired or uninspired, but remembering what I love most about it (and looking back at the encouragement I’ve received from other writers) really helps me to get started. Once I’m past the first few warm-up paragraphs, I’m off and away.

I also make time each day to consume fiction of one kind or another. Losing myself in a story motivates me to tell my own and teaches me how to do it. In the words of Stephen King, “If you don't have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Oh, and tea helps too. Lots of it.

Victoria: In your recipe for living a creative life, what would be the top three ingredients?

Faye: Ingredient 1: Make time for what you love.

This one, to me, is the most crucial of all. Whatever your passion, make time for it every day, even if it’s only five minutes. It’s incredible how much progress you can make when you change your mentality from ‘I need to do lots for it to be worth it’ to ‘if I do a little and often, it all adds up’.

Ingredient 2: Keep why you do what you do close to your heart.

In the midst of your creative projects, with obstacles looming and your resolve to continue sorely tested, it can be all too easy to forget why you started in the first place. Don’t let that happen. Remember your Why. Why do you do what you do? Why do you love it? Why do you keep coming back to it? Why is it part of who you are?

Write those reasons down, put them somewhere visible, and when you feel lost in self-doubt or sapped of your will to create, look at them again. Remind yourself why you do what you do.

Ingredient 3: Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for pursuing your passions.

This can be a killer for us creatives. With friends, family, work and life all jockeying for our attention, putting time aside for creative pursuits can make us feel horribly guilty. But that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Here’s how I see it. You can make the world a better place by embracing your creativity. Whether you share what you’ve created with others or not, by doing something that makes you happy, you create ripples. Those ripples spread outwards, changing the lives of those they touch.

Do what you love boldly and unapologetically, and please don’t ever feel guilty about making time for your creative side. It’s part of who you are, an integral part of your soul, and the world is a better place because of it. So here’s a request from me: keep nurturing that creative spark, okay?

Victoria: Bonus Question: If the Doctor wandered into the pages of your latest work-in-progress, who would he choose as a companion and what would their first reaction be upon stepping inside the TARDIS?

If the TARDIS materialised within the pages of Her Clockwork Heart, my protagonist, Pippa Adeney, would definitely be the first knocking on the door. Pippa’s a mechanician who loves nothing more than travelling the world and building clockwork counterparts to the incredible things she sees. And if she stepped inside the TARDIS? I think her first response would be to ask how it works. Then she’d try to build one herself. (Good luck with that, Pippa.)


Faye Kirwin is a writer with a passion for words, minds and tea. She blogs over at Writerology, where she applies the science of psychology to the art of storytelling and teaches authors how to make writing a part of their everyday lives. When she’s not blogging or running the Writember Workshop, she writes fiction chock-full of magic, clockwork and tea. (Mm, tea.)

To find out more about Faye, be sure to find her on Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Which creative season are you in?

"Spring passes and one remembers one's innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one's exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one's reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one's perseverance."
Yoko Ono

When it comes to writers, there aren’t many concepts that apply across the board.  Some writers enjoy developing characters the most, others like creating intricate plots.  Some writers work well at night, others in the morning.  Some find it helpful to share their work-in-progress as they go, others prefer to keep it close until it’s pretty much finished.

One thing that can be said for most writers, though, is that creativity ebbs and flows in seasons. 

These seasons don’t necessarily correspond to geographic location; it could be winter outside the door and summer inside your creative mind.  Just like in real life, these seasons can vary in length and depth.  Your creative summer might span six months while your creative fall and winter span six weeks in total.  It might change from cycle to seasonal cycle, too.  You could even go through all of the seasons in the course of a month, or a week, or a long weekend!

One thing that can be said for most writers is that creativity ebbs and flows in seasons.  What do these seasons look like, why are they important, and what should writers watch out for in each one?  Click the pin to find out! // Something Delicious

What does fall look like?


Think like a squirrel: you’re gathering “nuts,” preparing for the long winter ahead.  You want to be as well-stocked as possible, to stave off potential speedbumps, so much of your research, plotting, and organizing gets done now.  How much you do is unique to your writing process and your work-in-progress.  This is the time to make sure you have everything you need to dive into your project come winter.  If you already have a rough draft completed, you might be preparing for an editing journey instead.  Gather your nuts accordingly!

You might pursue quests like …


You might battle monsters like …

The urge to continue researching until you know everything you think you need to know.  Vanquish this monster by paring down your list of research questions to what you absolutely must know to write your rough draft, and figure out the rest as you go.  (Trust me.  I’m speaking from experience here, as someone who felt like she needed to read every book ever written and know every single fact about Victorian England for a work-in-progress …)

What does winter look like?


This is your time for hunkering down in a creative cave with your work-in-progress.  You know what you’re working on, you have a plan of some sort, and your other creative pursuits have likely fallen by the wayside because you’re just so ready for this.  There might be blizzards or icy patches along the way; when that happens, take it slow and steady, and refer back to your plan when need be.  You’re ready to make some serious progress on your project, so honour that.  Do what you can to enable your writing sessions as much as humanly possible.

You might pursue quests like …

  • Reaching a certain word count during each writing session
  • Having nightly word sprints with writing buddies, in-person or reporting in on Twitter
  • Making meals in a crockpot for future leftovers

You might battle monsters like …

Getting sick.  If you feel like you’re coming down with a cold because you’re loading up on snacks and avoiding exercise like the plague, for fear of scraping even ten minutes away from your writing time, cut that out NOW!  Vanquish this monster by building a little bit of time into each day to prepare healthy snacks and do twenty minutes of exercise, whether that’s a short walk or a workout on YouTube or some time with your yoga mat.

What does spring look like?


Take a deeeeep breath.  You’ve worked so hard this winter, you deserve a scrumptious rest!  Rather than jumping straight into something else, give yourself at least a wee bit of time to rest those aching typing fingers and stretch your muscles with some gentle yoga sessions.  Give your mind a break, too.  This is the perfect time to delve into that book that’s been waiting ever so patiently in your to-be-read pile, or to finish knitting the pair of socks that’s been languishing in your project bag.  Refreshment and renewal are the key words for this creative season.

You might pursue quests like …

  • Reading, and maybe even finishing, a series you’ve been saving
  • Thirty days of Yoga With Adriene
  • Reconnecting with friends and family who waited patiently for you to emerge from your creative winter

You might battle monsters like …

Feeling that you should still be working hard, that resting means you’re lazy.  Vanquish this monster by looking at how much you accomplished during your creative winter and celebrating your triumph, either by yourself or with others who will understand and celebrate with you.

What does summer look like?


My newsletter friends will already know this, but this is the season I’m currently in myself, so I could happily talk about it all day!  (I think the season you’re in is always the best one, until you’re ready to move on.)  A creative summer is about exploration and seeking joy in your creative pursuits.  This is when you open your arms to the new ideas that have been clamouring for your attention and allow them all to have their say.  This is when you spend day after day doing writing prompts about clowns and writing a haiku for the very first time just because you can.  This is when you remember what it was like when you were younger, before your joy of writing was largely overtaken by doubt that your writing can ever be good enough or that you’ll ever “make it” as a writer.

You might pursue quests like …

  • Pulling out the story you abandoned ten years ago and tinkering with the characters
  • Going to a museum, picking two random exhibits, and connecting them in a short story
  • Brainstorming the story idea you had in a dream the night before
  • Writing a letter to one of your favourite authors

You might battle monsters like …

The belief that you're not a real writer if you're not always writing one novel and/or editing another.  Being a writer, a real writer, has no qualifications other than writing.  The only limits are the ones you set for yourself.  Vanquish this monster by remembering that there's a season for everything and, by giving yourself this time to expand your creative horizons and dabble as you like, you're helping, not hindering, your creative quest.

Why does any of this matter?


Acknowledging the creative season you're currently in allows you to give yourself a priceless gift: the ability to do exactly what you want and need to do for your writing in that moment, without a sense of guilt or feeling like you should be doing something other than what you are doing.  The time will come for all of it, because this process is cyclical.  Take a deep breath and do something today to honour and accept the season you're in!

Which creative season do you feel you're in?  Which quests and monsters have you encountered?

Friday, 13 May 2016

How to See and Hear a Character

This is the second of three posts in a series on character creation.  In this series, I cover one step per post, to give you a sense of why I think it’s important, how I figure it out for my own characters, and various tips and tricks to help you on your own way.

Last we met, I talked about how I go about naming characters and pointed you in the direction of some fun ways to find the right name for your character.  This time around, I'll cover the process I embark on to figure out a character's physicality, and how that plays into the fabric of the story.

How to bring a character into focus: delve into this next step in the character creation process and discover one writer's approach to the physicality and visual descriptions of her characters! // Something Delicious

“You are your mother's trueborn son of Lannister."

"Am I?" the dwarf replied, sardonic. "Do tell my lord father. My mother died birthing me, and he's never been sure."

"I don't even know who my mother was," Jon said. 

"Some woman, no doubt. Most of them are." He favored Jon with a rueful grin. "Remember this, boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs."

And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. 

When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king.

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

There's some debate among writers and readers alike as to whether a character should be described from head to toe; their description left completely to the reader's imagination; or somewhere in the middle.  While my younger self adored a hefty descriptive paragraph or two for every character upon being introduced, my tastes have mellowed over time, and these days I largely fall into the camp of leaving it up to the reader's inclinations, with perhaps a detail or two woven in.

That being said, I do have a visual in mind when I write about a character, even if I don't convey that directly on the page, and it's often a very specific one.

How do I visualize a character?


Once I have a name in mind for my character (sometimes even before), I venture into the vast world of popular figures to find someone to represent them in my mind's eye.  You could do this with someone you know or a person who catches your eye as you pass them on the street, too.

The reason I love to choose someone famous as an avatar for my character is because I can browse YouTube videos and hunt through pictures on Pinterest to find exactly the right one, one that captures the tone, the mood, the essence of the character.  I can't tell you how many times I've referred back to these references when I lose sight of what a character would be saying or doing in a scene.

It's not about the Real Person's personality "in real life," either, or the person they happen to be playing in whatever video clip I've landed on.  That's too limiting for writing purposes.  For me, it's about their inflections; the timbre of their voice; the way they play with their hands when they talk.

Going through this process takes a lot of the pressure off for me, because, while character development is my favourite part of writing, and I can come up with solid plots and scene ideas, I'm not nearly as confident in my ability to craft engaging descriptions, to make the character I imagine pop off the page.

Combining the personality, quirks, and inclinations I discover with the look and sound of the Real Person I cast helps me get that much closer to the character I've imagined in the first place.  It's like getting glasses for the first time and realizing that trees actually have LEAVES!  They're not just amorphous green blobs!

As an example ...


In my latest WIP, the main character's mum felt important, so I went on my very own casting call on Pinterest and YouTube.  I wasn't having much luck, until I remembered Virginia Madsen.

I knew even before I (re)watched some of her interviews and movie scenes that I'd found exactly the right representative for my character, because all the exchanges I'd written so far involving her?  I was reimagining them with Virginia Madsen saying all the dialogue and doing all the things, and it felt.  So.  Right.

The best part of this process for me is that, when I'm writing a scene, I can visualize the characters so much more easily.  I can figure out how to tweak a line of dialogue to make it sound more like them.  I can imagine how they'd laugh, how they'd cough, how they'd trip.  Something about having that concrete visual makes them come alive.

This is not to say that I wouldn't "recast" a character along the way.  I've done that before, as my view of a character changes, or I stumble across an actor that seems to fit even better than the first.  The reason this works is because it's a flexible, private process.  Few, if any, people are going to know about these casting choices other than myself, so there's nothing dissauding me from switching gears.

Why a character's physicality is important


As with many things about writing, I don't think there are hard and fast rules about how much or how little to describe a character.  It depends on the story you're writing and your own inclinations as a writer.

However, even if you don't describe a character in exacting detail to your reader, their physicality can still play an important role in your writing.  I've written at length on my thoughts about characters who are overweight, but here are some other ways physicality could play a role without being explicitly stated:

  • someone who's particularly short might keep a stool in the kitchen, to reach the top shelves
  • someone who's sensitive to temperature changes might keep their hair short in summer and grow it long over the winter
  • someone who's fairly well-toned might be at the gym or coming home from a martial arts class during a few scenes

None of these are necessarily groundbreaking or plot-forwarding details.  They're the little things that make your story come alive, without a bright neon sign flashing All the Information You Ever Had About the Character at your reader.

A character's physical attributes, when portrayed more directly, can also be an effective way to bring the story to life.  Who can forget Anne (with an 'E') Shirley, with her bright red hair and Gilbert's ill-advised nickname of "Carrots"?  How about Hagrid, a more modern example of a big friendly giant?  Or weedy little Peter Parker?

Ways to discover a character's physicality


If you're not sure where to start when it comes to bringing your character into focus, you could try:

  • hopping from music video to music video on YouTube (start with a favourite of yours, then click on one of the suggested videos)
  • browsing character boards on Pinterest (start here or here!)
  • opening to a blank page in your sketchbook and starting to draw; try different versions of what you have in mind, different hairstyles, different expressions, different noses, until something feels right 
  • creating a collage from old magazines; see if you can pick up some different ones from garage sales and secondhand stores
  • creating a "word painting," either by hand or with something like Wordle (which is totally free, by the way!), by compiling all the phrases and words you can think of that have to do with your character's physicality (if a few personality traits sneak in there, too, no harm done!)

One quick tip: set yourself a time limit!  Activities like these can become so entertaining that they suck away your writing time until nothing is left.  After all, we want to be able to actually write about these awesome characters, now that we know their name and what they look like, right?


That's all for today!  If you haven't already, make sure to check out the first post in this series (How to Name a Character), and keep an eye out for the final installment: what your character is about, in four lines or less.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this post.  How much do you know about the way your character looks?  How much does this come into the actual writing?  Do you use any visual aids?


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Help your overweight character leap off the page! and my video on The Power of Pinterest for Writers!