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It’s All About the Face: Creating Character Images That Work

photo compilation by D.D. Falvo

It’s our pleasure to introduce you to today’s guest, D.D. Falvo [1]! D.D. is no stranger to the WU community; in fact, she is a longtime member of WU’s own Twitter team. A little more about her, from her bio:

D.D. Falvo writes fantasy. She’s the gatekeeper of magical worlds, from which a stray dragon or two has been known to follow her home. She feeds them cat treats and they help with her current WIP, Lumen. She lives in the deep south with her husband, two daughters, a sassy cat, and the ghost of a stubborn Irish Setter.

She’s here with us to talk about the power of strong visuals — in particular faces — in your fiction, and how you can manipulate them to your advantage.

Learn more about D.D. on her website [1], and by following her on Facebook [2] and Twitter [3]. Welcome, D.D.!

It’s All About the Face: Creating Character Images That Work

One day, Grok painted the outline of his pet bison on the family cave wall. Pleased, he grunted at his wife, Mindy, until she cooed with appreciation . . .  

The human love affair with pictures has been ongoing for ages. Pictures don’t just predate the written word, they are the foundation for it. Images create words, and words create imagery.

For writers, imagery is a siren call to creativity, and a workhorse driving production.

The Siren Call

Story develops differently for everyone, but when inspiration flows, image is involved in a big way and there’s science behind that. According to the Visual Teaching Alliance, 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina [4]. The things we see are mainlined straight to our emotional center.

This explains why, for some writers, a strong visual is a siren call, leading creation. In the winter of 1962, three songwriters sat in a plaza, enjoying Brahma beer, when seventeen-year-old Heloísa Pinto walked by. Inspiration struck. “The Girl from Ipanema” was written right on the bar napkins. [5]

The allure of imagery compels readers as well. It’s said that one should never judge a book by its cover, but a writer counts on it. On the cover and across the story pages, a character’s physicality is an important part of the reader experience.

Have you considered the type of response your character’s features might evoke? Fictional faces are a key opportunity of influence. Helen of Troy’s countenance ignited a war. The green visage of the Wicked Witch sent children cowering into couch corners. The Elephant Man’s malformations could make a stalwart weep. Whether it’s weaponized beauty, nightmares-come-to-life, or heartbreaking reality, the right visual triggers a powerful response.

The Workhorse

Who hasn’t hunted through notes, in search of a forgotten detail? Ever close your eyes and have trouble imagining how that villain’s facial scar might move when he grimaces? Visual aids pull us a step further on the journey, and improve efficiency.

Of course, none of the above is helpful if your character image is cerebral view only. So how do you wrangle the tangible out of an intangible? For those who illustrate and write, you’re doubly-blessed; proceed to Go, skip the angst, and collect your bounty. But if you’re limited to stick figures (like me), you’ll want other options . . .

The Power of The Digital Age

Public faces offer an unlimited resource pool for inspiration. The Internet is a digital mug book of vast proportions.

At the recent Writer Unboxed UnConference, Anne Greenwood Brown suggested searching “Hot Hollywood” for YA character inspiration. Go ahead, have a look. These are the faces the mainstream public admires, desires, and maybe even despises. If you’re aiming for the popular choice for physical attractiveness, these famous faces tick all the right boxes. Thank Phi 1.618 for that. It’s a 2009 university study which validates that an ideal facial feature arrangement [10], aka The Golden Ratio, optimizes the perceived attractiveness of any given face. Hollywood has The Golden Ratio in abundance.

Side note: scientists state that “ugly” faces are more memorable. There are no formulas for ugly—and I hope to never find one—but imperfections are exceedingly arresting, so there’s that.

You don’t need artful search words to get great results. Google “interesting faces.” [11] I fell in love with a few. What did you think?

Envision

A public image can evoke all the feels, but you want to see the character you created, the one who speaks to you—not the popular movie star whose latest divorce mines dirt back to the Bronze age. Modern images are a sensory overload. The variety of color, clothing, and backgrounds leave no room for the imagination to wander. Paint programs can minimize the distractions. Try reducing the background with a tight crop. Remove color with black & white, or sepia filters. My personal favorite is the “pencil sketch” option. For me, it clears the noise and feels timeless.

photograph by D.D. Falvo

You can take your “sketch” a step further by outlining the face on tracing paper. Add or remove a few details. Don’t forget the embellishments! Some are statements of tradition or behavior. Some are stories within the story, creating layers of complexity, e.g. scars, disfigurements, tattoos.

Feeling adventurous? Start from scratch with a Police Sketch program. FlashFace Full and FlashFace Women [12] are two smart device apps that offer hundreds of choices for face shapes and features. Web-based sites such as Pimp The Face [13] and Picture to People [14] let users experiment online. For more options, search key words such as “face sketch generator” or “design a face.”

Image created by Flash Face Women

How do you find images for your characters? Has a single image ever inspired an entire piece of work for you? I’d love to hear what captured your interest, and why. If concept is your trigger for Story, has a visual aid ever changed the course you had planned?