Writing Believable Characters – Visual Design

Following on from my post yesterday, this section on character creation looks at how I like to think about characterisation. It’s not just about what the character wears or what colour their hair is, but about how they react to the environment you place them in, and how they make their personal space their own.

Before diving in, really think about what’s important to your characters. If we’re just looking at modern books, is it important for a character to fit in with a crowd or be individual? Do they like music? Do they like the way they look? I think it’s especially fun to play around with this if they have a uniform as how they wear it can convey a lot more about their character rather than just what they choose to wear. You just have to look at a group of school children to see, to an extent, their personalities. Are all their shirts tucked in? Do they wear anything besides their uniforms like scarves or gloves? Do they wear their jacket or have they swapped it out for a hoodie as soon as they get out the school gates? Of course, this isn’t just at school where people are forced to dress a certain way. If your character has to go to some fancy ball then what are they going to wear and are they happy to wear it or would they rather be at home in a dressing gown?

But now we’re getting off track and, to be honest, the clothes people wear are the low hanging fruit. What does your character surround themselves with? There’s a section in Looking For Alaska where the two protagonists break into a bunch of other student’s rooms to have a look at what it’s like and to find out what makes these people tick. It can be something really simple that can be overlooked or it can be very in your face and obvious. Staying with Alaska as an example, we find that one pair of boys have very expensive hair products that they’re left at their boarding school while they are back home. Why is this? asks Alaska. Because they have the same products at home. Their appearance is so important to the them that they have bought repeat products so that they will never be without them. It’s something that can easily be overlooked but, with a bit of thought, can be worked through. Then there are, of course, the more obvious things, like Alaska’s room being filled with books.

The unfortunate thing is that being subtle is difficult and might go unappreciated while being obvious can make it feel like you are hammering the point home a little too forcefully to your audience, which is, again, why it is important to know your characters. If they are trying to be larger-than-life then obvious is the way to go, or if they are really passionate about one particular thing then obvious will do for that but you may have to restrain yourself otherwise.

Of course, it’s not just about what your character likes as well, but you can reflect their background in what they wear and their surroundings. An easy example is, if they’re rich, the stuff they surround themselves with will likely reflect that.

You can do an awful lot with visuals alone, even in a book. People will take your ideas and description and mold them into someone they imagine but your basis will always be the most important thing for them. No one will read the same book the exact same way as other people, least of all the writer, which is why it’s so important to keep visuals in mind when writing your characters.

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