How to See and Hear a Character

This is the second of three posts in a series on creating a character from scratch. 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.

“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 a descriptive role. Here are some ways that could happen without being explicitly spelled out:

  • 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 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 for inspiration!)
  • 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 detail cluster with 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: who's most important to your character, and why your first guess might not be the right one.

If you're interested in the free worksheets that accompany this blog post series, click below to download whichever ones catch your fancy. No email sign-up necessary!

Character Creation: Physicality Worksheet
Character Creation: The Name Game Worksheet
Character Creation: Important Relationships Worksheet

If you already know these things about your character, you just might be ready to Create an Epic Character Foundation.