The World Book Encyclopedia of the 1960s had a fascinating clear plastic overlay of the human body. As a little girl, I loved to play with that section, rebuilding the 2D human body, layer by layer, system by system. I don’t remember the order, but I’m pretty sure the bare skeleton made up the first layer. You would add a layer of muscles, one of the cardiovascular system, different organs, etc., until I finished with a layer of skin.
Though I’m quite a visual person, I have seldom used pictures of models or actors to build my characters. Not that it’s a bad idea, in fact, it probably helps keep one’s facts straight, like eye color. But often we build characters from an outside exoskeleton in instead of vice versa. (Not that people actually have a hard exterior exoskeleton like an insect, but you get my drift.) The danger in that is we create a two-dimensional character. And somehow I picture my characters looking like ordinary people instead of supermodels.
However, we often become acquainted with real people by seeing and studying them from the outside. We see, not only how they look, whether tall or short, color of their hair or eyes, shape of their face, but how they react to the environment around them. A person’s expressions and mannerisms can tell you something about their personality for sure. You miss so much of that in a still photograph of a model made to look perfect.
Here’s a little exercise for you: Think of a character you are developing or one you’ve already created. How do they look when they’re happy? Do they have any special mannerisms? Can you describe your character’s smile or something else they do without using a cliché? For example, you could write: For just a moment, his smile lit up his face. Instead, let’s try something different: His smile grew in increments, then quickly disappeared, as though he had a tic in the side of his face.
My sentence could still use some work, but I’m trying to convey a hesitant, nervous smile. You don’t have to describe a smile; you could describe a frown, a yawn, gum chewing, hand waving or any other expression or mannerism you want to use to give your reader a better picture of your character. Don’t take more than 10 minutes and have fun! If you're stuck, use someone from the picture below. Everyone's smile is a little different from the others.
Next week, I’ll talk about another layer of characterization.
How do you beef up your character's appearance? How can the outside give us a hint to the person within? Please leave a comment below. I love to hear from you!