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This is a guest post from Ben Ellis, author of Railroaded. I totally agree with Ben on this and did something similar for Pentecost although I actually used famous people as I was imagining the film version! Morgan Sierra was based on Morena Baccarin (when she was in Firefly, not V) and Jake Timber was always David Boreanz.
Whilst going through one of the drafts of my first novel I thought it would be really handy to have a master sheet with photos of characters cribbed from various sources.
I then thought this might be an amateurish solution; I couldn’t imagine Orwell cutting out faces in-between coughing fits on Jura.
Sometime later I read this article by Gareth L Powell ‘Do you have trouble remembering what your characters look like? in which he proposes the exact same solution I'd earlier felt was a bit of a cheeky shortcut.
If it’s good enough for him, then by ‘eck it’s good enough for me!
So, after I finished the first draft of my second novel, Broken Branches, armed with a list of characters and an idea of what they looked like and how they acted, I set off to find their closest representations in magazines, newspapers, brochures and online.
A couple of famous faces! A girl from [British TV show] Holby City – I was watching it round my parents house after dinner and thought, ‘That’s her!’. Also, Gordon Ramsey’s father-in-law. He looks curmudgeon enough for my needs.
I added a few artistic tweeks to some of them; adding a hat, changing hair style, eye colour, etc.
I found the worse places to find images of people are tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines, they mainly have famous people which creates a barrier to separating the celebrity from your character.
The best places are;
- Local newspapers – featuring unknown local people. They also have a low ‘model' count so they're a good place to ensure your cast of characters aren't all stunningly beautiful.
- Broadsheets – featuring plenty of unrecognisable business and political people, plenty of which are satisfyingly ‘aesthetically-challenged'.
- Travel brochures – great for good looking but not too beautiful, families. That guy in the bottom left is a Norwegian TV personality (I think). I found him in a brochure whilst on a skiing holiday in Norway.
- Stock photo websites – great casting couch for a wide range of people from all walks of life, such as a Japanese business person on the phone. Lots of staged photos so your character isn't just staring at the camera but also ‘doing' something.
- Newspaper and Magazine ads – the ones not featuring famous people. Good place to find representations of tradesmen or ‘normal' customers at home or on the phone.
- Junk Mail – Finally, a use for junk mail!
I found this sheet to be a great reminder of names and faces which can easily get forgotten or confused. It also helps with the relationships between them and I also make a note of their occupations and other little key points.
The two columns of scribble are a one sentence synopsis of each chapter which is another great reference for knowing when something happens.
I only added characters to this sheet that appear in more than one scene. The main aim of this tool is to be a concise and clear point of reference, you don't want to clutter it up with non-speaking extra's.
I'd only recommend doing this on a subsequent draft, not before or during the first draft. You may have an idea of what your characters look like and other details, but they can change during the first draft. Give your characters the opportunity and freedom to evolve throughout the novel before nailing down some certainties.
Once you've finished that first draft, hopefully you'll find this to be a useful tool in helping you edit and improve the next ones. I know I certainly did.
Ben Ellis has completed one novel, Railroaded, and is currently looking for an agent or publisher. He is also finishing off his second novel, Broken Branches. You can find him online at B3n3llis.com and on Twitter at @b3n3llis
Image: Flickr CC Striatic