Close your eyes and picture your mother’s face. What color are her eyes, what shape is her nose? If you were describing her in a literary short story, what words would you use?
For me, these questions are really difficult. When I close my eyes and try to picture my mother’s face, or anyone’s face, I get only the blurriest of notions. I might grasp for a memory, or a memory of a photo. A dream-like image of the face will emerge and then disappear almost immediately. I can’t seem to hold a face in my mind’s eye, even a very familiar one.
In fact, when I try to envision anything I have difficulty. The other day I closed my eyes and tried to picture a banana. I kept saying to myself, “long and yellow,” but those are words that describe a banana, not an image of the banana itself.
According to famous darling neurologist Oliver Sacks, everyone is somewhere on a continuum when it comes to how well they can picture things in their minds. Perhaps a highly-visual artist can hold a crystal-clear, detailed image of his mother’s face in his mind’s eye for hours, whereas people who were born blind are unable to “see” anything at all in their minds. Their thoughts and dreams are made of sounds and feelings instead of images. Most people, of course, fall somewhere in the middle.
And sometimes I wonder if I’m on the low end of the spectrum. I really do have difficulty picturing people’s faces when they’re not around. And this makes something difficult when it comes to my writing: describing my characters’ physical attributes.
When I was a kid, we had this casting agency book at our house (I have no idea where it came from — our house was full of random stuff), and it was filled with headshots of models and actors of all ages. I remember flipping through the book and choosing people from it as characters to use in my stories.
I don’t know what happened to that casting agency book, but man I wish I had it now. Because when I’m writing about my characters, I often have trouble picturing what they look like. Oh sure, I can give a description telling hair color and eye color and whether or not they have teeth, but when it comes to more sophisticated or detailed descriptions, I flounder.
What I normally do is go to the Internet or magazines and try to find pictures of people who looks the way I imagine my character might look. I keep the pictures in a notebook or Word document and refer back to them when I need to write physical descriptions.
For a long time, I thought I was the only person who did this. I thought maybe it reflected badly on me and my imagination. Perhaps I was a bad writer because I couldn’t “see” my characters in my head.
But, as it turns out, lots of writers do what I do. And recently it came to my attention that some writers use Pinterest as a way to keep all of their character’s “pictures” in one place. Here I was using Pinterest to pin ideas for my wedding… Bah! This is much more useful!
So now, whenever I see a picture of a model or actor who looks the way I might imagine my character to look, or a house that seems like the type of house where my character might live, or a wedding dress that looks like one my character might wear, I can pin it on my new Pinterest board: “Character Ideas.”
I don’t have to worry about holding images in my mind after all. Pinterest can hold them for me. All I have to worry about is finding the right words to describe the pictures so that readers can see my characters in their minds’ eyes.