Casting Your Characters: What Do They Look Like?

Inspired by this thread on the AW forums.

I realized somewhere in the course of this WIP that I didn’t know what my characters looked like, beyond basics: if they were tall or short, blond or brunette or in-between, what color their eyes were, and if they were pale or olive-skinned or brown.

I have a folder on my computer with some images–English manor houses, Regency-era paintings, actors in period clothing–but while some of these actors might look like a few of my characters, I don’t think of it as a casting sheet. I don’t know that it’s that important that I know exactly what my characters look like. Do you know what your characters look like? Or do you have your basic stats and maybe a face or voice in your head?

I have short character descriptions in the narrative, scattered around. Here are some examples:

  • The girl straightened, her wild black curls hardly controlled by a ribbon, her brown dress a few shades darker than her skin. 
  • They did not look the same, but they looked related—dark hair, dark eyes and high cheekbones matched them and gave their faces a similar structure.

  • The man was tall, perhaps only an inch shorter, with a steady stare and thin lips upon which was a small smile. 

  • He had a long, thin face and his nose, in profile, was aquiline.

  • They shared the same ash-blonde hair and wide-set eyes and rather hollow cheeks.
  • Mr. Keegan was a tall man, but not a large man. Calvin’s shoulders were broader, his figure more robust than Mr. Keegan’s. Yet Mr. Keegan moved with a sure grace.
  • His dark hair was close-cropped. The face was older, lined around the eyes, and Crestwell had the distinct look of their father about him in the thinness of the lips and the jaw and cheeks which could turn into jowls in his later years. 
  • They shared blue eyes. Miles recognized his brother by the eyes. Those, and the comical touch of Crestwell’s ears, which his tutor used to pin back in the hopes that the ears wouldn’t stick out as much. 
I’m not a visual person and I have a horrible time remembering faces, which might contribute to my lack of seeing my characters in detail. Of my cast, the two most important characters, in terms of appearance, are Mady and Alex, the two daughters of my protagonist. Alex’s mother was part Native American and Alex has dark eyes and dark hair. Mady is half-white and half-black. A great deal of the plot is about the girls, their different mothers and different looks, so it was important to me to have visuals of Alex and Mady. I ended up with grown women that I think the girls grow up to be. 

Regency-era painting of a young lady. Her direct gaze is very Alex.
Irish actress Ruth Negga in Playboy of the Western World. Ruth is half Irish, half Ethiopian.
Miles is the protagonist, though. What I know about him is that he’s tall, lean, brown hair, blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, fair-skinned but tanned because he’s a sailor, with a square chin. That’s it, in terms of looks. I never even tried to look for someone to “cast” as Miles. I’ve found an actor that resembles Miles a little bit, maybe, but I didn’t use him as inspiration. And he’s not a definite “That’s Miles!” I mean, you know, he might get cast to play Miles if there’s ever an adaptation…

Most of the time, I’m fighting to picture my characters clearly as I write them. I don’t always see them. It’s more of an impressionist thing. I hear them though. I was having a time trying to scrounge up words to describe the shape of a character’s nose, until I reminded myself that the story doesn’t hinge on it.

 Do you see your characters clearly when you write them? Do you have a collection of people you think look like them? 

Time was, I would have a clear choice in mind, at least for the lead characters. The problem was, the male lead would always look like whichever actor or musician I was following for that period of time and once I got over them, the male character would suffer from schizo-looks and personality. He never developed on his own, within the story, leading to story collapse.

The first time I noticed that I wasn’t basing my characters’ appearance on an outside source was Last Request. That story has its problems, but I think the characters are good enough and don’t require an extensive physical description. I totally wrote the cliche “looking in the mirror and describing yourself” scene in Last Request though.  But since Eva had just woken up and realized that she was in Jade’s body, in that instance, the mirror may have been justified.

When I read novels, I don’t necessarily have a picture of the protagonist in my head as I read about them. I read about their thoughts and experiences and get swept into the story. When I read fanfiction, I picture the actors who portray the characters because I’ve seen the appropriate movie or TV show beforehand. If an author writes an extensive physical description of a character, then yeah, I’ll try to go along with that vision. If it’s a more minimal description, then I suppose I fill in the details, if I need to. I remember reading a romance novel once and learning that the hero had a beard a third of the way through. I rejected that because it interfered with my interpretation.

Do you see the characters when you read novels? Do you like clear, paragraphs-long description of characters or does it not matter? What was your favorite character description ever?

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