Sunday, October 30, 2011

A stands for Appearance

We’ve set up a new challenge for ourselves on HWH. Posts will follow the alphabet. All posts this week will be on topics starting with the letter A. Next week, the letter B. And so forth.

I want to talk about defining a lead character’s APPEARANCE. When I first get a fix on a story line, that usually comes with a solid gender and age for my heroine. Since I write historicals and timetravels, she is usually in her 20’s or early 30’s, pretty to beautiful, and, by personal preference, capable in her everyday world.

If I were writing YA, she’d be in her teens. Contemporaries could have an older heroine, needing to start a fresh chapter in life. Suspense seems to call for a heroine who is energetic and well-established in a career. There are many potential variations, though, and writing the unexpected may lift a novel above the pack.

In the first community ed novel writing class I attended, the instructor taped people pictures on the whiteboard. She told us to each pick a picture to craft a story around. I asked if I could pick two, since I knew I wanted to write a romance. (I was surprised I was the only romance enthusiast. I had so much to learn.)

I claimed two pictures, and started inventing descriptions of my new characters’ personalities. By the end of the class, I was able to pitch a credible basic plot. I was hooked!

Since then, I’ve not focused on the picture method, mainly because my magazine subscriptions are for news or farming. I might glance at Sunset and People in the dentist’s office, but feel guilty about ripping out a page or two.

I know my WIP characters very well after five years of writing. But when I start my next story, I plan to make a collage of my hero, heroine, and villain, and maybe my main secondary characters.

Essential details of appearance are:

Body type
Color of hair, skin and eyes
How the eyes react to various situations: open wide? Narrow? Dart here and there? Avoid?
Same with the speech. Is she verbose or reticent? Use big words or stammer? Curse, repeat, yes sir a lot? Repeated phrases? Honey, sugar, or baby doll said affectionately or insultingly?
Any scars, moles, dimples, weird eyebrows, big earlobes?
Size and shape of hands and feet
Breasts / chest, hips
Length and size of arms and legs
Choice of clothing
How he walks
Personal hygiene
What s/he does while waiting in a line.

Donald Maas says a lead character should have:
1. courage
2. virtue
3. likeability
4. competence

Body type and appearance can impact these four qualities.
Let the cutting and pasting begin!


  1. Great idea to have alphabet posts. Thanks for the reminder on appearnaces - I can't start a novel until I know who the two main characters are, in my mind at least!

  2. I can picture my characters in my mind as soon as I start thinking about the story. The 'details' about their appearance, characteristics and idiosyncracies come later as I write the first draft and get to know them.
    Sometimes, I later see a magazine picture or see someone on TV and realise they look like one of my characters. That happened once in Dublin when I saw a poster in a shop window and immediately thought 'That's Abbey and Jack'.

  3. Great post! I'm a natural redhead so sometimes my heroines have my coloring. Occasionally, I'll cobble together comments I've heard in my life... the good ones of course. None of that "carrot top" stuff. ;)

    ~Rose Anderson

  4. Midnight flash: choice of clothing needs to be added to an appearance list. How does one dress? Walk? Stand? Personal hygiene? All add up to first impressions, and reflect how the character values him or herself.

  5. Rosemary, how do you create your secondary characters? They exist to serve the story, but do you find you spend much time on them?

    Paula, I envy your great imagination! Every day.

    Rose, what a great idea for a useful list: ways to describe hair color. Redheads, like blondes, stand out. Could you share some redhead descriptions?

  6. I usually use TV/movie stars for inspiration for my male characters. Some famous, some less so. My female characters are less defined to start out with, and tend to develop over the course of the story.

  7. Jen, My #1 choice for male star is Tom Selleck.

  8. Interesting choice, Ana :-))
    My choices are Colin Firth and Hugh Jackman, and maybe George Clooney too.