Creating Characters: Appearance

Disclaimer: As with all my posts relating to writing, this is purely personal and my methods and opinions will not hold true for everyone.


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This is the least important point of character creation, at least in my view (although it’s still important).

Feeding the Information

A lot of new writers make the mistake of describing their protagonist on page one, either in the ‘my name is Rachael and I have black hair and brown eyes’, or by making them look into a mirror. Both of these can work, if done well, but the mirror trick especially is fast becoming a cliché.

As far as writing about appearance goes, the trick is to let what a character looks like trickle in piece by piece. Mention their hair colour in passing on page seven, perhaps. Have another character comment on their eyes on page thirty-two.  Have them have to wear a disguise and describe how different it’s making them look to their usual appearance. Anything but one long block of text that is purely there to say ‘This is what I look like.

Exceptions  and elaborations to this rule:

  • Love interests – if there is an instant physical attraction (and I mean physical, not insta-love), you bet I want to know what that love interest looks like. Try to steer away from clichés like ‘flowing locks’ and ‘smouldering eyes’, though.
  • If a character your character is meeting is particularly unusual in appearance. Describe them.
  • If we’re meeting new characters, we don’t need a ‘police profile’ of them, like listing hair and eye colour, etc. We want to know if they have a kind face, or how they walk, whether they’re as tall as they are wide. Try to sketch in a few details that make that character unique and that would be instantly noticeable to your protagonist. You can always build on their appearance later on.
  • If your character is a hairdresser, they’re going to notice people’s hair. If they work in fashion, they’ll notice people’s clothes. Try to think of what your character would notice about someone, and describe them that way.

Knowing a character’s appearance can help the reader envision them in their mind’s eye and, in some cases, can even be an important plot point. For example, the colour of Harry Potter’s eyes, or, you know, the scar on his forehead. Scars and marks and weird eye colours are most often used this way, though if race or culture is a big theme in your novel (fantasy or otherwise) then so can the colour of a character’s skin, the tattoos or body modifications they display, the shape of their face, or the colour of their hair.

Stereotypes and Clichés

Watch out for how you describe a character’s appearance too. There are a lot of appearance-related clichés out there, and using them may set off the Mary Sue alarm bells in some readers’ heads (the Mary Sue is a post for another day). For example, there’s ’emerald/sapphire eyes’ (I’m pretty sure JK Rowling is guilty of this, but perhaps I’ve just read too much fanfiction and I’m getting my wires crossed), hair that ‘cascades like a waterfall’, ‘golden locks’ or ‘raven hair’.

Careful with skin colour too. Often darker-skinned characters are said to have skin like ‘chocolate’ or ‘caramel’, so much so that these have become cliché. There is also the issue that some people of colour find these food-related adjectives offensive, though how predominent that view is I am not sure. It’s just something to be aware of, however.

When making your character’s appearance ‘unique’, try to keep it realistic in the world you have created. Don’t give them purple eyes, just because you want them to be different. When I was thirteen or so, the protagonist of the novel I was writing had red eyes, just because I thought it was cool. Later, I tried to come up with an explanation for it and eventually dropped it completely. By that point, she didn’t need the red eyes to make her unique; she was a fully-developed character.

Beauty (or Not)

Dont make your character stunning just because they’re the protagonist, or because they’re the love interest. Give them physical flaws, just as you would personality flaws. Freckles, moles, or scars, for example. Do they hate their nose? Are their lips too thin, their belly too flabby? What do they dislike about their appearance?

Of course, it depends on the character. If your character is a model or something, perhaps you want to make them beautiful, handsome or flawless. But there’ll probably still be something about their appearance that they dislike.

And if not, that tells you something about their appearance too.

Cricket – a study in blending in

With Cricket, I didn’t want him to stand out from the crowd, for the most part. He has the same hair and eye colour as about 90% of the population of his country (dark, dark brown and dark blue). There is nothing remarkable or memorable about his appearance, though he is slightly on the pretty side for a boy (mostly to do with his long eyelashes).  His hair is naturally messy, and he usually lets it grow to just past his ears before he cuts it. He’s eighteen, average height, slender and pale-skinned. He is, much to his ire, incapable of cultivating facial hair; it just doesn’t grow. He wishes he could grow a bit of stubble to offset his natural prettiness, but his skin remains stubbornly smooth. His mouth is quick to smile, though it should be noted that these smiles are not always genuine, and his eyes often maintain their natural wary distance.

Hopefully that brief description goes a little way in showing what I mean.


Creating Characters: Introduction

Disclaimer: As with all my posts relating to writing, this is purely personal and my methods and opinions will not hold true for everyone.

Creating characters is one of the most exciting and frustrating parts of writing a story.

I’m currently in the middle of trying to tease out the protagonist of my fantasy novel. I know his culture, his religion and his backstory. I know what he looks like. His personality is proving elusive, and so is his voice.

This is him:

Please ignore my terrible art and terrible webcam photography. :c

For now, his name is Cricket, but that is not his real name. He goes by William sometimes, but that’s not his real name either. His real name could get him killed.

*dramatic pause*


Creating a character is exciting for many reasons. For one thing, you’re creating a human being with nothing more than your mind. You are sculpting them a life, a personality – a whole history with nothing more than words. Done well, a character can breathe. They can take on a life of their own and surprise you with the things that they do and the things that they say. You can discover in them a strength that you didn’t think was possible. In one gesture, they can create hundreds of new fangirls and -boys across the vast world.

Okay, so that last one might be stretching it.

If you’ve spent much time on the NaNoWriMo forums, or around a group of other writers, you probably have heard the lamentations of an author whose characters are running amok. These characters are protesting every word that is written. They’re falling in love or into bed with other characters who they weren’t meant to say two words to. They are ignoring the main plot and running off to chase shiny new subplots.

When your character is real enough to you that they become a voice in your head – when they start telling you what they would do, what they would say, no, they’re not going to go in the haunted house, that’s stupid – that is when you know you have created a living, breathing person.

You need to know your character inside out. When you can take any random situation outside the plot of your novel and you know instinctively how your character would handle that, or when the dialogue seems to write itself because you just know exactly what a character will say, or when you’re in the supermarket buying chocolate and you know which chocolate bar your character would choose (and when you even think about that sort of thing) – that is success.

Of course, these are only a few examples, and everyone’s characters present themselves in different ways. How do you know when you’ve created a successful character? (Let me know in the comments, I’m curious.)

For every character that comes out right, however, there are about ten others that don’t. We’ve all been there.

These characters are flat, lifeless. Every line they utter is robotic. Their movements are cardboard. Their personality flip-flops from one scene to the next. They are black or white, rather than multiple shades of grey.

How do we avoid these characters, then?

Some of this stuff is to do with the writing. Dialogue in particular is hard to do right, particularly in the first draft. If some of the dialogue is just not working for you, read it out loud. Does it sound like something a real person would say? If not, why?

Sometimes, yes, it does. But it doesn’t sound right for that character. So, what’s wrong there?

That’s not an easy question to answer.

I believe that characters need five things in order to make them successful. They need an appearance, though this is arguably the least important point. They need a personality, with strengths and flaws (and no, being ‘too kind’ or having ‘slight buck teeth’ are not flaws. The second is not even a personality trait. Get out.).  They need a backstory, a life outside of the story. They need a goal, a motivation – something to work towards, or something that they desperately want out of life. And they need a voice that is undeniably theirs. The latter is what would be missing in the above dialogue example – ie. the dialogue sounds perfectly fine, but is generic, not what that character would say, but what anyone would say.

Any one of these things could be a starting point for a character, and all of them are important.

The posts linked below (there are no links yet D: – that will change) will discuss each of them in more depth, using my very own Cricket as a model (if he co-operates).

1) Appearance

2) Personality

3) Backstory

4) Motivation

5) Voice

So this post has a bit more of a point to it:

What characters are you guys currently working on, and what was the starting point/idea for them? Any difficulties you’re currently having? Share your darlings with the world (and me, because I’m curious and I love learning about people’s characters)! :)

Writing the Taboo

Disclaimer: This post is pure opinion, and I make no claims at any authority on the subject.

Little back story here: I’ve been writing fantasy for about ten years now and have, on and off, been writing in the same world. However, I’ve actually not really made any attempt to cohesively world-build before. Sure, I’ve had ideas for cultures and things, and mostly have been consistent in the rules of magic and what-have-you, but my world-building is nowhere near complete.

One of my resolutions for 2014? World-build my heart out.

So, I was thinking about one of the religions in the country where my story is set, and came to the realisation that they eat their dead. In a very much reverant kind of way, you understand.

And that got me to thinking about how these characters would be perceived by readers. I mean, cannibalism is a pretty huge taboo in our society.

Can cannibalism – and other taboos, such as incest, beastiality and paedophilia – be written in a way where a reader may sympathise with the characters commiting them? (See? The word ‘committing’ already paints the act in a negative light.) Not necessarily empathise, but sympathise. Understand them. Like them.

There are two ways to go about this, I think.

The first way is to, as a writer, take a physical step back from these characters, so we as a reader view them through another layer of consciousness. The trouble with this approach, I think, is it is all too easy to paint the character committing the taboo as a villain.

For example, in A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, we know from the first few chapters that Jaime and Cersei Lannister, who are twins, are involved in a sexual relationship. We see them purely through the eyes of characters who don’t like them. When viewpoint characters discover this information about them (with the exception of Bran, the child who we as readers learn the information through), it’s treated as another layer of their villainy. In the ‘of course they’re having sex, Lannisters are horrible people’ kind of way.

(This changes somewhat when we get both Jaime and Cersei’s viewpoint characters in later books, making them much more sympathetic, but more on that in a minute.)

The only other example I can think of right now is Hannibal Lecter, but sadly I haven’t read any of Thomas Harris’s books so I can’t give much of an insight. I have seen the films, however, and Lecter is a very compelling character. Clarice Starling is definitely the protagonist, but Lecter is very much an overarching presence. He can’t be called a hero, not by a long shot, but I don’t think he’s entirely a villain either.

And considering the amount of fangirling I’ve seen over the recent tv series, I’m pretty sure that’s not just the film maker’s decision.

The other way of doing it, and the way I’m probably going to do it, is putting the reader inside the characters’ heads. This is an entirely different experience to having your opinion of them filtered through another character, as you’re experiencing the world of the story with them. They are not just a sightseeing stop along the way.

Jaime Lannister (and to a lesser extent, Cersei) is an example of this. Once you read a couple of chapters from his point of view, it is hard not to change your opinion of him. The incest (no spoilers here, honest) is a much bigger part of him than it first seems. In A Game of Thrones, it’s a) what sets the wheels of the plot in motion and b) a way to make the Lannisters seem that tiiiny bit more despicable. When you read from Jaime’s point of view, you see that it is his powerful love for Cersei that is the driving force behind him, and the thing that keeps him going when times are hard. You can’t help but fall for him, in that sense. In that way, I think that Martin handled the taboo incredibly well. He went along with readers’ gut reactions in the first book, and then turned it around when Jaime gets a voice.

Another author that handles the taboo of incest well is Tabitha Suzuma in her book, Forbidden. This novel is told from the alternating first-person viewpoints of Maya and her brother, Lochan. As a reader, you experience along with them the joy and agony of falling in love with a sibling. The whole book is very interior, with not much to distract you from the rising sexual tension and the fear of being discovered. You want it to work out for them, even if that want makes you feel rather conflicted.

Then, there is Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, told from the point of view of Humbert Humbert, a man with a rather unsettling obsession with young girls. If you look at the reviews on Goodreads, they’re divided between people who found Humbert Humbert disquietingly sympathetic, and people who are shocked and/or disgusted to be reading about paedophilia. I think there is a fine line between eliciting those two reactions from your readers, and Nabokov has found the balance.

It’s interesting to note that Lolita ended up on the banned books list for obscenity here in England for a while.

What does everyone think? Would you prefer to be distanced from a taboo, or to face it head on when reading fiction? Do you have any other examples of books that you believe have handled taboo subjects well, either from a distance or up close? Or do you believe there are certain subjects writers just shouldn’t tackle? Let me know your thoughts! :)