Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fuzzy Characters-Help!

I have a problem and I am wondering if other writers do too. Or am I the only one with this weird disability. I don't have clear images of characters in my head when I am writing or reading fiction. They are all kind of fuzzy. I can't really make out clear, defining characteristics.

I realized this when I was working on a short story yesterday. I was content in my little fuzzy world until a writing friend said I needed to add more description of the character. No problem, I thought. I can do that. I sat and sat and sat and for the life of me, I couldn't see my character's face. I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, got in the scene--no luck.

You have to understand that my writing background is with magazine and newspaper writing. The people I write about are real and they already have faces, so I don't have a problems there. I have also published personal essays, but once again, those are about real people.

When I read fiction it happens too. I can picture scenes, but I can't create a character in my head. Sometimes I insert a person I know as the character, but most of the time, my characters are fuzzy. Can I get glasses for my brain?

So now my short story is almost done except for those small details about my protagonist. All you fiction writers out there-do you have any suggestions for me? Is there anyone else out there who has this strange problem?



Lillie Ammann said...


I recently wrote a whole series on character development on my blog. Perhaps something in there would be helpful to you.

The series begins with Characters are Story People and every post links to the next.

Patricia Stoltey said...

That's funny you would raise this question, because I have vivid pictures in my mind of most of my characters with one giant exception: the heroine in my current project. It's bizarre, but the perfect word for her is fuzzy.

The only way I know to deal with that is to focus on that one character and form a picture in my mind, fill in the blanks, then jot down all the details from hair color to the condition of her fingernails.


Merc said...

LOL, I read your title and the first thing I thought of was anthropomorphic characters (i.e. talking animals). You can see where my brain is lately.

I know what you mean, though, about not picturing them. I actually end up seeing all characters as how they'd be in comic-book style, so, ah, that probably isn't much help. O:)

Personally I don't think a lot of physical detail is ALWAYS necessary. A few traits or quirks say a lot more than a list of physical descriptions. If it's just a litany of eye and hair color, meh, not all that necessary.

I like some description, sure, but I think some writers are more suited to it than others. If you don't describe everyone in detail, I really don't think it's going to be a huge deal ;) as long as the characters themselves are interesting and engaging.

(Though, ahem, I don't at ALL mind lengthy descriptions of hot guys. O:) I'm just sayin'.)

I tend not to describe people that much... which, as someone pointed out, kinda IS necessary when the characters aren't human. Yeeeah... otherwise, though...

I'm tired, I need sleep. :P


Jay said...

I have the same issue. I can describe the entire book with vivid description based on what I see in my head, but I have trouble seeing my main character's face. In my second novel, I've managed to give character attributes to every except the main character. I can't see him. I've been trying for weeks to envision what he should look like but I see nothing. What I'm going to do now is search through photos of people on the internet (or at a coffee shop or whatever) until I find someone that I think fits the persona of my main character, then write down everything I can about that person.

Carol Kilgore said...

What Jay said.

In my most recent manuscript, I had a general idea of what I wanted the main characters to look like. So I plugged those generalities into Google and searched images.

What amazed me most was finding photos of people that I KNEW instantly were my characters.

There was no taking the nose of this one and the eyes of that one. One by one they popped up on my screen.

Give it a try.

coffeelvnmom said...

What Carol said is a lot like what I do. Some characters I see immediately in my head - parts of people I knew/know, mixed in with that one face that jumped out of the TV screen a few months ago, ect. But sometimes when I have a problem seeing specifics, and I know, for instance, that I want a man around six feet with broad shoulders, it helps me to google and look at actors and whatnot, because then I realize what I do and don't like when I can see their features.

PDC said...

I would have to agree with what Merc said about "a few traits and quirks," being more effective than a litany of physical attributes. Stephen King made that point about character description in his book "On Writing," as well.

If your protagonist just spilled his Mango Madness Slurpee down the front of his Captain Kirk t-shirt, leaving the dog and pony show, your readers might have a more vivid picture of the guy (or girl) than if you had given a police description of said person.

Also, I think ticks and habits and compulsions work well too, as in, "Reggie popped the top to his second bottle of Tagamet, as he pulled up to the auto shop to get the deer antlers removed from his grill. He looked into the rearview, readjusted, looked again. He couldn't remember the last time he had shaved, but damn, those pearly whites were well worth the monthly payments."

You have to give the reader a certain level of "creative freedom" to form their personal amalgam of the character in their mind. By the way, I thought Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lector made Anthony Hopkins seem like a boyscout, physically that is.


Allan Milo said...

Is it just the physical appearance that is “fuzzy”? The faces of characters I read or write about are often vague too. It doesn’t seem to interfere with the story if the character is well written. All I need is for the character’s personality and mannerisms to be well crafted. Sometimes I even get pulled out of a story if the writer harps to much of the physical traits of the characters and settings. It’s kind of distracting. Sometimes I can’t see the character as the author describes them if their speech and actions put a different image in my head.
As someone else mentioned, movies often ignore the author’s description. I noticed that even publishers don’t always think the look of characters are important. I’ve recently read several young adult books were the character on the cover does not match the description given in the book.
I would agree with those you say that quirks and tics are more effective in fleshing-out someone.
Are there any out there who have the opposite problem- i.e. can’t see a character or get into a story unless there’s a strong physical description?

Anonymous said...

You're not the only one. I deal with it by putting in the details that I can see. How the character dresses, or quirky actions, even the way the character speaks may tell more about the character than the physical description anyway. There are real people that don't have any physical characteristics that exceptionally stand out; they are just sort of average looking, you know. When you think of a person like this in your mind, you may not think about what they look like, but what they said or did that brought them to mind. So use the stuff that does come to mind about your characters to describe them, and don't worry about the missing pieces. If they are important to your story, they will come to you.

KT said...

Hi Kerrie,

I love your blog! Here's a tip I learned from YA writer Lara Zeises at a conference I attended earlier this year. She always searches magazines for people (usually not celebrities) that look like how she imagines her character. I like this idea better than looking at famous faces. Then she posts the images next to her writing space, so she always has it there as a reference.


Denise said...

I don't go overboard on writing a person's physical description, it is more their unique characteristics that will draw that character up and off the page.

I would rather "see" how he/she walks, makes faces, reacts to certain events than know they are blonde, six feet tall, 2 feet wide, etc.

Feel free to leave some of that to the imagination of the reader.

As long as you have their personality in those pages, we can see who we want to see in that role.

Kerrie said...

These are all such wonderful suggestions. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. It is also nice to know I am not losing my mind and that other writers have "fuzzy characters" as well. I can't wait to try some of your ideas.

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