Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Writer's Tool Box: Creating Your Character's Physical Traits (Part 1)

It can be a lot of fun creating a character for a story. One of the first things I do is imagine what the characters will look like. This is always a great deal of fun. I can make them look however I want to . . . well, almost.

When it comes to creating authentic physical characteristics  there are many things to take into consideration. It's even important to take know the physical attributes of that character's family members, especially if they are written into the story. 

My oldest son has eyes as bright and blue as the sky while the other has chocolate brown eyes.  But where did those blue eyes come from when my husband and I each have brown eyes? We can thank the Swedes and the Scots for that. But it's interesting that if we both had blue eyes that having a child with brown eyes would have been impossible. That's just a little biological fact that has to do with alleles.

A short trip to What Color Eyes Would Your Children Have can help determine your character's eye color while calculating heredity variations.  For instance, when I tried to make a character's eyes green, I discovered that wouldn't have been possible and had to either adjust her eye color or one of her parents or grandparent's. This isn't going to be critical information to have for every story that you write, but if you are going to mention that both parent's have blue eyes (say they are Swedish immigrants) and then give the couple a green eyed child there's going to have to be some 'splainin' to do.

Have you ever tried to figured out physical characteristics for describing certain ethnic types? With a good description, the reader can probably envision the character and even guess their ethnic group. There is an excellent Artist's Guide to Human Types at DeviantArt  which is a series of charts on body type, skin tone, hair type, eye color, facial characteristics, etc.  This can help you get the character right from head to toe.

Click on the links below to save the charts to your computer for reference. (Click on the gray area to see image. At first look you cannot see the full images, but they are saved as the enlarged version).

Human Types 1 
Human Types 2
Human Types 3

I'm sure it's no secret, but another very useful tool is image searches with Google Images or stock photo sites such as iStockPhoto. Sometimes I didn't know exactly what my character looked like, but after entering some description and browsing I found myself saying, "There you are!"

Although it isn't necessary to describe every aspect of a character's appearance, the more you know about it will help authenticate the character on the page and bring your character to life.

I hope these tools are helpful to you.  Next time we'll talk more about how your character looks.

Do you have any useful tools to share for building your character's physical appearance?


  1. Helpful post today, Carla! I really enjoy creating the physical traits of my characters as well. :)

  2. It shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who's read one of my character-casting posts at the release of each of my books, but I tend to gravitate toward actors/actresses as templates for my characters. I like to see these people in motion, to study their mannerisms, to hear how they use their voices. If I do use stock photos (like for Caylor and Flannery in the Matchmakers series), I try to find as many images of them as I can---different emotions/attitudes/positions---so that I can extrapolate some of those "active" traits I pick up from actors to use for my characters.

    Oh, and with scientists for parents, genetics is always on my mind when determining the physical characteristics. I've been known to pick up the phone and call to ask my mother if two people with certain eye colors could have a child with another eye color. Makes for some great discussions and good learning experiences for me!

  3. Fun post, Carla! It's so easy to create stereotypes, and being aware of the all the possibilities can keep our characters fresh and memorable.

  4. Lots of great information here Carla. Thanks for rounding it all up in one place. I'm going to check out some of those links.

    My characters usually come fully decked out in their appearance and it's often not possible for me to change that mental image. I then try to find an actor or celebrity or model who looks like them. Sometimes I get very close, sometimes I just can't pin one down because my character is who he is, and someone else can only look like him, never BE him.

    About the eye color. As far as I know all my grandparents had blue eyes... but one of them must not have been a true blue, because both my parents have green eyes. I started off with blue eyes, which turned grayish in grade school and by high school were green, with a speck or two of brown. My siblings both have deep chocolate brown eyes. Where did they come from?

    I give a lot of focus to physical appearance of my characters. I get frustrated with novels where I don't know if the POV is character is a brunette or a blond or a redhead. Whether she is tall or short. I want to know. If an author doesn't tell me, I don't see who I want to see, I don't see anyone, or else how they look keeps morphing over the course of the story and I find that disconcerting.

  5. Lots of fun, isn't it, Katie?

    Can't wait to read your characters when your book is published! :)

  6. Kaye, You do a fantastic job on your characters and I just love reading your blog when you share your process for choosing them. Not to mention your writing instruction on characterization. Oops, just mentioned it - I was going to wait until Part 2 to do that. :)

    I like what you shared about finding images that reveal the different emotions/attitides/positions - very wise!

    My Mom's a science teacher and I've been know pick up the phone to ask her the same!

  7. Nicki, Like you said it's easy to create stereotypes, maybe that's why there are so many. I know for me, when I see a unique character that really stands out it makes a huge impact on my enjoyment of the novel.
    We'll talk a little bit about those stereotypes in Part 2. Hope to see you again!

  8. Lori, Your characters have a life of their own, eh? They say everyone has a twin, so I suppose the celebrity you find is theirs!

    I think those green eyes come from the brown. It's interesting how your eye color has changed so dramatically. Your eyes sound beautiful with those specks. Mine used to be darker brown and now are a lighter brown with a hazelish tinge. Several years ago after my dad's heart surgery his eyes went from blue to gray - very weird.

  9. This is a great reference, Carla! Bookmarking. :D

  10. Hi Carla -

    Thanks for this helpful post. I'm going to link to it some time in July.

    As I developed the character for my latest WIP, I saw a picture of a young friend. She was perfect for my character. Hmm, maybe I'll suggest her as the model for the book cover when the time comes. :)


  11. One of my favorite characters has improbable physical characteristics. A blue eyed father and gray eyed mother had a brown eyed son. Hello! I let that slide. (Son: Walter Peabody "Rameses" Emerson in the Amelia Peabody series)

  12. I am so weak in this area. I usually think of a person I know and go from there:)

  13. This was such an interesting post! Even as a child I use to make up people and come up with a description for them. I wasn't a christian at the time so I used astrology! lol
    I love genetics, and just the other day i noticed a pattern in my own family. My husband has hazel eyes and I have blue. Our daughter has blue like me, and our son has hazel like his dad. Our daughter's daughter has blue eyes, her son has hazel.(her husband also has hazel) Our son's daughter has blue.(his wife has blue eyes) Since it seems that all the females have blue and the males hazel, I'm interested in seeing what color my son's son will have...I'm thinking positively here, since he doesn't have a son yet!

  14. I don't have a set method, although I did model one character from Jessica Alba. What I do is write the story and develop the characters, then try to find a movie star who could play each character in a movie.

    Insert shameles self promotion here: If you don't mind, I'll take the liberty to post a blog I wrote regarding htis very matter. Have a great wekeend.


    Stephen Tremp

  15. I like to note the shape of their jawline, their build...I often draw inspiration from old photos

  16. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us, Carla! This will be helpful.


Thanks for visiting Adventures of the Heart. Be sure to check back for my responses to your comments. Be blessed!