Characters – you need to know what they look like

Writing any kind of fiction involves an intense relationship with your characters. I’ve read of other authors creating a bulletin board with photos of their characters so they can easily bring them to mind. At any rate, I decided to do this with my current work in process, a dual timeline novel set both in 1912-ish and 2015 Hong Kong.

I’ve found photos for two of my 1912 characters – Winifred and Henry Taylor. Henry is an admiral and Commander in Chief of the China station. Winifred is his wife who, along with their four year old daughter accompanies him to Hong Kong.

Sir Hedworth Meux is the model for Henry. As it turns out, Hedworth Meux was Commander in Chief of the China station in 1908 so it seemed fitting to style Henry Taylor after this fellow. Hedworth Meux was a career naval officer who became Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth in WWI so he must have been quite accomplished.

For Winifred I chose a woman named Alice Keppel, a British society hostess and a long-time mistress of King Edward VII. Apparently she had beauty, charm and great discretion and is the great grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. I rather like that little twist.

In any event, I’m becoming rather found of these two. They seem to speak to me now which is helpful. I still need to find the right images for my present day characters and for the other main character – a man of Chinese ethnicity – for the historical time period.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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16 Responses

  1. I use photos for three major characters. First challenge was to resolve the question of what ethnicities would be accurate for 12th Century Central Asia. Then I searched by age and gender via Google Images. I hunted periodically for over a year but it was worth the inspiration!

      1. The good news is that Uighur ethnicity fits both the 12th Century and today. An interesting aspect of Uighur ethnicity is that it has a broad spectrum of facial features–for example, pale skin, blue eyes and red hair as well as the darker colors one might expect for Central Asia! That actually makes sense (though initially surprising) when one considers that the region experienced multiple waves of expansion/invasion/occupation from the Steppes, China (beginning as early as the Han Dynasty) and from Turkish-occupied regions to the west. I settled on both a sharp featured Mongolian young man (high cheek bones, hooded eyes, darker colored hair and eyes representing Naiman tribes to the northwest) and much softer, rounder features of a young man and young woman (Turkish). The final decision, however, was emotional. The pictures “felt” right for the characters.

  2. I’ve chosen pictures of my major characters also. My critique group wanted to know what they looked like, so I found some photos that approximated how I imagined them.

  3. The appearance of characters was a lot of fun when I wrote my family memoir, because Grandma and I got to go through all the old photos and identify everyone. The fiction has been a little harder, but I started with a character profile sheet wherein I mapped out, not only appearance, but character traits, religious beliefs, everything I could think of that I might need to know. It’s been wonderful to go back and look at those sheets when i get stuck.

    1. Thanks, Faith. I like the idea of a profile sheet – read some other author who recommended it but haven’t yet done that in detail for my characters.

  4. I am also casting my characters 🙂 Most of the times to actors, models, singers or sportspeople. But I prefer actors because I am writing historical fiction and I prefer to see them in my mind in a certain costume they wore in a movie or another.

  5. Hah – good point – my new book is directly inspired by photos so I had a head start, but I agree even with totally fictional characters we have to ‘see’ them in the flesh 🙂

  6. I found this post fascinating. I do exactly the opposite–I specifically don’t want a photograph of my characters. This probably has its genesis in an admonition I got from my wife before writing the first word of my first book. In regard to the female protagonist, Deirdre Brannigan, she said, “Don’t make it all about her looks. Make her strong and interesting first, beautiful–or not–later.” I rather took that to heart. So for me, not having a distinct picture in my mind of a character’s physical characteristics from the start is kind of liberating. But hey, if I’ve discovered nothing else within our tribe, there are a lot of different paths to a great work of historical fiction.

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