Character Profiling and Portraits

NoseyReader Don’t Rush the Friendship

So here’s a question: Do you ‘profile’ your characters?  And it’s a question that can be asked of both authors and readers.  I’ve done a couple of ‘character interviews’ recently and I’ve also encountered those who struggle with creating characters,  Personally, I don’t have a problem with things like names and general characteristics, but getting deeper into characters is another matter.  Apart from anything else, most of my characters are new to me.  It’s like when you meet anybody for the first time.  You can’t know much about them.  As time goes on, however, you learn and some of the blanks are filled in – though not all.

The Past Is Important

Recently, I’ve begun writing something of the life histories of some of the characters featured in the G1: The Guardians series.  This has been necessitated by the complexity many of them feature.  Extreme longevity may sound wonderful, but it creates some major headaches for the author!  Having even a rough idea of significant dates in the lives of major characters is essential, to avoid inconsistencies.  I also have to have some idea of the events they’ve lived through.  If a character’s personality is largely the result of their experiences, then it would be rather foolish not to know the most important ones.  Then, too, snippets of the histories can be fed into stories over time.  These things help a character to grow.  Equally, some traits remain unknown, until circumstances bring them to light, when new experiences trigger them.  I firmly believe it’s better like that, rather than being like some Athena – springing full grown from the head of Zeus!  I’m not a fan of Harry Potter but I’m fairly sure that part of the attraction of the books, and how they were carefully timed and released, was so that readers could witness, and share in, the growth of the three primary characters.  It was the same, to some extent, with The Chronicles of Narnia.  Similarly, you discover facets of character unsuspected in the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, as the story unfolds and they discover the hidden traits in themselves.  It would have been far less satisfactory to know everything about them before they even set foot on their epic journeys!

A Portrait of the Character…

One issue that is, in my mind at least, associated with a character’s profile is their physical description.  In my own tales, I tend not to be too specific about them – deliberately.  I prefer to allow the reader their right to imagine characters however they wish, within the broadest framework I feel I can get away with.  This is not laziness.  That leads me to something that I find surprising: the number of books (of all sorts) that are  portraying photographic or near-photographic images of the characters within!  This seems, to me, a rather problematic affair.  I know that many people enjoy thinking up ‘cast lists’ of actors to play the characters involved in favourite books.  Surely this is hampered by being so explicit on the cover, with a face that will become fixed in the mind of every reader?  I have no problem with hazy, shadowy images, which don’t really show anything recognisable, or back views.  I know that the use of clear photos or artwork is, in all likelihood, driven by the common cover changes of books that have been made into movies, where actual stills or clever ‘not quite exact’ portraits of the actors are used.  I’m not entirely happy when that’s done, either.  I understand that it’s a scheme to grab the attention of those who have seen the movie, to get them to buy the book, while making sure that they know what studio they owe for bringing the book to their notice (even if that’s not true!).  It will never happen, but if one of my books was picked up to become a movie, I suspect the deal would fall through very quickly!  My demands, as the author, would be far too great, and I certainly wouldn’t relinquish one single, tiny right!  Whatever the cause of the trend, I honestly think that authors using photos of real people or very clear artwork portraits should reconsider!

~ Steve

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About Steve

An author since the age of 13 years, writing again dominates my activities. My "Imagineer-ing" blog is my primary site. Also: Beginner knitter since November 2010. Favourite knitting techniques: cable and lace. Beginner cross stitcher. Beginner jewellery maker. With the promotion of self publication and all the other work that has been going on here, Dad decided around 2am this morning (22/11/2013) that it was time to begin his next adventure. He was seen off earlier the previous evening by myself, my brother, my sister in law, and my sister, as well as his wife (our mum), and an enigmatic being known only as A Lorraine. After this time of story telling, laughing, crying, joking and mickey taking, we saw how tired both mum and dad were, and we decided to leave them under the (sometimes) gentle care of The Lorraine. When Dad found the timetable for his travels, he let Mum know gently, which woke her from her drowsing, then, with the same gentleness he showed in this universe, he boarded his favourite mode of transport, the Interdimensional Steam Train, and set off with a smile and a wave. For those of us closest, that smile was a reminder that his pain has ended, and the wave, an indicator that he will pop in to all those that knew him, from time to time. Usually at the most inconvenient and in opportune moments he can. While we are sad that he is no longer here, we are happy he now has no pain, and is experiencing more extraordinary things that his writers mind will be frantically weaving into a new story. Posted by Son Damien

4 thoughts on “Character Profiling and Portraits

  1. Good thought-provoking post. I confess my characters make themselves up as I go along but then at some point I back track and create a profile for each one. I think I need to let them loose first before I can get into the detail of them. Having said that, at the mo. most of my writing is short stories for the womag market so not a lot of wriggle room for large characterisation. Also, just wanted to say thank you for all the “likes” you give me…much appreciated.

    • Thanks :) Don’t you find it’s fun – learning about your characters over time? I’ve met really deep ones, and really shallow ones, and everything in between ;) And it’s a nice challenge to fill in more of their profiles later, when you know them better – just as happens with real people, in fact :) Yes, short tales are not exactly suited to deep character detail – the word count would be hit before the action got even close! (Though I have had one ‘critic’ who said that my character in a short story was too ‘distant’ and undeveloped! :O Just can’t win sometimes!)

      Entirely my pleasure :)

  2. My characters evolve as I write – I start with a seed of an idea and like to let the characters take me where they lead – often surprising me with their reactions, sometimes even making me cringe – but I feel if I put too much thought into how they should behave, I’d end up with stilted personalities. I’m definitely a fan of ‘less is better’ when it comes to physical descriptions (especially when it comes to clothes, I don’t need to know every time a character changes their outfit!) and when I’m reading I like to create my own image of the characters in a book from the storyline (but maybe that’s because I’m a writer!)

    • Thanks :) It’s good to know that not everyone is determined to have a chapter or two devoted on character establishment – even before the reader has seen them in action and decided how interested they actually are! I find it very distracting to read endless descriptions of ‘current costume’ for characters. If I was interested in that, I’d be happy enough to have some kind of appendix detailing the fashions appropriate to the times and/or characters. I honestly don’t tend to appreciate ‘catwalk’ reading! Perhaps you’re right, and it’s writers who hate detailed character descriptions… but then, I’ve heard non-writers complain about actors not fitting their vision of characters from books – or even radio dramas! ;)

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