Ok, a while back (and it really is a while, was it last NaNo or the one before that? Anyway), the peeps of my favourite Office of Letters and Light asked about our dreamcast, should our novel be made into a film… While I’m not harbouring any hope (well, at least only a teenytiny one) of that ever happening, it can be worthwhile to give your characters a face. Of course you should know how they look like, at least roughly, because it’s never going to sit well with your readers if your hero starts out with green eyes and ends up with blue ones. They notice these kind of things.
Nevertheless, I never really pictured my character’s appearance in great depths. I knew: This one is red haired and has really white skin. The other one has green eyes with golden flecks. And the third is dark haired and big. Period. You think this is not enough? Possibly. But their appearace is not my main focus. I focus on character voice, on how this characters sounds and speaks and thinks. Add a memorable detail (ah, yes, the glass slippers of every story), something that sticks out – Harry Potter had his scar, his always broken glasses and his disheveled hair – and you’re done. Characters take their shape in the readers imagination, through their voice and actions.
Of course, sometimes there is a face that is just perfect. An actor that incorporates every trait you’ve given your character. That’s fine. I’m sure, you could describe said character (with this person’s face) in every last minuscule detail, and he could look completely different in your reader’s mind.
Point is: Your characters have to be as vivid and alive as they can be in your head, to enable you to bring them down onto the page. But that doesn’t mean they require an actual face. You don’t need to paint them in oil. Looks can be means to an end, but your character should not rely only on his outer appearance. There will be people who yell at this “Noooo, you have to picture them down to the last chappy toenail, you have to seeee them, how else can you write them!?” I say: trust your gut. Only you know how much appearance and looks and chappy toenails you need to envision your character. I know how much (or more, less) vision I need. As I said, I’m pretty sketchy with looks. That doesn’t keep my heroes and villains and protagonist and antagonists from being very much alive and distinct, at least in my imagination.
Now, as sketchy as the looks of your character can remain, his bearing – the way he presents himself, the way he moves and gestures and mimics – is something totally different. This is essential. Part of his voice. But I’ll come back to this.
Friedrich Schiller, Preface to The Robbers, 1781
Schiller knew already that there is nothing more boring than a simple all-black-villain. His choice of words may be a bit florid nowadays, but his idea is dead on. Don’t make your villain a flat copy of some random comic baddie. Give him some humanity. Same as the hero, the villain WANTS something. The difference is, he goes the wrong way about it. Makes questionable choices.