How to Bring Your Characters Into Focus

by Guest Contributor

Hand holding glasses

Today’s post is written by Susan Bearman, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Susan!

Are you a visual thinker?

Quick, take this test. Open a magazine to any page. What is the first thing you notice? If it’s an image or a splash of color, you are probably a visual thinker.

If, like me, it’s the words that catch your attention, then visualization is probably not your strong suit. I’ve always struggled with the physicality of my characters, particularly main characters.

Fuzzy Images

When I do visualize my characters, they are often in silhouette or looking away from the reader. This happened with my main character (MC) in a middle grade manuscript. I knew his personality and could hear his voice, but the face was fuzzy. I thought this was evidence of my brilliance. “I want my readers to fill in the blanks and make him into the character they want to see.” My critique group strongly disagreed.

After deciding I was a failure and putting my manuscript away, I ran across an interesting exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his legendary editor, Max Perkins.

Perkins: “Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital — I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him — Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim.”

At first, Fitzgerald claimed the vagueness was intentional and that he planned to make it even more pronounced, but in a later letter to Perkins, he admitted:

“I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it.”

If my literary hero did not have a clear initial picture of one of the most iconic characters in fiction, then perhaps I wasn’t a total loser after all. Sadly, the mighty Max Perkins passed away in 1947 and was unavailable for a consult. This meant I had to figure out how to visualize my MC on my own.

Bringing Characters into Focus

I began by turning back to magazines. This is a valid strategy for visual thinkers, but it didn’t work for me. I’m all about the words. So I put the magazines away and started a list of characteristics. Even though I couldn’t see his face, I found I did know a lot about my MC. I combed my draft, highlighting every description, starting with the obvious:

  • Age. This is a biggie. Figure out your MC’s age first.
  • Economic status. This will determine more about your character’s physical presence than you might think: clothing, hair (well coiffed or scruffy?), weight (is he over- or underfed?), and things like jewelry, tattoos or accessories.
  • Ethnic background. This may be obvious, maybe not. Is your character adopted? Is one parent a tall African American and the other a short Italian immigrant? There are probably clues in your other characters that will help you visualize your MC.

Once you have listed these general traits, look deeper. Go back and highlight the more subtle descriptors:

  • Dreams and wants. For example, if your MC longs to play pro basketball, but his friends and family think that’s a ridiculous quest, then maybe he’s very short. Or one-legged. Or a girl.
  • Hobbies and interests. Does your MC play the piano? Maybe she has long, elegant fingers. Or maybe she’s ham fisted. Sometimes an unconventional detail can add interest to a character. Take the expected and turn it inside out to draw something completely new.
  • Internal dialogue. What does your character see when he looks in the mirror and is it different than what everyone else sees? This is probably the most challenging and interesting part of character description, and it takes a deft hand to merge the two images into a complete picture for the reader.

Don’t Over Identify

Most writers begin with a character that expresses some aspect of themselves. That’s OK in a first draft, but it’s important to divorce yourself from your MC, especially during revision.

The primary danger of over identification is that it makes you too cautious — you have to be willing to throw your MC under a train. It’s your job as a writer to insert obstacles, both mental and physical, that will challenge your character and up the ante in your plot. This is difficult to do if you and your character are too intertwined. Let him stand alone across the room from you, instead of by your side or in your shoes, and you will begin to get a clearer picture.

Pretend You are Barbara Walters

Put on your reporter’s cap and interview your MC. You can ask direct questions, like “What do you look like?” or adopt some of the strategies Barbara Walters uses, like: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. By letting your character tell you what kind of tree (or dog or car) she would be, you will get clues about her physical appearance. If my character told me she was a Ferrari, I would picture expensive clothes, well-manicured nails, and a sleek, taught body. If she said she was a Jeep, I would picture outdoorsy, no makeup, hiking boots and a good sun hat. If she told me she was a minivan, I would picture … never mind, I’m over identifying again.

Finally, I’d like to share one of my favorite tricks with you. Once you have done the preliminary work and made a good, sturdy list of descriptive words about your MC, do an internet search for modeling agencies.

Many sites (like this one) let you enter key words and will narrow hundreds of possible “actors” down to a few who might just look like the character you’ve been trying to describe. Save this step for last or you’ll get bogged down with too many possibilities.

If you have done your homework, a clear picture will emerge.

Editor’s note: What strategies do you use to bring your characters into focus?

Susan Bearman is a writing veteran of more than 20 years, working as a ghost writer, technical writer and business editor. She teaches writing and social media for writers, and her current works-in-progress include several picture books, a memoir and a mystery. You can read Susan on her own blog, Two Kinds of People, and weekly on the Garanimals Blog, and you can follow her on Twitter



  • Kelli Burgos

    Okay, this is synchronicity at its finest b/c I’ve just spent the last two hours struggling with how to describe my main characters, how much description I use or if I should at all. This is great advice and the timing in impeccable!

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Kelli — I always love when that happens. It’s one of my favorite things about the Internet: watching connections fall into place. I hope your characters come right into view for you.

  • Ashley Prince

    I love this post. I never know how much to put into a character because I too like to allow readers to fill in the rest.

    And I too agree with Kelli, this is impeccable timing. :)

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      I seem to have hit a sweet spot today. I still struggle with physical descriptions of my main characters. I seem to know everything else about them. Part of it may be that we just don’t look at or see the people we know very well. I was startled to look into my son’s face the other day and really see him for the first time in a while (maybe the haircut helped). He’s grown up so much. Good luck with your writing.

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  • http://N/a James White

    I find characters and character development the most challenging. Since readers can’t SEE the person I think it best not to over describe their physical features.

    Also if the character appears in more than one segment than a writer can slowly delineate their interesting characteristics and features.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      James, I agree about the dangers of over description. I think the key is that you as the writer have to see your character clearly. If you don’t, then those interesting characteristics and features won’t unfold to the reader.

  • Paige Willey

    I imagine four things – what their voice sounds like, what they wear, their musical tastes, and their desire.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Paige — those are interesting characteristics. I always hear my characters’ voice very clearly, too. But having a clear vision of your characters is important, too, even if your readers envision them differently. I always think it’s so interesting to read the reactions of devout readers when one of their favorite characters has been cast for a film. It seems they either think the casting is perfect or completely wrong.

  • Rose Byrd

    This has been the MOST helpful posting by any of your semi-finalists, Suzannah! The outline for “visualzing” our characters in our stories is precise enough to have practical application, yet respectfully open-ended enough to allow for feeing our imaginations! But as far as Gatsby is concerned, haven’t YOU ever known any genuinely “fuzzy” characters, those folk who deliberately present themselves out-of-focus and blurry, maybe as protective coloration. See? You have already set me off and running in character development!

  • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

    Rose — That’s a really interesting point about Gatsby, that he had reinvented himself and was deliberately projecting an altered, enigmatic image. Thank you for your kind words about the post. I hope it helps you when you develop those new characters.

  • Molly B.

    Excellent, informative post!

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Thank, you, Molly B.

  • Emily

    Amazing! I struggle with the exact same things, and as of right now I am starting a new story. I post it on my website, which my friends and family enjoy, and today I was struggling to come up with a character. This is terrific advice, Susan!

    • Susan @ 2KoP

      Glad to help, Emily. Much good luck with your character.

  • Suzannah

    Just testing comments.

    • Suzannah

      Testing again.

  • Sarah Baughman

    One thing I find really interesting about this post is that we strive to fully understand character traits that we might not actually reveal in the writing. In order to create authentic characters, we have to understand “behind the scenes” aspects of their personalities and motivations. Great post!

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      I think you’re absolutely right, Sarah. That’s part of why I missed the outward appearance of my character. I knew his internal life so well that I thought his outward appearance would be obvious (or maybe superfluous). Guess we have to work on the inside and the outside of our characters.

  • Cindy Huff

    I interviewed Best Selling Author Diann Mills ont how she does character development. She gave me a template of questions she asks her characters. It’s an interview format. It was fascinating and extremely helpful.You can check out the interview on my blog Writers Patchwork.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Thanks for sharing this great interview, Cindy.

  • Debra Eve

    I like the simplicity of this approach, Susan. I once took a writing class where the teacher gave us three pages of data to fill out for our characters. I’m not sure that kind of over-analyzing helps, especially, as you pointed out, in the early stages.

    I like the idea of using modeling agencies to picture a character. I’ve also used astrological trait charts in the past with some success.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Debra, using the character’s astrological chart is an interesting approach. I’m not sure I’m a believer, but it might be telling that my MC and I are both Virgos. Hmmm …

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