Thursday, January 31, 2008

Developing Character’s Appearance

With a concept of your character’s goals and motivation developed from backstory and a sketchy plot idea along with a character’s name, you will begin thinking about what your character looks like. But the word appearance means more than physical features and body build. We can add other elements of appearance that helps define our character, such as: vocal quality and apparel choices, color preferences and styles, and how the characters wear these selections.

Physical Appearance
The history of romantic fiction shows you that most novels introduce beautiful women and handsome men, but if we look around in our daily lives, you will realize that physical beauty is limited and handsome is not common either. What affects these perceptions, also, is the other elements mentioned above, but also the inner person that we learn to know through familiarity. The old adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is far more real than we sometimes think. So if you are trying to create believable characters who are three-dimensional, you will want to give greater inner beauty to your characters than outward. For a villain, you will also want to show some saving qualities in comparison to the evil deeds he displays.

This is not to say that characters can’t be attractive and charming, but focusing on the physical body creates a shallower story that is more a fairytale than real. Many of us recall that bodies sag and deteriorate in time. What doesn’t is the inner beauty we learned to appreciate and then love from the beginning of the relationship.

In an early blog, I mentioned my Character Worksheet which I use to study the inner workings of my characters—his strengths and weaknesses, flaws, success and failures, dreams and ambition, his family history, his greatest fear and other attributes that will help me define his character. On this same sheet, I leave a place to describe the character, which includes: name, age, eye color, hair color and style, height, weight, outstanding features, and vocal quality.

I make these decisions by the type of character I need to create a powerful story, or in some cases, I see the character before the story surfaces, but the worksheet is a good place to record these physical distinctions so that you don’t have a blue-eyed young woman in chapter one and the same green-eyed woman in chapter six. This descriptive information is usually requested by your editor for the Cover Art Fact Sheets so it’s a good idea to make the notes anyway.

Resource For Finding Characters
While many people look for faces and characters on the Internet on a variety of sites, to visualize my character, I use clothing catalogues. I prefer this method for numerous reasons. First, I get a multitude of these in my home each day so they are already handy. Once I order a product from one company, I become a catalogue queen, receiving untold collections from a variety of companies.

Next, if you study a catalogue, you will see that the same models are used throughout, but you will see them with different hair styles, in different poses (sometimes smiling, sometimes more serious) and you see them in different apparel, which I find very helpful. I tear out the various pages that show people whose looks appeal to me. I cut the photo from the sheet and glue various looks and poses on sheets of paper, and I keep an elaborate file. So when I begin looking for a character, I can find someone that fits what I have pictured in my mind. I keep those sheets handy as I write to inspire me.

I attempt to use the character’s careers and interests to influence their appearance. By this I mean, that a guy who played football in high school and loves sports might be a taller with a more sturdy physique than someone who was a runner. Broad shoulders might be the quality of a man who was on a swim team in college. Sometimes a guy with lower self-esteem was a nerd in high school and has grown into a good-looking man. These pieces of information help you to define your character’s look.

Naturally age is important as well as personality type that influences the "look" or impression the character gives the reader. Though a woman has a tall, lithe stature and an attractive face, she will not be as beautiful if she’s shy or uncomfortable with her eyes downcast with a sagging posture. She may not have a stylish haircut or well-applied makeup. She may have no cosmetics at all. This tells us something about her. You’ve likely seen make-overs on TV shows or even well-known stars caught grocery shopping in scrungy clothes without their hair styled or makeup. You realize how these outward changes can create a whole new person.

In another vein, a handsome man who’s full of himself is not nearly as attractive as a lesser attractive man who is gracious and thoughtful. As you create characters use other elements to help your reader picture the mood and characteristics of those in your novel and remember how these elements can also create conflicts for your characters.

My next blog will discuss the topic of apparel and color choice and how it and personality helps define characterization.

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