Characters, Fiction, Tips, Writing

How well do you visualize your characters?

The idea for my current novel came from a dream, so I had a visual of my main character Jalal from the start. In general, I first see my characters as a type and then I picture someone, usually a celebrity, who fits the type. I’ve visualized my character Meredith as three different actresses and now, she’s a sort of combination of all three. My character Renee started out tall and blonde, but when her backstory changed, so did her appearance.

blurfaceYesterday, in my blog comments, Susan Bearman lamented that she hasn’t been able to “see” her main character. On her own blog, she’s described his hair, eyes, smile, hands, and yet she feels his face is fuzzy. She concluded she’s not a “visual thinker.”

I’m a portrait artist, so I’m very “face oriented” and don’t think I could write about my characters, if I had no mental pictures of them. I need to see the details, not only of their faces, but of their clothes, homes, cars, places of work, places they shop, what they eat, etcetera, even though most of these details don’t factor into the story. I have to believe my characters exist, on some level, to write about them convincingly.

Maybe I’m obsessed. Maybe I’m insane. Tell me, if you write fiction, how much effort do you put into visualizing your characters and their world?

11 thoughts on “How well do you visualize your characters?”

  1. I don’t. I will put a book down if the author insists on controlling every detail of how a character looks, AND describing it to me. I feel like it takes away my power to visualize how the character looks.

    If I really, really like the book (as in everything else is spot on perfect) I will skip over any descriptions that drastically go against the image in my head. Nora Robert’s Key trilogy is a good example. The character from Key of Light is SO a red-head. You will not convince me her she has blond hair no matter how many times it is written down. >_>

    I do like the author to have at least one solid identifying mark for each character. I want to be able to know which character is speaking without her having to say the name. If the personality is not that vivid, it needs fleshed out more.

    A great example for fleshed out characters would be Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe series. I always know when Archie is speaking. I always know when Nero is speaking, and even if there is more than one bad guy, I always know who is who. It’s perfect.

    As for my own work, I am an awful artist. I am also awful about adding in details (my readers have complained and I really am working on it) I have found the only way to visualize what’s going on is to draw it though.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Sorry to take u so much space on your blog. -.-


    1. Uninvoked, I understand your dislike for an author to tell you how to visualize their characters because I too like to form my own mental pictures, but do you not have to form them for your own characters as you write?


  2. I do picture my characters, but not like you picture yours. (Maybe because I’m so not a portrait artist!) It’s not like they’re standing in front of me. It’s more like when you see someone you know from a distance, but you absolutely know it’s them.

    You can tell by their posture, and the way they tilt their head, swing their arms, shift their weight. You don’t have to see the details of expression to know what that express is. Hard to explain but it works for me. When I write, I give only a few details – the important things (like red hair!) about each character. I like that readers will fill in the gaps.

    I’ve never written lying down in the dark, but I really like the idea of that! Thanks, Joseph!


    1. Oh certainly, seeing their movements, their gestures, their particular essence is great. I don’t give many details when I write, either. Jalal was the exception.


  3. I love your description Judy – seeing someone you know from a distance, but you absolutely know it’s them. That’s a perfect image for how I see my characters – not all the precise details, but the overall essence and how it’s revealed in their physicality.


    1. You know, I give only three details about Meredith’s physical appearance: her pale skin, her Scandinavian ancestry, and two thirds into the book I refer to her hair color, but none of my critique partners ever asked what she looked like, so apparently they all formed a mental image from the other things I told about her.


  4. I see my characters from the get go. Right away, they are born with name and all. But, I don’t write that way. I, like uninvoked, do not like to tell readers what they are seeing. I give clues, major points, but I let them create their own face. I find that even when I read novels with vivid character descriptions I often create my own image without even realizing it that is different from what the author intended. Sometimes, if I read a line that is too descriptive, I will say no, that’s not right, he doesn’t look like that. Funny! But, I don’t want to do that to my readers.


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