Finding Faces

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. It’s confession time—I’m not very good at finding fresh ways to describe the physical appearance of my characters. What do they look like? Sometimes I have no idea.

I do make character sheets on which I record height, weight, build, hair and eye color and so on, but when it comes to finding a way to make each one stand out for the reader I am always left fumbling for the right words.

Over the years I’ve worked up a “cheat sheet” listing details that describe a character’s attributes. It’s broken down into the following categories: attitude, build, complexion, ears, eyes, face and facial hair, fingers, gait, hair, hands, laugh, nervous habits, nose, smell, and voice. Yes, those are alphabetical. No, they don’t have a particular rationale behind them, other than being areas where I’ve managed to accumulate a variety of descriptive words and phrases that I can mix and match when creating a new character. Under gait, for example, the list includes awkward, slight limp, rolling, slow-moving, hobbling, scuttling, shambling, light on his feet, shuffling movement, and flat-footed. Hair omits the standard colors and includes straw-colored, mud-colored, rich blue-black that reflects the sunlight, sand-colored, ginger, and also lank, bald, thinning, and receding hairline.

Such word lists are great as far as they go, but sometimes I have the feeling I should be doing more. When I was working on The Scottie Barked at Midnight, which has an unusually large cast of new characters, I decided to try something I know some writers have used successfully—clipping photos from magazine ads to help visualize what their characters look like. The problem, of course, is that most of the people in those are too good looking. News stories provide more variety. In fact, years ago, I had a certain small-time Maine politician in mind when I was creating a particularly smarmy villain.

Amber Riley (300x230)Other than that, though, the only time I’ve matched a character with a real person’s picture was after the fact. Rosamond Jaffrey’s late, unlamented father, Sir Robert Appleton, from my Face Down mysteries and, now, the Mistress Jaffrey mystery series I write as Kathy Lynn Emerson, found his perfect embodiment in Colin Firth, as seen as the not-so-nice Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. Other attempts to find faces that match my imaginary people usually end up with me saying “he’s a cross between x and y.”

Melissa GilbertOne caveat—it’s almost always a bad idea to come right out and describe someone as looking like a celebrity. For one thing, it dates the book. And, of course, this doesn’t work at all well in an historical unless you’re sure your readers will know what a character means when he says someone is a dead ringer for Lord Byron or King Henry or Bram Stoker (who, incidentally, was quite a good-looking man).

Snooki Polizzi (210x300)But to get back to the Liss MacCrimmon series—the plot of The Scottie Barked at Midnight centers around a television talent competition called Variety, Live. Making up the rules and deciding on each character’s talent was the easy part. I still had to describe each contestant in a way that would make them separate and distinct in the reader’s mind. Second confession—I don’t much care for The Voice or American Idol or any others of that ilk. The only competition I do watch is Dancing with the Stars . . . and that gave me an idea.

Bristol Palin (200x300)Why not, I asked myself, use former competitors on Dancing with the Stars as the inspiration for my characters? There are certainly plenty of different physical characteristics on display in any given season. So I gave it a try. You’ll have noticed that I’ve sprinkled photos of celebrities throughout this post. The characters they inspired are, in the order they appear in the post, M.C. Roy Eastmont and contestants Willetta Farwell, Mo Heedles, Elise Isley, Iris Jansen, Hal Quarles, and “The Great Umberto” aka Oscar Yates. Keep in mind that I only borrowed physical features, not the real person’s personality or talent.

Bill NyeSo, what do you think? If you’ve read the book, do these photos fit your idea of the character? If you haven’t read it, does the physical appearance of the person in the picture seem to go well with the character’s name? All bets are off, by the way, for Mo Heedles. She is a real person who won character-naming rights at a Malice Domestic auction after the book was already written. Before that, “Mo” was named Carla Uvedale.

apolo ohnoThere’s no question that using this technique gave me the variety I was after for this book, but I found that I had no particular urge to do it again when I was writing this year’s Liss MacCrimmon mystery, Kilt at the Highland Games (July). That said, I’d be very curious to hear about other writers’ experiences in taking the inspiration for their characters’ appearance from pictures of real people. Did it work for you? Have you done it more than once? Chime in, please, and share.


Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are and

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10 Responses to Finding Faces

  1. David Plimpton says:

    I am writing my first novel and I hope near “finishing” it to the point where it may be worthy of submission.

    On character development, I haven’t done Kaitlyn does, which seems like a helpful template. My approach so far has been to develop gradually in my mind’s eye a picture of the character, which seems to get in better focus as the story develops and the character assumes a life of his or her own. But it changes also as I visualize new scenes and particular context for the character. Sometimes it helps when I realize I have to rewrite something because the character is shaking his or her head at me.

    I have benefited from Sarah Braunstein’s Indelible Character workshop and James Hayman’s Maine Crime Wave Character workshop, with thorough treatment of character, including various aspects and tools, with vivid examples to discuss.

    In Sarah’s workshop, we had to bring what we thought was a good example of a published author’s character introduction on one page. I choose Miss Ferenczi, the substitute teacher in Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon”

    In one page I introduced a character from my novel along these lines:

    “Sean had not even placed his first bet when a grandstand altercation edged into the corner of his eye. Spying the plight of two luckless patrons, a cold, uncompromising anger seized him. Unbidden, he intervened on behalf of the underdogs, who had reserved coveted seats near the finish line in the capacious Belmont grandstand section by putting unneeded parts of the encyclopedic Daily Racing Form over the seat backs. Those seats had been taken over by two hard-edged middle-aged men, whose reaction to objections from the victims was non-verbal – only smirking dismissal, dripping with menace.
    Sean said: “Gentlemen, I think there’s been a mistake. I’d appreciate it if you’d relinquish my friends’ seats.” Surveying his neck-cricking height, wide and thick trunk, sculpted long arms, and piercing iceberg glare, they backed off.
    The older of the two snarled: “All right, pal, but we’ll be seeing you later.” The beneficiaries assessed Sean in wonder, then thanked him.”

    I tried to use conflict, context and action as much as anything to describe Sean.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    • Hi, David,
      You’re certainly doing everything right, and it’s definitely best to develop a character through his or her actions. What I have trouble with is that first quick image in my point of view character’s head–people tend to see physical attributes first, or notice what someone is wearing. It’s the second look, which may take place immediately or many pages later, that will get into the telling details. On the other hand, describing every new character by what he’s wearing or what color his hair is gets old fast for readers. Here I am working on what will be my 55th published book and I’m still struggling to find just the right balance, and I’m still learning from the experiences of other writers, both published and unpublished. Love the “piercing iceberg glare.”


      • David Plimpton says:

        Thank you, Kathy, for the helpful, constructive and encouraging reply, and for all the comments.

        It reminds me that I’m having a hard time learning the lesson not to spill my guts about the whole character (ball of wax or whatever) right away or give overly detailed physical description. Rather, spool it out slowly, leave some mystery, suspense, uncertainty, surprise for later, trying to keep the reader’s interest in finding out what happens and who characters really are, how they deal with conflict and challenges. I appreciate your helping to reveal more layers of the writing onion.

  2. This is such an interesting post and discussion in the comments. Thanks!

    I’m working on a new book and dealing with this same issue. I have used photos of real people at times to ground me while writing, and your system would be a good addition to that, Kathy.

    I also watch people all the time – on the street, at public events, in line at the coffee shop. Once I saw a man in a Starbucks who looked exactly like a character I was developing. I wanted to take a photo of this man with my phone, but perseverated a minute too long and he got away.

    My hesitation was tactical. Should I pretend to be taking a photo of something else (sketchy, as the interior of a Starbucks isn’t really scenic) or tell him I was a writer and I wanted a photo of him because he looked like someone I’d been imagining? E

    Either way, I likely would be presumed to be a nut. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a nut.)

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Hi Kathy-

    It’s so interesting to hear how someone who’s been doing this for years approaches the task. I envy your cheat sheet.

    I have associated a few of my characters with photos–one of an actress, one of an HGTV host, and one of an author friend. I do find the photos help ground me, and those characters get better descriptions in the later books. As a reader, I don’t care about physical descriptions, so I have to remind myself that some other people do.

    Alas, most of my other regular characters are so clear in my head that I haven’t yet found a photo to do them justice.

    • Sadly, even my major characters stay a little foggy in my head. Looking on the positive side, though, that may be a good thing. After all, readers are going to have a variety of interpretations of whatever details we include. Just look at all the different opinions people have when a book is slated to become a movie and they are speculating about casting. Heated debates ensued back when parts were being cast for Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money, and there are lots of other examples.

  4. Amber Foxx says:

    My protagonist showed up in my imagination first, and later she showed up in person. A student at the college where I teach looked just like her and even talked like her–a tall redheaded athlete with a sweet Southern voice. I felt as if she’d walked out of my books. I found another character while doing research. I knew everything about him yet couldn’t quite see his face. He’s half Aboriginal Australian, and I was reading a book on modern Aboriginal culture that had a lot of pictures. A young man’s face grabbed my attention. He had an unusual but beautiful face, expressive eyes and an extraordinary smile. I’d found Jamie Ellerbee, the charming but difficult man who comes into Mae Martin’s life in Shaman’s Blues.

  5. Love this! Great ideas!

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