Write It Sideways

How to Bring Your Characters Into Focus

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:

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

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