How to Breathe Life into Your Characters
Part II: Let Me See in the Mirror Already!
A character’s looks. How important are they? Some say the less description the better,
but I’ve read in an agent’s recent blog(and I concur)that the readers wants to know what your character looks like, warts and all. I don’t say to browbeat him or her with endless descriptions of a character’s eyes or rosy cheeks etc. But there has to be a healthy balance between what your hero/heroine looks like and what the reader see’s in their minds.
Think of them as clues. Blond hair or dark brown? Green eyes or violet? All little details that drive home the character to us. I, for one, like to “cast” my characters. So on any given day before I start a book, I spend countless hours searching magazines, the internet, or television for that matter for the perfect match to what I see. Sometimes I don’t start with a clear image as to what I’m looking for but just scan until the right photo jumps out at me and claims the face of the character in question.
Sometimes I pick a popular actor/actress, oftentimes I go with an unknown. Because no matter whom they are to you, your reader is going to see someone different. We can only give visual tidbits to further the illusion. And the truth is, I’m going to describe an actor/actress in the way I see them. That means I might notice imperfections others don’t that bring the character alive. And I search for the flaws most of the time because who wants to read about a perfect person?
Really the picture is just a canvas that we need to enhance in our reader’s mind. Character traits play an important part of this. We can have a pretty heroine on the outside but inside she feels like a girl next door or plain Jane. A gorgeous guy can be the vilest person we know deep down. It’s all in how you want to layer them.
In my story, The Safe House, I take a well-known actress and give her body issues. To everyone else, she’s beautiful, to herself, she’s too thin, too little up top, too ordinary. I like to think this brings her down to our level. After all, who among us is comfortable in their own skin, especially at eighteen? The awkward, ugly duckling phase can be felt by all. And when we grow into that swan, it’s not because we suddenly became Julia Roberts, but we came to terms with ourselves inside. It lends a sort of confidence to who we are.
Likewise my hero finds a different sort of failing in himself. Outwardly, he is calm, resolute. Inside, he feels like a fake, an actor on a stage who someone is about to discover doesn’t belong as the lead. He is forced to take more and more responsibility onto his shoulders and yet, his doubts hinder his performance until at last, he breaks free of the insecurities and rises to the warrior he needs to be.
So, yes, as you see, there’s more to it than labeling someone with blond hair, blue eyes. And yet those looks help develop who a character is to our readers. Describing our characters too little can often leave them abstract, in need of an infusion of color, warmth. Balance is the key. Bring the emotions with the image. Reflect that back and you’ll create characters that are fully rounded and ready to spring from the page.