About Face—What I See (And What I Don’t See) When I Write

girl in nature

I have no clue what my characters look like.

Okay, not 100% true. Just almost. I have no idea what their whole faces look like.

I do not clip pictures from magazines and glue stick them into a scrapbook, or have a Pinterest board filled with head shots. I don’t picture old neighbors or cousins or superstars when I write. I see beings, an aura, a movement.  It’s as if the characters are traveling to fast for me to get a good look, or maybe I’m just so polite that I don’t want to stop them to stare. Even in a serious and intense scene, I don’t see faces.

Kinda creepy, now that I think of it.

I can glimpse the hair and see it messy or or coiffed. I know the color and style. I’m familiar with the character’s gait, shoulder width,and height. I certainly know if there’s a bump on a nose or a cleft in the chin. I define fashion sense. And sometimes I know eye color.

But I still don’t see faces.

When asked who would play my characters in a movie, I freeze. I don’t see my “people” on a screen, I see them on a page. Not that I’d reject a movie deal should Hollywood come to call, but I’d be more likely to say who I think could “pull off” the character rather than who looks like her.

When you meet Izzy Lane (for which I cannot wait!!) my main character in The Good Neighbor, you’ll know early on that her hair is short because her ex-husband always liked it long. I wrote Izzy tall (five-foot-nine) because that’s how I pictured her, with a gracefulness that I envision comes with long limbs. I don’t think I ever described the face of Izzy’s next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Feldman. She’s eighty-five. She’s spry. She speaks her mind. And she is also scared of a long-held secret. So, picture her as you want her to look. Like your favorite teacher, a grandmother, aunt or friend. Or leave her face peacefully blank, or always turned slightly away, filled in by story and emotion, not features.

In my work-in-progress, there’s a twelve-year-old girl. She is gangly in the way you know will turn into gracefulness in a few years, maybe more. She has long red hair and a tentative smile. I watched and recorded several cooking shows that featured kids, because I don’t have any twelve-year-old girls in my life and there were a few on the shows. One had just the right smile. Another was a little too grown up, but that was good to see. Another seemed a little too young. I noticed unplucked eyebrows and braces. Whimsy. Big smiles. Bigger tears. Those are the elements of a character to me, much more so than a portrait.

I write for myself, but my novels are published for my readers. I trust them to take good care of the characters, to allow the people on the page to be who the readers need them to be for that story—to look the part and be perfect for that reader only.

Do you picture faces when you read? Famous faces or everyday faces?  If you’re a writer, who do you see when you write your own stories?





16 thoughts on “About Face—What I See (And What I Don’t See) When I Write

  1. That’s interesting. I usually get on pinterest and look at some characters who I think my characters look like, but then they manifest into someone different as I write them. I wonder how typical this is?

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  2. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one. This is pretty much exactly what I see not only when I write, but when I read as well. When movies are made from books, I’m always surprised at how good I think the casting is–your post makes me realize that my predisposition is so blurry they could cast anyone with the right hair color and sort-of build and they’d look good to me.

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  3. Amy…It wasn’t until I read your post that I realized I don’t see the faces of my characters either. Although I could tell you their hair color, eye color, whether they are short or tall, any unusual mannerisms, etc. And, frankly, when I’m reading, I don’t like it when the author describes every tiny detail of the character. I want to fill in those blanks myself. Guess that is why I am usually disappointed when a book is made into a movie. Rarely do the characters in the movie look like the characters I ‘saw’ when I read the book.

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  4. I’m with you. No complete faces. Sometimes an expression, a flick of the hair, some mannerism comes across, and I glimpse something that might be close, but only as if seen from the corner of my eye. So, when one of my readers suggested characters to play parts in my first two books, I set up a Pinterest board and asked for other suggestions. It was great fun, and I could see that their images fit–even the divergent images. But I never would have thought of those actors (some of whom I’d never heard of), nor would I have gone looking.

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  5. I find it a bit humorous that you wrote this, not because it’s funny and I’m laughing at it. I’m amused because it’s accurate. I haven’t written anything in a while, but looking back to all the pieces I did, I can’t see my main character’s faces either. I don’t know what they look like. I know the details of their personality, how they tick, what brings them joy, what saddens them, I know everything about them to the color of their hair to how tall or big they are. I can even hear the sound of their voice, but they are faceless. It’s a strange realization. Judging from all the other posts, I wonder if there is a writer out there who can see faces….

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  6. This is an interesting post, Amy. Thanks for sharing this process of your writing. I love what you said how you trust the reader “to take good care of the characters, to allow the people on the page to be who the readers need them to be for that story—to look the part and be perfect for that reader only.” I found this very insightful. 🙂
    Good luck with your WIP.

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  7. I have always known some characteristics of my characters, but the entire visage? No–it’s more how I feel about them, then how they LOOK to me. I have an overall impression that comes through in my writing, I believe, but like Normandie, Beverly, Liz it’s not a complete face–maybe we could call it an aura. Great post. Beth

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  8. I’m with you and the others who’ve replied. I feel like I know my characters, but I don’t always see them. I often have to go back and find out what color someone’s eyes were, etc. Fun and interesting post!

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  9. Amy, I am not alone! What a relief… While I’ll describe certain features, I never have seen a complete picture of any of my characters. I agree with you: It’s great to leave some of it up to the reader and his or her imagination.

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  10. Just love this. I find the closer I am to the character, the hazier an image I have. There are a few precise details, perhaps the way the sun catches the light red hair on his legs or the bony knobs of her shoulders crossed by the thin straps of a sundress; lipstick seeping into the tiny crevices around a mouth that has sucked on cigarettes for decades; a child’s bare feet with chipped purple nail polish and mosquito bites on her ankles, her long brown hair a nest of snarls… but a three-dimensional vision is rare.

    It’s fascinating to see how many writers here have the same sensibilities. Normandie, the Pinterest board with suggestions from readers. That’s wonderful! Rebeccanne, I also hear voices. Of my characters, I mean 😉

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  11. Perfectly said, Amy! I struggle with faces, too. I may know one snippet of the face–a chin, a smile, laugh lines–but how the whole looks…Your guess is as good as mine. 😉

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  12. I think it’s best for writers not to be too specific about characters’ physical appearance. That way readers can see the characters however they want to, in whatever way is most meaningful to them. I like what you said about
    Mrs Feldman She can look “like your favorite teacher, a grandmother, aunt or friend.” A writer has a responsibility to define who a character is, not what she looks like.

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