Say Cheese…

As some of you know, I’m currently plotting out a new story – a YA urban fantasy I’m really excited about. I’m planning it in way that’s new for me, so I decided: why not continue the trend? In the last few days I’ve also been using a new characterisation technique.

Up until now, when working out character design I’ve often drawn my characters to help get them clearer in my mind. But I had no idea how much further it would take me if I found actual photos of them. It’s a technique I first came across on the blog of a good friend of mine (who is a superstar YA writer). So, I set out to find look-a-likes for the characters that had already grown in my head. And it turns out – it’s a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.

It took me hours. Oh so many hours. Because you don’t realise until you’re actually looking for your characters just how real they are to you. I’d find myself flicking through reams of images on photo sites, thinking ‘Her chin’s too narrow’ or ‘He’s too skinny’ or ‘She looks too chirpy’ or ‘His skin is too perfect’. Then I figured out what many others have before me. It’s much easier to think of actors that remind you of your cast. Then again, they can’t be actors you’re too familiar with, otherwise it’s impossible to put your character’s personality onto them as they already come with strong characteristics. However you don’t need to find one person who is your character in every way – just one photo that captures their essence. In this way, I finally found my perfect cast. My protagonist is a boy I vaguely recalled from some long ago mini-drama. His crush a girl I glimpsed on a crime show the other night. His best friend I had the most trouble finding and my fiance actually suggested this girl, who turned out to be perfect (Note: I have slightly altered some of her features in Photoshop):

Once I figured out how it was done, I had a lot of fun with it. So, how does finding real photos of your characters actually help?

  • When I’m picturing how each story scene plays out, I now see these teen’s faces and they’re so much more real to me
  • If I’m wondering what a certain character would do, looking at their image helps me to get into their head
  • Seeing them as I write keeps my descriptions of their physical traits consistent, but also their personalities (the body language of the people in the photos says a lot about my characters)

I can’t tell you how much I love this technique. I know I’ll be doing it for every novel from here on in. Anyone else done this before?

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15 Responses to “Say Cheese…”


  1. 1 Kathleen Noud April 10, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Dude, I have to find photos because I can’t draw :)

    Funny how we both picked up on Emily Browning. She’s actually much too pretty (as most actors are) to be Pandora but it helps. It’s looking up for her love interest where I end up in trouble!

  2. 2 Joanne Sandhu April 10, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I do a similar thing. I try not to stalk my kid’s friends, but sometimes a particular ‘look’ or ‘feature’ is just right. I try to mix it around a bit so no one can recognise themselves.

  3. 3 Katherine Battersby April 10, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Kathleen, all my characters have ended up much better looking than they would be in reality, but at least they’re good to look at up on my pin board!

    Joanne, I was starting to wonder (when I was having trouble finding my characters) how I would go about approaching some teen in the street who might be my perfect protagonist! Luckily I didn’t have to resort to such methods…

  4. 4 Sheryl Gwyther April 10, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Kath, I have the same problem at the moment looking for concrete images I can use to help picture my characters. And yes, it’s like you say, ‘nope, too flimsy-brain looking’, ‘too pretty’, ‘eyes not interesting enough’. Groan!!
    Must try to get better at Photoshop, so i can mix and match. :)

  5. 5 macdibble April 10, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    She looks like a 12 year old Shannen Doherty! I never seem to have time to plan things like this at all. I just loosely base characters on people I’ve seen. I’d be worried that being too firm on the visual aspects of someone might slow down their ability to evolve. My stories tend to evolve through writing rather than arrive as fully formed ideas… and this fits in with my lack of planning… but makes completing a work take much longer as I have to rewrite great chunks to fit in with the way the story turned out. Maybe a bit of time up front would save time at the end.

  6. 6 Katherine Battersby April 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Sheryl, I hope you find the perfect ones soon! Photoshop certainly does help .. I changed eye colour, hair colour, added freckles – lots of fun (and a good tool for getting them just right).

    Bren, I can imagine this wouldn’t work for everyone. In fact, it wouldn’t have worked for me 6 months ago. It seems with each novel I’m becoming a lot more planned. It certainly is saving me time in the end, demanding less rewriting, however like you said – it’s certainly a much bigger time commitment in the beginning.

  7. 7 Michelle Macwhirter April 10, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Yay, I do this too! You know another really good place to find pics of teens is the Target and Kmart catalogues. When I first started writing Beyond the Reef, I found a photo of 4 girls in one photo, all hanging out ‘at the movies’ in various Tar-ghey ensembles, and they were PERFECT for my cast. I couldn’t believe my luck.

    Now, my lead boy, well, he’s a bit trickier. He’s supposed to be a non-specific islander-type looking guy – not Maori, not Hawaiian, not Samoan … but somewhere in between. And ridiculously handsome. I searched for hours too and he does not exist! (And then my imagination runs away and wonders – what if my book became a movie … how on earth would they cast him?)

    Happy casting!!

  8. 8 Katherine Battersby April 11, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Fashion catalogues! I hadn’t even thought of that, Michelle. That’s a great idea.

    I’m becoming more and more fascinated by this series of yours – it sounds like just my kind of story, and the title alone raises lots of questions. Can’t wait to hear how it all goes for you…

    PS. It’s so important to dream big! I must admit, I did quietly think ‘at least if this story becomes a movie I have my perfect cast’ :)

  9. 9 Lynn Priestley April 11, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Great post. Doing the same after being inspired by Dee White’s process. Lots of fun searching for characters and settings as well. The pinboard above my desk is filling with inspiration. Now to get the writing done!

  10. 10 Scott Chambers April 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Yep, fashion catalogues … or drop by your local doctor/dentist and thumb through the various mags in their waiting room. I have had quite a bit of character inspiration that way (though you may find yourself tempted to start tearing pages out of their mags — so far I have just jotted ideas on scraps of paper in my wallet). Years ago I used to marvel at the imaginations that some authors must have before I thought of doing exactly this — finding a similar picture, noting the key features of their face and posture, and imagining how they would change in different circumstances. It’s a bit like magic, once you’ve learned the trick it all makes so much more sense =)

  11. 11 Katherine Battersby April 12, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Dee is inspiring, isn’t she Lynn? I now work quite similarly, and my pinboard is also filling with images and ideas. I’m just plotting out the 3 acts for each novel, and then hopefully I can start writing (which my heart is crying out to do!).

    Scott, I had wondered about magazines (and have been known to do the occasional subtle ‘rip’ from the doctor’s office stash…)

  12. 12 Jeffery E Doherty April 14, 2010 at 12:36 am

    Hey Katherine,
    I usually try to find photos for my characters to. And photoshop is so good for changing those pesky featured that don’t quite fit, or if they are an alien that has the features of, say a fox.

    http://jefferyedoherty.blogspot.com/2009/10/nanowrimo-preparations.html

    The other thing I’ve started doing is creating a character page in Microsoft OneNote for each of my characters. Whenever I describe a character in the book, I cut and paste it into their page. By the end the descriptions are fairly detailed and it also avoids changing hair and eye colours – particularly if you are working on a series.

  13. 13 Katherine Battersby April 14, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Jeffery, love your foxy alien :) I too had to create some less than human characters, which admittedly was the most fun. I really like your character page idea – I’ll have to start doing that.

  14. 14 dsjohansson April 14, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    I thought I’d be busy with magazines, but now you’ve got me thinking about tinkering with Photoshop. Great idea, Katherine. Thanks!

  15. 15 Katherine Battersby April 19, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Debbie, hope you’ve had a chance to have a tinker – so much fun!


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About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

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