How much do you know about the characters in your writing? Do you know what they look like? I don’t. That’s right! I know everything about their lives and psyches and personalties and quirks, but not always the way they look. I don’t use doppelgängers. I know a few key things that help me write. For instance, in my upcoming novel, The Good Neighbor, Izzy Lane has short, layered hair that used to be long. She’s tall. Her eighty-five-year-old next-door-neighbor and confidante, Mrs. Feldman? I know she’s a vibrant octogenarian, but that’s it. Izzy’s best friend Jade is tall, and has long straightened hair, and Izzy’s cousin Rachel is short, and has short curly hair. WOW. I know hair, don’t I?
But I think I’m in the minority. I think most people really know what their characters look like. And that’s what’s so great about our guest post today. Here, Alana Cash gives examples and tools for really picturing your characters. Is that something you’d give a try?
I’m going to. I’m 75 pages into one WIP and two pages into another. Maybe this new method will spur my imagination in new and unusual ways.
And that’s always a good thing!
Please welcome Alana Cash to WFW. And share in the comments how you picture your characters!
Picturing Your Fictional Characters
by Alana Cash
There are many styles of writing fiction. Some books are plot-driven with lots of drama or mystery or betrayal. Others are genre books that set up expectations of romance, sex, crime, fantasy, torture, etc. Some authors create a great plot and great characters (terrorist kidnapping in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett). Some authors create a wonderful sense of atmosphere and great characters (railroad yard in 1940s in Pelican Road by Howard Bahr). Some authors create a fantasy world and great characters (Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling). The most enjoyable fiction always has memorable characters – people so real they are remembered like historical figures.
The way I write, and the way I taught others to write, is to create a solid character before beginning a story. This doesn’t mean that the story can’t be genre or plot-driven. It simply means that if a writer takes the time to create characters so real they seem like neighbors, the story will unfold more easily. And, if you can get readers to remember your characters, they’ll remember the title of your work.
I taught fiction writing at the University of Texas Informal Classes and, over time, developed a four-part formula for creating characters (based on The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri):
Physical – height, weight, posture, foot size, age, etc.
Emotional – standard mood, in romantic relationship or not, relationship with family etc.
Psychological – IQ, introvert/extravert, educational level, etc.
Environmental – living environment/work environment, socioeconomics, etc.
The list is several pages long and it’s a good exercise for beginning writers to fill in all the blanks.
In the first class of each term, students created a character together, each person taking a turn filling in a blank round-robin style. Trying to make the character interesting, students often picked absurd traits: 5-feet tall, Olympic basketball player and plastic surgeon, blind in one eye, etc. They didn’t realize that it’s far more difficult to write a story about this type of character – more a characterization – than one they truly developed. To prove that to them, their assignment for the first week was to write a story about the character created by the group, then create their own character using the formula and write the same story, substituting the new character. Although based upon the same premise, their stories changed substantially.
I’ve used this formula in my writing and heard from more than one person that my characters seem like real people. In fact, one close friend actually told me she knew the people I wrote about in a particular story because I had introduced her to them. I had to laugh as they were made up. There are times that I’ve populated a story someone I know, changing her/him as much as possible and still suit the story, but not often. It’s so much more fun to make people up.
This year, I wanted to try my hand at writing a genre book about a shape-shifter, because I thought it would be fun since fantasy and supernatural stories are so far from my normal style of writing fiction. It wasn’t exactly fun, though, because I don’t think about fantasy or science fiction stories generally and I couldn’t get my fantasy protagonist (or any other important character) fully created. I found that as I tried to get a handle on her, she did her own shapeshifting. In the end, I got writer’s block because the story felt contrived and the characters didn’t feel real to me. I could write, but so much of what I wrote went off on tangents and had to be edited away.
I had to change the story into one that I could actually imagine. Only then could I get the characters made up. But since I had played around with my main characters so much, they felt blurry which presented another problem in writing about them. I considered dumping that story and starting a totally different story with a different sent of people.
Instead, for the first time ever, I went online to look at stock photos of people until I found someone who looked like my main character. It took a few hours, but I figured, why stop there and went online to look for images of several other characters. I printed out the photos and looked at them every time I started to write until the story took off. This kept me on the straight and narrow in terms of my character development and their actions.
So, this year I added a fifth dimension to my formula for creating a character, and I recommend it. It worked to focus the characters for me and it was a lot of fun. In changing my story from a fantasy paranormal to an exploration of the paranormal, I also learned to accept that just can’t write certain types of stories.
Multiple award-winning author and filmmaker Alana Cash is an adventurer. She’s trekked alone in war-torn Serbia and slept in a KGB interrogation room in Prague. She’s been to a gypsy fair in England, a bullfight in Laredo, and parasailing in Acapulco. She wore a bulletproof vest on a ride-along in an NYPD patrol car, and she’s kissed a man inside the Norman Bates Psycho House at Universal Studios.
Here are links to Alana’s blogs:
8 thoughts on “Guest Post: How Do You Picture Your Fictional Characters? by Alana Cash”
Thanks for the great advice, Alana. After reading your fascinating bio, I think my next character will be you!
Hey thanks! Do something adventurous today!
How like the theater actor’s development of a character—Alana mentions succinctly all the parts of the back story an actor develops with their character! And I appreciate her honesty in her advice.
Hi Regina, How right you are! I got the concept from Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing.” A great book for any actor.
Love this post! It’s true – no matter what genre or style, character is key. I’ve never tried the photo method, but might have to give it a whirl. I found out long ago that some thing I am just not good at writing (i.e. the short story baffles me, and I will never be good at it. I suspect I’d flounder in much the same way with fantasy!)
Hi Melissa, I totally agree with you. The difference between a good genre book and a great one is that the author made us believe the characters were real. Alana
In the books I read as well as the books I write, character is the most important thing for me. Thanks for the great advice and for the list for character development. I particularly love the “environment” part of the list. Also, I’ve sometimes tried to imagine who I want to play the characters in the movie that, in my fantasies, will be made from my book. Jamie Lee Curtis, get ready!
I’m going to look for your writing. And, I’ll review it. Characters draw me into a story even when I don’t like them. I enjoy taking a ride with them and hate for the book to end when the characters feel real to me.