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Playing Paper Dolls: How Should Your
Characters Look?

By Nichole Bernier

During a Skype chat, a woman in a book club said she visualized my main character looking a bit like … well, like me, and wanted to know if I gave my protagonist longish dark hair because I identified with her.

Technically, my character was described in the book as having a shorter bob, though the woman in the cover illustration does not (covers rarely match characters).

I don’t bring this up to point out the disconnect between characters and their cover depictions, or even to riff on readers’ assumptions about authors projecting themselves onto their protagonists.

It got me thinking about how we as authors come up with what our characters should look like, and why.

What’s in a choice of hair color, or body type, or physical idiosyncrasies? Do they say something about the character from the getgo, or only in combination with the behavioral and emotional baggage we saddle them with as the story unfolds?

It strikes me that there are two categories of attributes from which an author can puzzle together a character’s appearance. There are the things people are born with — being blonde or brunette, straight or curly-haired or balding, overweight or lean, acne-prone or clear-skinned. These are naturally occurring physical features that, in theory, don’t say anything substantive about a character, beyond any stereotypes that might accompany the features themselves. These are the raw materials the characters roll with or wrestle with.

The fun comes in when you pair them with acquired features and props like tattoos, jewelry, clothing, scars, choice of glasses vs. contact lenses, shaved head vs. bad toupee. Playing with the combination of inherited and adopted features is a way for the author to toy with cultural assumptions. Does a character’s personality sync up with the visual stereotype, or emerge in spite of it? Is the overweight guy unmotivated, or is he a frustrated Type A triathlete-in-training with a glandular disorder? What kind of fertile ground is a summa-cum-laude skinhead who wears Barbra Streisand concert t-shirts, or a firefighter who has one leg slightly shorter than the other?

I’ve often wondered whether for other authors, characters rise from their personality-beds fully visualized, or if they piece them together, one poignant well-fitting detail at a time. Or if maybe they never really form tactile people so much as personality bubbles floating in the ether, dressed up with a few corporeal features.

In my novel, the hair for my main character was the first and most prominent physical detail — a wellkept bob a la Anna Wintour that in my character’s case went counter to stereotype. It’s a striking trademark, a look that can telegraph perfection, rigidity. But to me it signified something else: someone who sticks with a look because it works for them. It was convenient for my character working in restaurant kitchens to have hair that didn’t swing around her shoulders, and was stylish enough for TV, once upon a time. If it ain’t broke why fix it, it’s nice to have one less thing to figure out. More importantly, it was a physical way I could show her unraveling psychologically as her trademark hair grew out, neglected.

The next book I’ve begun has characters who are literally all over the map, in terms of nationality and ancestry, and I wanted a more tangible way of fixing them in my mind. This time, I wanted to be able to see them.

I began with a search through Google images. I wanted an Armenian-American woman haunted by the loss of something invaluable, something secretly swapped with a stand-in and she’s obsessed with finding it. I    

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