Friday, June 19, 2009

Pale like me

When you start a new novel, do you know immediately what your characters look like?

I always have my main characters in my head before I start, but for some reason I never, ever know exactly what they look like. I could tell you their traits, loves, hates and all the biggies, but I probably couldn't tell you their favorite color and certainly nothing about their appearance (other than being male or female, and an approximate age).

Is that weird?

I've been researching and plotting my novel for about a month now, but just this week named the characters (although I've known my heroine's name for a while), and I'm just now starting to think about what they look like.

The process usually starts with hair color, and after throwing around a few ideas, I think Quil, my 17-year-old MC, is blonde. And pale. To me, I think she looks like a young Cate Blanchett.

*Time out*

Seriously, how gorgeous is Cate Blanchett? GORGEOUS. And apparently she's going to be Maid Marian in a Robin Hood flick with Russell Crowe. Does this make anyone else want to squeal in a fangirly way as much as I do?

*Time in*

And there's Dixon, Quil's moody love interest. Tradition dictates that he ought to be tall, dark and handsome. With waving hair of midnight black and a furrowed brow that disguises the deep pain inflicted by his tortured pas....

Ahem. Sorry.

But I was kind of thinking maybe he has red hair:

Not the most conventional choice. But have you seen Damian Lewis in The Forsyte Saga? The man can brood with the best of 'em.

But then it occured to me that in addition to all of the crazy people in this book, there would be an awful lot of pale people.

And I can relate to this, being a natural blonde who would not look totally out of place at an albino convention. But I understand that pale-ies are not always viewed as the most attractive. Believe me, I know. I live in the Land Of Tanning Beds.

(Guilty admission: I used a tanning bed for about three months before my wedding. Almost no change. This led to the disheartening realization that for my skin there is either white or red. There is no in between.)

The other thing is--and I don't know if this happens to you--but do you ever feel weird about making your main character look like you, even a little bit? I mean, I'm certainly no Cate Blanchett, but I do have the blonde hair and pale skin. It's like I don't want someone to read the novel and think that I'm secretly or subconsciously writing it about myself.

Which is stupid, I know. I just need to write the thing and not worry about it. But I don't usually feel like a character must look a certain way to make sense in a story. So she could look like anything, and now I'm making her look like me??

Do tell: how do you come up with your characters' appearances? Can you picture them in your mind immediately? And do you have any characters who look just like you? Does this weird you out in any way?


Chad Aaron Sayban said...

Much like you, I begin more from a point of personality and age with a character when I begin. During my first draft, I actually let the other characters define traits that are important to the character. I don't necessarily spell out all of the usual characteristics (eye color, hair, etc). I mostly leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks and only point out the characteristics that are important to the story and the other characters. Let's face it, if I have a woman being sized up by an adulterous man, her eye color and shoes are not going to be found in his consciousness anywhere.

In subsequent drafts, I go through and document all of the points about the character and make sure that they are consistent. If he had blue eyes in chapter 2, he better still have them in chapter 42. Otherwise, unless it is important to the story, I stay away from describing a character from head-to-toe when the reader first meets them.

rebecca said...

Same here. I'm working on a novel right now with three main characters and other than one's hair color is dark, another is pale in complexion and the other yet-to-be-determined, their personalities, hates, likes, and what moves them (their inner selves) I have down packed. I always seem to work from the inside out and it is the only way that the characters then visually morph themselves to me. I've never found 'what they look like' to be as important to a story as what they are. But, if the character is evil I do like to dress that in a beautiful package because 'everything is never what it appears to be.'


I think that makes sense.
Same as in our dreams. Situations arise and personalities morph and emotions evolve and faces alter.
..and when we awake we are supposed to remember that every one involved, table, postman, transient and mother are all supposedly, the some one resourceful Self..."us".

writtenwyrdd said...

I think you should worry about your main character looking like you - at least for your first novel. It might strike people as Mary Sue-ish, even if it isn't.

Really, though, I think that selecting traits, whether physical or character, should be used to inform the novel and the characters with breadth, so sometimes a weird random thing (like a character who isn't just pale but red or sunburnt) might be useful.

As far as getting a tan goes, at least there are some good fake tans in a bottle these days. They aren't so the right light.

lotusgirl said...

I don't know that it matters than much one way or the other. Pale and blonde is a fairly normal type. I'm totally blonde and pale. I completely understand the white and red scenario. I've lived it my whole life. I can't imagine a brunette with brown eyes whose MC has brown hair and brown eyes would even make anyone think twice. As long as you say the character is not like you, the reader should believe it.

I've heard that in some ways it's good not to describe your main character and then the reader can assume that role. (of sorts anyway.)

Brigitte said...

To me, contrast between characters is extremely important. I love to see how certain characters grow among others, and how those people influence them. Also, I like to see characters that match with the themes of a story. You don't want a bubbly teenage girl in a From Hell type of murder mystery. That just seems inappropriate to me.
I admire Cate Blanchett & Russel Crowe and I absolutely cannot wait until the robin hood movie. : )

Anonymous said...

In my current WIP, there's only one major character whose appearance and voice are based on a real person, though her actions are not. That character looks and sounds like an actor who stuck in my head as the perfect model for her. There's one minor character who's based on my high school principal. That character actually is a principal, so that's no big surprise. What's surprising is how well I remember the man all these years later, despite the fact that he stayed in his office most of the time and I never actually met him.

If I model a character after someone I know and the resemblance is more than skin deep, odds are the ms will be abandoned incomplete. That's usually because it turns out to be cathartic rather than interesting.

Lenore said...

As long as the best friend doesn't have red hair and the love interest green eyes!

Christopher Goodwine said...


In my own character profiles and stories, I find myself ending up with a mental image constructed without much conscious thought. Once I have the basics (age, gender, race), the more specific physical traits click into place by themselves in my head, without stereotypes and in good detail.

I generally refrain from being too much of a dictator of physical details for two reasons: I believe in leaving little things that are more fluffy than important to the reader's imagination, and it allows me bring more attention to traits or attributes I would like to highlight. Example: In my story "Ormr the Bridge Troll", the look and feel of Carissa's father's hands are very important to their interpersonal relationship.

*Time out*

I think Cate Blanchett is one of the most remarkable women in the world, for both her appearance and her talent. I am so glad that she had the opportunities to let her do what she is doing today! I love witnessing realized potential.

*Time in*

Also, to Chad Aaron Sayban: Why wouldn't an adulterous man include a woman's shoes and eyes when sizing her up?

Ashley said...

Hmm, I don't think there's anything wrong with making your MC look sorta like you...she may have some of your traits, but that doesn't mean you're trying to mold her after yourself. My MC had dark brown hair and green eyes at first...and I have both. Then I changed it to black, in keeping with the kind of stigma surrounding her. Dark brown and black--not much of a difference, I know. But oh well, LOL. By the way, blonde and pale is a fabulous way to go if you ask me. I can picture her even without reading about her.

I usually know what my characters look like as I'm plotting out their personalities and whatnot. Occasionally, I'll change things like eye color or distinguishable marks, but that's about it. It also really helps to find pictures of models and stars via Google to make it easier to visualize them. I print those out and then glance at them every now and then so they seem more like real people.